With European outrage over American surveillance reaching the boiling point, the White House on Monday recast the U.S. as the defender of not only its own security interests but also those of other nations across the globe.
White House press secretary Jay Carney — while deflecting specific questions about the apparent decade-long monitoring of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, one of a string of embarrassing revelations that have brought top European officials to Washington this week to demand answers — said U.S. snooping “protects us and protects our allies.”
“The president believes the work being done by our intelligence services is important … when it comes to the [National Security Agency] gathering foreign intelligence that is designed to help keep America safe as well as our allies,” Mr. Carney told reporters, though he wouldn’t address recent reports that the president was unaware of the Merkel surveillance for nearly five years, having only learned about it this summer.
Whether the president knew or not, Mr. Carney’s reassurances hardly are enough for frustrated and angry European leaders, who arrived on Capitol Hill Monday amid new reports illustrating the depth of American spying on the French, Spanish, Germans and others.
On the heels of the Merkel revelation — which has not been denied by the Obama administration or congressional leaders — the Spanish government on Monday summoned the U.S. ambassador to respond to new spying charges.
The Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported the U.S. has tracked more than 60 million calls in that country, information the publication obtained from former NSA employee turned leaker Edward Snowden. Similar reports of spying on French citizens also have emerged.
And Mr. Obama has a new challenge on the domestic front: Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein on Monday demanded a “total review of all intelligence programs” in the wake of the Merkel revelations, activity the California Democrat said was not informed about.
According to the Associated Press, Mrs. Feinstein said that while her panel was kept apprised of the NSA’s collection of phone records, senators were “not satisfactorily informed” that “certain surveillance activities have been in effect for more than a decade.”
Analysts say the close U.S. partnerships with longtime EU allies such as France and Germany now are at risk, and European leaders clearly expect concrete answers during their time in Washington this week.
“We have to closely cooperate on the question of fighting terrorism together, but it’s a question of limits,” said Elmar Brok, German chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs. “It’s not acceptable, for example, for espionage on Chancellor Merkel and others for more than 10 years. … Confidence is vanished.”
For the White House, repairing that confidence is essential yet will be difficult, if not impossible, in the short term as new information about the extent and sophistication of U.S. spying efforts seem to trickle out each day.
“It’s death by 1,000 cuts. Every week we get something else and it keeps going,” said Heather Conley, senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The status quo here hasn’t been acceptable for a while and it can no longer be acceptable as these revelations get bigger and more personal. There has been an erosion of credibility.”
This week, she added, “is going to be critical. … [European officials] have to come away knowing something has changed, that they have something to make them say, ‘This relationship has changed.’”
The White House’s defense of American snooping — that it’s necessary to protect innocent citizens around the world, not just in the U.S. — has been echoed by leading members of Congress from both sides of the aisle.
Over the weekend, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, said the French, for example, would be “popping champagne corks” if they knew the effects of U.S. surveillance programs.
He emerged from a meeting with European leaders on Monday saying the privacy vs. surveillance debate is “bigger than any individual intelligence agency of either Europe or the United States” and said a global conversation on the issue must continue.
While the White House has stressed it is not currently spying on Ms. Merkel nor will it do so in the future, the fact that such monitoring may have taken place in the past has shattered European hope that the Obama administration would break from the anti-terror policies of former President George W. Bush, according to Ms. Conley.
“They don’t see any meaningful change. What has happened since these revelations? Have there been any chances? Has anyone been held accountable? No,” she said.
For its part, the White House has undertaken a review of all U.S. intelligence-gathering and surveillance programs. Mr. Carney said that review will be completed and parts of it released publicly by the end of the year.