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US to mull ending spying on allies

Fact that move is being considered underscores the level of concern within the US administration over the possible damage from the spying scandal.

WASHINGTON // Faced with a flood of revelations about US spying, the White House is considering ending its eavesdropping on friendly foreign leaders, a senior administration official said.

A final decision has not been made and the move is still under review, the official said. But the fact that it is even being considered underscores the level of concern within the administration over the possible damage from the months-long spying scandal — including the most recent disclosure that the National Security Agency was monitoring the communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

On Monday, Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called for a “total review of all intelligence programmes” following the Merkel allegations. The California Democrat said the White House had informed her that “collection on our allies will not continue”.

The official said that statement was not accurate, but added that some unspecified changes already had been made and more were being considered, including terminating the collection of communications from friendly heads of state.

Reports based on new leaks from former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden indicate that the NSA listened to Ms Merkel and 34 other foreign leaders.

“With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of US allies — including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany — let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed,” Ms Feinstein said. She added that the US should not be “collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers” unless in an emergency with approval of the president.

In response to the revelations, German officials said that the US could lose access to an important law enforcement tool used to track terrorist money flows. Other longtime allies have also expressed their displeasure about the US spying on their leaders.

As possible leverage, German authorities cited last week’s non-binding resolution by the European Parliament to suspend a post-September 11 agreement allowing the Americans access to bank transfer data to track the flow of terrorist money. A top German official said Monday she believed the Americans were using the information to gather economic intelligence apart from terrorism and said the agreement should be suspended.

European Union officials who are in Washington to meet legislators ahead of White House talks said US surveillance of their people could affect negotiations over a US-Europe trade agreement. They said European privacy must be better protected.

Many officials in Germany and other European governments have made clear, however, that they do not favour suspending the US-EU trade talks which began last summer because both sides stand to gain so much through the proposed deal, especially against competition from China and other emerging markets.

As tensions with European allies escalate, the top US intelligence official declassified dozens of pages of top-secret documents in an apparent bid to show the NSA was acting legally when it gathered millions of Americans’ phone records.

Director of National Intelligence James R Clapper said he was following the president’s direction to make public as much information as possible about how US intelligence agencies spy under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Monday’s release of documents focused on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the bulk collection of US phone records.

The document release is part of an administration-wide effort to preserve the NSA’s ability to collect bulk data, which it says is key to tracking key terror suspects, but which privacy activists say is a breach of the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable search and seizure of evidence from innocent Americans.

The release of the documents comes ahead of a House Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday on FISA reform.

The documents support administration testimony that the NSA worked to operate within the law and fix errors when they or their systems overreached. One of the documents shows the NSA admitting to the House Intelligence Committee that one of its automated systems picked up too much telephone metadata. The February 2009 document indicates the problem was fixed.

Another set of documents shows the judges of the FISA court seemed satisfied with the NSA’s cooperation. It says that in September 2009, the NSA advised the Senate Intelligence Committee about its continuing collection of Americans’ phone records and described a series of demonstrations and briefings it conducted for three judges on the secretive US spy court. The memorandum said the judges were “engaged throughout and asked questions, which were answered by the briefers and other subject matter experts,” and said the judges appreciated the amount and quality of information the NSA provided.

* Associated Press

Updated: October 29, 2013 04:00 AM

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