Oct 30, 2013

    Obama close to ordering halt on eavesdropping


    PRESIDENT Barack Obama is poised to order the National Security Agency (NSA) to stop eavesdropping on the leaders of United States allies, administration and congressional officials said on Monday, responding to a deepening diplomatic crisis over reports that the agency had for years targeted the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

    The White House informed leading Democratic lawmaker Dianne Feinstein, of its plans, which grew out of a broader internal review of intelligence-gathering methods, prompted by a leak of NSA documents by a former contractor, Mr Edward Snowden.

    In a statement on Monday, Ms Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said: "I do not believe the US should be collecting phone calls or e-mail messages of friendly presidents and prime ministers."

    Ms Feinstein, who has been a stalwart defender of the administration's surveillance policies, said her committee would begin a "major review of all intelligence-collection programmes".

    The White House said on Monday that no final decision had been made on the monitoring of friendly foreign leaders.

    But the disclosure that it is moving to prohibit it signals a landmark shift for the NSA, which has had nearly unfettered powers to collect data on tens of millions of people around the world, from ordinary citizens to heads of state.

    It is also likely to prompt a fierce debate on what constitutes an American ally.

    Prohibiting eavesdropping on Dr Merkel's phone is an easier judgment than, for example, collecting intelligence on military-backed leaders in Egypt.

    National Security Council spokesman Caitlin Hayden said: "We have already made some decisions through this process and expect to make more."

    She added that the review would be completed in December.

    Disclosure of the White House's proposed action came after the release on Monday of Ms Feinstein's statement, in which she asserted that the White House had told her it would cease all intelligence collection in friendly countries.

    That statement, senior administration officials said, was "not accurate", but the officials acknowledged that they had already made unspecified changes in surveillance policy and planned further changes, particularly in the monitoring of government leaders.

    The administration will reserve the right to continue collecting intelligence in friendly countries that pertains to criminal activity, potential terrorist threats and the proliferation of unconventional weapons, according to several officials.

    It also appeared to be leaving itself room in the case of a foreign leader of an ally who turns hostile or whose actions posed a threat to the US.