The White House on Monday defended the National Security Agency amid criticism from world leaders over its surveillance efforts.
The Obama administration’s already politically awkward dilemma became more challenging when a top Democratic ally slammed the latest allegations of spying on world leaders.
Meanwhile, nine European parliamentarians arrived in Washington, D.C., to investigate the latest revelations from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
These include claims that the agency tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone and monitored the communications of tens of millions of French and Spanish citizens.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the NSA’s work “saves lives.”
“If we’re going to keep our citizens and our allies safe, we have to continue to stay ahead of these changes, and that’s what our intelligence community has been doing extraordinarily well,” Carney said.
But there’s evidence the controversy is wearing on the White House both at home and abroad.
Foreign governments that have been subjected to U.S. spying have launched at least three separate efforts aimed at curtailing the practice.
Germany and Brazil have joined hands at the United Nations on a resolution enshrining an international right to privacy. At least 19 other countries have signed on, according to Foreign Policy, including U.S. allies France and Mexico.
Germany and France are leading an effort to craft a new code of conduct between spy agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. The heads of Germany’s intelligence services are expected to travel to Washington, D.C., shortly to meet with administration officials.
Nine European Union (EU) lawmakers met Monday with the chairman of the House Intelligence panel and officials from the departments of Commerce, Treasury and Homeland Security as they kicked off a weeklong visit. The legislators are members of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties panel, which has been tasked with conducting an in-depth inquiry into the electronic mass surveillance of EU citizens.
“These are concerns we feel have to be taken seriously,” Claude Moraes, the lead author of the committee’s report, told reporters after meeting with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) on Capitol Hill.
Rogers said he’d had a “very candid” meeting with the Europeans, “which is important if we’re going to get through some of our differences.” He said the panel would be sending a delegation to Brussels, the de facto EU capital, “soon.”
Moraes praised Rogers’s move to “continue this discussion in Brussels because trust has to be rebuilt.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill slammed the president after The Wall Street Journal reported that Obama was unaware the NSA was targeting Merkel’s cellphone before an internal audit earlier this summer.
“If the executive did not know, it’s a mistake of both the people doing it not informing their superiors, and their superiors not questioning what was going on,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told the paper.
The Arizona lawmaker called for a congressional investigation and hearings examining the nation’s surveillance techniques in light of the revelations.
At the White House, Carney would not confirm whether Obama had been in the dark over the surveillance program.
The administration hopes that by cooperating with European investigators and stressing the security benefits of surveillance programs, it can sooth concerns.
“We understand that German officials plan to travel to Washington in coming weeks, and the U.S. government looks forward to meeting with them,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told The Hill.
Still, EU leaders have warned there will be consequences if the NSA doesn’t back down.
“The NSA scandal was a wake-up call,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz said last week after legislators voted to recommend suspending data sharing on terrorism financing. “Now that there is evidence that EU embassies, European parliaments, European heads of government and citizens have been spied on by the USA on a grand scale, the European Parliament has called for the suspension of the TFTP [Terrorist Finance Tracking Program] Agreement.”
The European Parliament warns there could also be “consequences” for the sharing of airline passenger manifests with the Department of Homeland Security as well as “safe harbor” privacy certifications allowing companies to transfer data on European customers to the U.S. Some European lawmakers are also pressing for a delay in a U.S.-EU trade pact that would be the world’s most expansive to date.
Some U.S. intelligence experts think the latest trans-Atlantic row will blow over soon enough, however. They agree with the White House and Congress that U.S. allies are also heavily engaged in spying and are merely responding to public pressure.
“Yes, everybody does it, but not everybody has the same capabilities as the U.S.,” said Paul Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the U.S. intelligence service who’s now teaching at Georgetown University. “The officials who are part of the delegation know that full well; they also know that when something like this becomes public, they can’t just say, ‘Everybody does it, so we don’t care.’ They have to express public umbrage.”