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US Allies Remain Skeptical of Obama’s Surveillance Reforms

  • Henry Ridgwell

There has been a muted response from U.S. allies to President Obama’s plans to curb the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency. Documents leaked by fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden suggested the agency has been collecting electronic data on millions of American and foreign civilians, and had tapped the phones of foreign leaders.

The leaked documents revealed the National Security Agency had harvested data on the phone calls, emails and SMS messages of millions of people across the globe.

The president sought to quell anger among U.S. allies by extending some privacy protections enjoyed by U.S. nationals to foreign citizens.

The changes are unlikely to change global opinion, however, according to London School of Economics International Relations Professor Chris Brown. “The people who were fairly relaxed about it beforehand will be quite reassured by these words. But the people who were not relaxed will not be.”

Monitoring Merkel

The leaked documents revealed last year that the United States had tapped the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel - prompting a furious response from Berlin.

In his speech Friday, Obama pledged to tighten the protocol for decisions on spying on foreign leaders.

“Obama has apologized for that, he has said it will not happen again," said Brown. "He has gone out of his way to go on German television to try to reassure. But I do not think he has.”

German Green Party lawmaker Hans-Christian Stroebele, who sits on a parliamentary intelligence committee, remains unsatisfied with the reforms and wants Europe to demand more answers from Washington.

Stroebele said the debate gives the German Bundestag and parliaments in other European countries the opportunity to talk openly on the topic of surveillance with colleagues in the U.S. Congress, and to ask what it all means for Germany, and the steps that must now be taken.

Diplomatic dance

Spying on foreign leaders is not legally problematic, but rather a diplomatic issue, said Professor Stephen Vladeck of the American University College of Law.

“What is the best way for the president to at once preserve our capabilities to know what our friends and enemies are up to overseas, while not provoking these very uncomfortable conversations with Germany, with France, with China over the extent to which we are criticizing their governments for doing the exact same intelligence gathering that it now seems we are doing to them," he said.

Many European leaders would like to move on from the mass surveillance revelations, which have engulfed their own intelligence agencies, said Brown. “If they are a major European country, they know that they have agencies that do this themselves. The trouble is their public opinion is very upset about this, and if you are a democratic leader you have to listen.”

Analysts say that as long as fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden continues to leak information on NSA activities, global anger over the extent of U.S. surveillance likely will remain high.

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