White House official sees need for 'constraints' on NSA spying
By Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House said on Monday that some constraints are needed in U.S. surveillance practices in the wake of embarrassing revelations about the sweeping nature of U.S. spying.
The comment came a week after President Barack Obama drew heavy criticism over accusations that the National Security Agency had tapped the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and conducted widespread electronic snooping in France and Italy.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that with new intelligence-gathering capabilities, "We recognize there needs to be additional constraints on how we gather and use intelligence."
Carney's comment, along with a tweet from National Security Adviser Susan Rice that a "proper balance" is needed, suggested some changes might be in the offing on the scale of U.S. electronic spying as part of a review of the collection activities of the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies.
The review is to be completed by year's end.
Obama has full confidence in the director of the National Security Agency, Keith Alexander, and other NSA officials, but there needs to be a balance between the need to gather intelligence and the need to protect the privacy of people, Carney said.
A European delegation took the concerns about the issue to Capitol Hill, where members of the European Parliament met U.S. lawmakers and spoke of the need to rebuild trust.
"Confidence is vanished," said Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament. "We have to work hard that confidence is re-established between the leaders, between our people."
After Obama and Merkel spoke by phone, the White House said the United States is not currently tapping her phone and will not in the future, begging the question of whether it had been done in the past.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that the NSA ended the program that involved Merkel after the operation was uncovered in a review that began during the summer. The program also involved as many as 35 other world leaders, some of whom were still being monitored, the report said.
The United States and many lawmakers have defended the NSA programs as crucial to protecting U.S. national security and helping thwart militant plots. They insist the programs are carefully overseen by Congress and the U.S. legal system.
REVIEW COVERS 'CLOSEST ... ALLIES'
Still, the Obama administration is conducting a review of its intelligence-gathering procedures. Rice said the review is "rigorous and ongoing."
The White House said the review of U.S. intelligence procedures is well under way and specifically covers "our closest foreign partners and allies."
On Capitol Hill, U.S. lawmakers held talks behind closed doors with the European Parliament delegation. U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said afterward that they discussed the need to rebuild trust, the need for cooperation and the need to share intelligence.
"It started to identify some of the differences that we have that we're going to have to bridge. That's a good thing. That's a good start and that's why we've pledged to take a delegation back to Brussels to follow up on this conversation," he said.
Rogers, a staunch defender of U.S. intelligence agencies, said there are misperceptions about what they have been doing, although he acknowledged the EU parliamentarians have legitimate concerns.
"It's important to understand that we're going to have to have a policy discussion that is bigger than any individual intelligence agency of either Europe or the United States," he said.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal. Editing by Warren Strobel and Cynthia Osterman)