Bloomberg News

Obama Said to Favor Limits on Spying on Foreign Leaders

January 09, 2014

Angela Merkel

The administration is fighting a domestic and international backlash over revelations the NSA spied on leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photographer: Jock Fistick/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama will call for tighter limits on U.S. spying on foreign leaders in response to a global uproar over government surveillance, according to an administration official familiar with the proposal.

The restrictions are part of an Obama plan to curb National Security Agency spying exposed last year in documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden. With the proposal, to be announced as soon as next week, the administration is seeking to rein in U.S. surveillance without sacrificing its ability to use electronic intelligence gathering to fight terrorism.

It’s unclear how far Obama will go to limit spying on foreign leaders, and the official who confirmed the restrictions on condition of anonymity declined to provide further details. White House officials have suggested that Obama may be willing to curtail snooping on allies while preserving the ability to monitor leaders from hostile nations.

The administration is fighting a domestic and international backlash over revelations the NSA spied on leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hacked into fiber-optic cables to get data from Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO:US), and intercepted Americans’ communications without warrants. Most of the spying was exposed by Snowden, who’s in Russia under temporary asylum.

A White House panel reviewing U.S. surveillance programs recommended in a report last month the creation of new criteria for spying on foreign leaders, including determining whether electronic surveillance is necessary and whether there are other means to obtain the needed information.

Obama Meeting

Obama plans to unveil the changes without waiting for a separate independent privacy board to release its findings on whether the collection of bulk phone records is legal. He’s expected to call for putting a privacy advocate on the secret court that oversees the NSA programs, and is considering limits on the government’s ability to collect and store phone records.

A meeting Obama held yesterday with the five members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, all of whom he nominated, “was a useful opportunity for the president to hear the group’s views,” Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement.

The board said after the meeting that it plans to issue a report by late January or early February on whether the collection of bulk phone records is legal and recommendations on “the right balance between national security and privacy and civil liberties.”

Not Waiting

Obama isn’t waiting for that report, which could run counter to his decisions. He will announce his proposals for altering NSA surveillance programs before his annual State of the Union address on Jan. 28, and perhaps as early as next week, according to an administration official familiar with the deliberations who requested anonymity to discuss it.

Obama thanked members of the privacy board for “their thoughtful work” and “made clear that it will be factored into the administration’s thinking” as decisions are made, Hayden said.

The president and his aides previously have hinted at a willingness to reduce spying on some foreign leaders and create a public advocate to represent privacy concerns before the secret court that oversees the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Obama is “fairly far along” with his own review “but he’s no yet finished with that,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said today. He’s still soliciting ideas from people and groups with a stake in the process, Carney said.

Review Panel

The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology recommended in its report last month putting limits on the NSA, including prohibiting the agency from collecting and storing billions of phone records. Instead, the data should be held by Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ:US), AT&T Inc. (T:US) and other U.S. carriers or another third party and only accessed by the NSA with a court warrant, the panel said.

The panel also recommended legislation allowing Google, Facebook Inc. (FB:US) and other Internet companies to publicly release information about government orders compelling them to turn over data about their users, and how many users are affected.

Merkel’s Communications

Carney said in October that the U.S. wasn’t monitoring, and wouldn’t monitor going forward, Merkel’s communications, after a backlash following revelations that the U.S. had spied on friendly foreign leaders including Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

While Obama called Merkel yesterday to wish her a speedy recovery following a ski accident, a White House statement about the call did not mention any discussion of the NSA announcement.

Obama met today with top lawmakers on the Senate and House judiciary and intelligence committees. Separately, privacy advocates from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Open Technology Institute and Cato Institute plan to meet with White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler.

“I would certainly hope the president is adopting the bulk of the panel’s recommendations, which were generally favorably received within the privacy community,” David Sobel, senior counsel for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a phone interview.

Privacy Advocates

Privacy advocates will be disappointed if Obama doesn’t make significant changes, Sobel said. “In light of the review panel’s findings, it’s difficult to see how that approach would be justified,” he said.

Carney said some of the recommendations made by various review panels may be acted on quickly and others may “require further review.”

Tomorrow, White House staff members will meet with executives from technology companies to discuss U.S. surveillance programs, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified discussing the meeting.

The intelligence review panel’s five members are scheduled to testify about their recommendations before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 14.

The privacy board said it also plans to release a separate report on an NSA program that compels Internet companies to turn over data on users.

Under that program, the NSA can intercept the communications of innocent Americans without a warrant, as long as they aren’t the target of a counterterrorism investigation. A warrant is required by law if an American citizen becomes the target.

To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Strohm in Washington at cstrohm1@bloomberg.net; Margaret Talev in Washington at mtalev@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net; Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net


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