WASHINGTON — Under fire about disclosures of broad National Security Agency snooping on global leaders, President Barack Obama is offering a two-pronged response: You do it, too, and we’ll make some changes.
Thousands of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have portrayed the vast reach of U.S. surveillance activities, keeping tabs not only on U.S. call data but also global Internet and e-mail traffic.
But Snowden’s NSA documents, published recently in the Guardian, Der Spiegel and other publications, also describe spying on foreign leaders and that has now complicated U.S. diplomacy, the Obama administration acknowledges.
Lisa Monaco, Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, said in an op-ed published in USA Today that the president ordered a review of surveillance programs “including with respect to our foreign partners. We want to ensure we are collecting information because we need it and not just because we can.”
It’s not clear what changes will come from the review and even if they’ll be made public. These programs are, after all, secret.
Or they were before the Snowden disclosures.
U.S. ambassadors in Europe and Latin America have been summoned by host countries to be scolded about the spying revelations.
On Friday, European leaders ended an EU summit in Brussels with a stern warning to the United States about the spying activities: “A lack of trust could prejudice the necessary cooperation.”
The EU leaders didn’t mention curtailing any spying activities directed at the United States or elsewhere.
Among the leaders in the European response is Angela Merkel, the German leader who is in talks to form a coalition government following elections.
Merkel called Obama and raised the sensitivities of Germans related to government spying, because of the activities of the former East Germany’s Stasi.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the United States understands the sensitivities but defended the activities.
“There are real threats out there against the American people and against our allies, including Germany, including allies around Europe and around the world,” he said.
The spying activity is part of what’s expected around the world, U.S. and foreign officials say.
For years, U.S. government officials have been required to leave behind their laptops and phones when they travel to China, Russia and Israel, U.S. officials say.
To thwart expected spying they bring specially formatted devices, the officials say.
A former senior U.S. counterintelligence official says the United States contends with economic spying from allies, including France, Israel and South Korea. China and Russia remain the top countries with spying operations in the United States.
In the 1990s, former French spy chief Pierre Marion acknowledged the activity.
In a U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks and published in the Norwegian newspaper Aftonposten, Berry Smutny, an official with the German satellite company OHB Technology, is quoted as saying: “France is the evil empire (in) stealing technology, and Germany knows this.”
France was among the countries who summoned its U.S. ambassador to protest the reported NSA activities.
Former Mexican president Vicente Fox, speaking to Spanish-language media during a visit this week, expressed surprise that his country’s current president, Enrique Pena Nieto, had protested spying by the NSA.
“There’s nothing new about the existence of spying by every government in the world, including Mexico,” he said, dismissing any offense taken by Mexican authorities.
He said he knew as president that he was being spied on by the United States. But he also recalled that Mexican spies had him under surveillance when he was running for president in 2000.
One Latin American ambassador told CNN this week that he wasn’t surprised at the reported NSA snooping activities, because all governments spy.
But he was astonished at the scale, which he attributes to the money and technical abilities of the United States.
“They do it because they can,” the ambassador says. “My country doesn’t do it because we don’t have that kind of money and we don’t have the technology.”
Stewart Baker, a former senior U.S. homeland security official in the Bush administration, says the outrage in Europe appears to ignore the scale of hacking from China, most of it believed to be state-sponsored.
“The difference is the Chinese have never leaked documents,” he said.
He also noted that protests by Merkel now are different from 2007 when the German leader traveled to China shortly after revelations that Chinese hackers had infiltrated German computer networks.
News accounts then said only that Merkel smiled as she met Chinese leaders.
“When she had a chance of take on some real communists for hacking into her computer, she swallowed her objections,” Baker said.