WASHINGTON — The chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said the U.S. shouldn’t be spying on leaders of any country unless America is “engaged in hostilities” against it.
The staunch opponent of NSA leaker Edward Snowden in the wake of the first batch of revelations about collection of telephone metadata on Americans also said after the latest revelations about listening in on phones of world leaders that she’s launching a “major review” into collection programs.
Presumably the cessation of spying would also include China and Russia, with whom the U.S. is not at war.
“It is abundantly clear that a total review of all intelligence programs is necessary so that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are fully informed as to what is actually being carried out by the intelligence community,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement.
“Unlike NSA’s collection of phone records under a court order, it is clear to me that certain surveillance activities have been in effect for more than a decade and that the Senate Intelligence Committee was not satisfactorily informed,” she added. “Therefore our oversight needs to be strengthened and increased.”
Feinstein and her Republican vice-chairman, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), stood by the intelligence community and the Obama administration after Snowden’s initial leaks, saying that the former NSA contractor was harming national security and defending the NSA’s activities as vital.
“With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies—including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany—let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed,” Feinstein said today.
“Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers. The president should be required to approve any collection of this sort.”
German newspaper Bild am Sonntag claimed that President Obama had ordered the continuation and escalation of the bugging of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private phone, including the collection of text messages, and that NSA leader Keith Alexander told Obama about the operation in 2010. Bild said sources revealed the program began under President Bush to monitor Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
The NSA pushed back against that report, saying in a statement that Alexander “did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel. News reports claiming otherwise are not true.”
“It is my understanding that President Obama was not aware Chancellor Merkel’s communications were being collected since 2002. That is a big problem,” Feinstein said.
“The White House has informed me that collection on our allies will not continue, which I support,” she added. “But as far as I’m concerned, Congress needs to know exactly what our intelligence community is doing. To that end, the committee will initiate a major review into all intelligence collection programs.”
But White House officials quickly told media off the record that no changes have been decided as the administration reviews intelligence collection policies around the world.
The NSA chief along with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Deputy Attorney General James Cole will testify in an open hearing on potential FISA changes Tuesday before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
At today’s White House press briefing, spokesman Jay Carney was asked about a Wall Street Journal report that said Obama didn’t learn about the tapping of Merkel’s phone until this summer.
“I’m not going to get into details of internal discussions. But the president clearly feels strongly about making sure that we are not just collecting information because we can, but because we should. And I noted the other day a readout from a phone call the president had with Chancellor Merkel made clear that we do not and will not monitor the chancellor’s communications,” Carney said.
“I think that it’s important to contextualize some of these revelations, to look at what the administration is doing to review our intelligence activities, and to look at how we balance the need for security in this completely transformed world that we live in, because of the technology advances that have occurred, and then against, as I said earlier, the clear and real privacy concerns that Americans and people around the world share,” said Carney.
The Guardian reported this month that Alexander plans to leave the NSA in the spring. Carney said Obama has “full confidence” in Alexander and said the review of intelligence gathering “will be completed by the end of the year.”
“When it comes to the relationship that we have with various allies, this is obviously something that has been of concern, and we are working to address those concerns diplomatically, through diplomatic channels, and also in the way that we’re talking about these issues now,” Carney said.
At a Pentagon briefing today with New Zealand Minister of Defense Jonathan Coleman, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he wouldn’t discuss anything from the National Security Council meetings.
“We are examining all of the different dynamics that are now out there and the procedures and processes. I think the White House has been very clear on that. I think those who lead our intelligence community have been very clear on that,” Hagel said. “We have great respect for our partners, our allies, who cooperate with us and we cooperate with them to try to keep the world safe, to keep each other safe, to keep our nation safe. Intelligence is a key part of that. And I think this issue will continue to be explored, as it is now. But that’s all I have to say.”
Coleman said New Zealand is “not worried at all” about being spied upon by the U.S. “We don’t believe it would be occurring,” he said. “And, look, quite frankly, there’d be nothing that anyone could hear in our private conversations that we wouldn’t be prepared to share publicly.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said it’s not “good enough for the president and the team around him to just claim ignorance, the president wasn’t involved.”
“He’s been in charge now for five years. He’s got to be personally involved in understanding where those lines are,” the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations said on MSNBC.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said “it’s hard to believe that he didn’t know when he is briefed on these things.”
“They usually give the citation as to where the information comes from. So if he was given any information at all about Merkel or any other world leader, the person briefing him or briefing book he would get would almost have to say where it came from, especially since it would be so controversial — you know, so sensitive, I should say,” King said on Fox. “So, no, I can’t believe that as commander in chief, as president of the United States, that if it was being done he didn’t know about it.”
King added that world leaders may feel more indignant at the spying revelations because Obama hasn’t cared to cultivate close relationships in the global community as presidents before him have done.
“I think he feels he doesn’t need them; that he has more of an academic approach to policy,” he said. “The fact when it comes down to it human nature is human nature. And personal relationships do mean something. Obviously each country in the end has to be for itself, and personal relationships and trust means something, and the president sorely lacks that.”