To assuage the French and other allies, the Obama administration is pointing to a White House review of intelligence-gathering practices that the president ordered in response to foreign and domestic criticism of U.S. surveillance operations.
That review, whose findings are expected in December, is similar to the audit of counterterrorism practices that led to new curbs on the use of drones earlier this year. It could recommend some new limits or greater accountability for electronic espionage by the NSA.
A series of disclosures in the media, based on documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, also have angered Brazil, Germany and Mexico, among other countries. Brazil canceled a visit by President Dilma Rousseff to the White House in protest of NSA electronic espionage targeting that country. Anger in European nations about the scope of NSA spy programs has threatened to set back negotiations over a trans-Atlantic free-trade pact, a key U.S. trade goal.
The latest revelations, reported in the newspaper Le Monde, appeared as Secretary of State John F. Kerry was visiting Paris. Kerry, who likes to point out — sometimes in French — that France is the United States’ oldest ally, tried to explain in person why the United States was caught spying on one of its closest friends.
“Our goal is always to try to find the right balance between protecting the security and the privacy of our citizens,” Kerry said at a news conference in Paris on Monday. “This work is going to continue, as well as our very close consultations with our friends here in France.”
The story about the NSA’s collection of phone records from French citizens appeared timed to coincide with Kerry’s trip to France for unrelated meetings.
“This has had an impact on the way America works with its allies and on intelligence-gathering activities going forward,” a senior U.S. official said Monday.
“All you can do is go back channel and try to explain to these allies that all these intelligence-gathering activities are designed in part to protect them, and to point to the president’s wide-ranging review and how it’s going to lead to some changes,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic matters.
The administration has been increasingly public in reminding friendly nations about the value of intelligence the United States shares.
“The U.S. and France have enjoyed a long friendship based on our shared values and a history of cooperating to advance mutual interests around the globe,” a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Paris said Monday. “As part of that effort, we work closely with France to protect the collective security of our two countries and of our citizens.”