Sunday

19th Nov 2017

Obama promises not to spy on EU leaders

US President Barack Obama has said he will not spy on EU leaders or conduct economic espionage, but will continue snooping on ordinary US and EU citizens.

He made the pledge in a TV speech on Friday (17 January) in reaction to the Edward Snowden leaks.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Obama: 'No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programmes' (Photo: whitehouse.gov)

“I’ve made clear to the intelligence community that unless there is a compelling national security purpose, we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies,” he said.

“We do not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to US companies or US commercial sectors,” he added.

He justified the mass-scale collection of information on ordinary US or foreign nationals’ telephone calls, however.

“Why is this necessary? The programme grew out of a desire to address a gap identified after 9/11 … [It] was designed to map the communications of terrorists so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible,” he noted.

He promised to create a data privacy tsar to implement new safeguards.

The measures, enshrined in an executive order, centre round the future storage of intercepted phone data by an independent agency, which can only be accessed “after a judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency.”

Obama also ordered one of his spy chiefs, James Clapper, to draft better protection for US citizens whose internet data is caught in the NSA's overseas operations.

He did not give non-US citizens any right of redress in US courts, however.

He also made no reference to the NSA's most controversial exploits.

He said nothing on its introduction of bugs into commercial encryption software, on burglarising undersea cables, on hacking internet and phone companies, or bugging EU officials.

He also defended America’s right to spy in general.

He said: “The whole point of intelligence is to obtain information that is not publicly available.”

Counter-terrorism aside, he added: “Our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments … around the world in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does. We will not apologise simply because our services may be more effective."

He noted that some foreign leaders “feigned surprise” on the Snowden leaks, while others “privately acknowledge” they need the NSA to protect their own countries.

He also claimed the US handling of the Snowden affair shows its respect for democratic values.

“No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programmes or Russia to take privacy concerns of citizens in other places into account,” the US President noted.

For its part, the European Commission welcomed Obama's words in a communique published shortly after he finished speaking.

“President Obama's remarks and action show that the legitimate concerns expressed by the EU have been listened to by our US partner,” it said.

It promised to push for more, however.

It said it will seek “an improvement of the Safe Harbour scheme,” an EU-US pact on data handling by US firms.

It will also seek “the swift conclusion of an umbrella agreement on data protection in the area of law enforcement that will guarantee enforceable rights for EU citizens, including judicial redress.”

The European Parliament, which held an inquiry into the NSA affair, was more sceptical.

British centre-left deputy Claude Moraes, its NSA rapporteur, said Obama’s reaction is “substantial” but “weighted towards … a concerned US audience.”

He added that “lack of clarity” on the new safeguards mean “his comments may not have been enough to restore confidence.”

German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht, who also took part in the NSA inquiry, was more critical.

He told EUobserver: “My impression is he [Obama] is making a change in rhetorical terms, not in subtance.”

Albrecht said almost all NSA programmes, including Prism, which intercepts data held by internet firms like Google and Microsoft, “will be the same as before, there are no changes.”

He also said people should pay attention to the small print in Obama’s language.

He noted that the ban on spying on friendly “heads of state and government” leaves the US free to spy on lower-rank officials, such as foreign ministers.

He also noted that Obama included numerous "security carve-outs."

For instance, the NSA can still bug German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone if “there is a compelling national security purpose."

“European leaders will have to decide if they want to follow him, and lose the trust of their citizens in their ability to safeguard their basic rights,” Albrecht said.

MEPs ponder how to fight tax havens

After the Paradise Papers brought new revelations about tax dodging across the globe, including in the EU, the European Parliament wonders how to step up the fight.

MEPs point finger at Malta

The European Parliament debated shady deals and rule of law in Malta after the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, while the Commission wanted to avoid a "political fight".

News in Brief

  1. Bonn climate talks extend into Friday evening
  2. UK needs to move on Brexit by early December, Tusk says
  3. Puigdemont extradition decision postponed to December
  4. Ireland wants written UK guarantees to avoid hard border
  5. US did not obstruct climate talks, says German minister
  6. EU signs social declaration
  7. Puigdemont to be heard by Belgian judges
  8. Steep fall in migrants reaching EU

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressAntisemitism in Europe Today: Is It Still a Threat to Free and Open Society?
  2. Counter BalanceNew Report: Juncker Plan Backs Billions in Fossil Fuels and Carbon-Heavy Infrastructure
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic countries prioritise fossil fuel subsidy reform
  4. Mission of China to the EUNew era for China brings new opportunities to all
  5. ACCASmall and Medium Sized Practices Must 'Offer the Whole Package'
  6. UNICEFAhead of the African Union - EU Summit, Survey Highlights Impact of Conflict on Education
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council Calls for Closer Co-Operation on Foreign Policy
  8. Swedish EnterprisesTrilogue Negotiations - Striking the Balance Between Transparency and Efficiency
  9. Access EuropeProspects for US-EU Relations Under the Trump Administration - 28 November 2017
  10. World Vision20 November: Exchange of Views at the EP on Children Affected by the Syria Crisis
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable Growth the Nordic Way: Climate Solutions for a Sustainable Future
  12. EU2017EEHow Data Fuels Estonia's Economy

Latest News

  1. EU keeps former Soviet states at arm's length
  2. EU leaders make pledge on social issues after populist backlash
  3. EU agencies and eastern neighbours This WEEK
  4. Germany slams Dutch call for more ambitious EU climate goal
  5. Mind the gap: inequality in our cities
  6. Climate activists 'disappointed' with EU at climate talks
  7. Davis outlines UK vision on Brexit in Berlin
  8. German coalition talks in near collapse

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Step Up Water Management Cooperation
  2. CECEMachinery Industry Calls for Joint EU Approach to Develop Digital Construction Sector
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersMale Business Leaders Gather in Copenhagen to Advance Gender Equality
  4. EnelNo ETS Deal Means It Can Still Be Strengthened
  5. EU2017EEEstonia Anticipates More Digital Cooperation With Sweden
  6. Mission of China to the EUChina Launches Campaign to Protect IPR of Foreign Companies
  7. European Jewish CongressEJC Condemns Attacks on Ruta Vanagaite and the Shredding of Her Books in Lithuania
  8. Bio-Based IndustriesDiscover the Future of the Bio-Based Economy. Register Now for the BBI Stakeholder Forum!
  9. European Free AllianceWelcome Catalonia!
  10. UNICEFGrowing Number of Unaccompanied Refugee Children in Greece in Need of Shelter
  11. Counter BalanceNature Destruction Cannot Be Compensated For, Say NGOs
  12. CES - Silicones EuropeSilicones - Enabling the Next Big Leap in Prosthetics and Health