LONDON — After months of revelations that strained U.S. relations with allies and cast a harsh light on the National Security Agency’s global surveillance reach, President Obama’s speech Friday was aimed at least in part at reassuring the world of American intentions.
But the initial reaction overseas suggested he still has a significant way to go to heal the rifts, with many wondering why he didn’t offer more specific protections.
In Germany, where revelations that the NSA had been eavesdropping on the calls of Chancellor Angela Merkel stirred deep anger and unusually tough criticism of Washington, Obama’s promises to rein in the excesses of U.S. spying were met with a tepid welcome from the German government — and scorn from some analysts.
Government spokesman Steffen Seibert tweeted that the government would appreciate better safeguards of the rights of non-U.S. citizens but would need more time to review Obama’s words in detail.
Obama in his speech promised greater privacy protections for foreigners. But the new rules have yet to be written, leaving the possibility that intelligence officials will still have wide discretion in sweeping up information about private citizens overseas.
Obama also said he had ordered new restrictions on spying on allied foreign heads of state. But the president did not define who would be considered an ally, nor did he promise an end to spying on foreign leaders’ aides, advisers or opponents.
The seemingly limited nature of the new restrictions prompted German blogger and author Sascha Lobo to comment on Twitter: “Good to know that in the future you can escape surveillance by simply becoming chancellor.”
German magazine Der Spiegel, meanwhile, accused the NSA of “turning the Internet into a weapons system.”
Reaction was muted in Britain, which has been shown in leaked documents to be a key partner with the United States in global surveillance efforts.
The government released a statement affirming that a parliamentary committee would review British law to find “the appropriate balance between our individual right to privacy and our collective right to security.”
But British Prime Minister David Cameron has not come under the same sort of pressure to speak out on the issue that Obama has in the United States.
Tony Travers, a professor at the London School of Economics, said that is unlikely to change.
“Britain has always had such a powerful tradition of secrecy,” he said. “I doubt there have been anguished telephone calls across the Atlantic to get a change in American intelligence agency behavior.”
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, whose newspaper has published revelations from files leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, said Britain has been “complacent” about the disclosures because both major political parties have been complicit.
“I think they are closing their eyes and hoping it will go away,” Rusbridger said in remarks Friday to the BBC. “But it’s not going to go away, because it’s impossible to reform the NSA without that having a deep knock-on effect on what our own intelligence services do.”
In other regions where the NSA revelations have made a big impact — including Latin America — there was no rush from governments to embrace Obama’s vows. Officials in Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff has been outspoken in condemning the NSA surveillance, said they would have no comment on the matter.
Although Obama’s speech was reported on Russian television and Web sites late Friday night, officials in Moscow also offered no comment. Russia has not shared European anger over the U.S. surveillance program. Despite President Vladimir Putin’s decision to shelter Snowden, Putin has been generally sympathetic to spying by the United States because of what he sees as the need to fight terrorism.
Russia has no qualms about Internet snooping — and is expected to bring all of its expertise to bear at the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February. Intelligence experts in Moscow say visitors should not expect any electronic privacy.
In his speech, Obama referenced the fact that while foreign governments have been quick to express outrage over U.S. surveillance, the spying often goes both ways.
“There is a reason,” he said, “that iPhones and BlackBerries are not allowed in the White House Situation Room.”
Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin and Kathy Lally in Moscow contributed to this report.