Wednesday

23rd Jan 2019

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • 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.

News in Brief

  1. EU hits Mastercard with €570m fine
  2. Romanian minister prepares to cancel corruption cases
  3. Sefcovic: no gas supply problems this winter
  4. Report: Commission warning on passport-sale schemes
  5. France summons Italian ambassador over colonial remark
  6. May U-turn on fee for EU nationals in UK
  7. French data watchdog gives Google €50m fine
  8. EU hits Russians with sanctions over Salisbury attack

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General

Latest News

  1. France and Germany hope to revive EU with Aachen treaty
  2. May pushes defeated Brexit deal, offers no Plan B
  3. European Parliament targets 'fake' political groups
  4. What is fate of non-euro EU states after Brexit?
  5. Turkish NBA star takes on Erdogan
  6. 'Meme ban' still on table in EU copyright bill, says MEP
  7. Brexit power grab by MPs hangs over May's 'Plan B'
  8. Polish mayor's funeral marred by Tusk TV dispute

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  2. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  3. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  5. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  6. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  8. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  10. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us