22nd Oct 2016

Obama advisor: Pipeline deals could see US spy on EU leaders

  • US president Obama said the NSA would not spy on the leaders of allied nations unless there is a 'compelling national security purpose' (Photo: Bundesregierung)

Major economic deals, which look as if they could cause “difficulties” for the US, are a legitimate reason to spy on EU leaders, a US intelligence oversight panelist has said.

“If Germany were making an economic deal for a gas pipeline in a way that would cause large international difficulties, that might be a reason to try to prevent a bad outcome,” Peter Swire, a professor of law and ethics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told journalists in Brussels on Friday (24 January).

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He noted that he was speaking in a personal capacity.

But his remark sheds light on US President Barack Obama’s thinking about the future of the National Security Agency (NSA) in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations.

The professor is one of five authors who recently drafted 46 recommendations on how to reform US intelligence.

The panel’s ideas formed the basis of Obama’s speech and presidential directive of 14 January on NSA regulation.

In his speech, Obama said he would not spy on leaders considered to be close allies "unless there is a compelling national security purpose."

Other members of the review panel include Michael Morell, ex-second in command at the CIA, and Richard Clarke, who was chief counter-terrorism advisor under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The Obama directive is said to limit the collection of signals intelligence to counter-intelligence, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, cyber security, threats to the armed forces, and transnational criminal organisations.

It comes after Snowden revealed last October the NSA bugged German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, among the phones of 34 other world leaders.

The chancellor later said trust in the US had been “severely shaken.”

Swire noted in his Brussels press briefing that, under the Obama directive, US spies can only target foreign leaders after a due process that weighs up the two sides’ “economic and strategic alliance.”

“There is a much stricter screen on leadership intelligence when it comes to our allies than what existed previously,” he said.

Obama earlier this month also ruled out doing “intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to US companies or US commercial sectors.”

Spire echoed Obama, saying the US government does not conduct industrial espionage.

But here too he underlined that collection of foreign private commercial information or trade secrets can be authorised on national security grounds, either of the US or of its allies.

Earlier Snowden leaks show that the NSA snooped on EU competition commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, responsible for saying Yes or No to multinational mergers, among other economic targets.

The whistleblower, in an interview with Germany's ARD TV channel on Sunday, said the NSA passes on trade secrets and other information to US firms, contradicitng Obama’s claim.

“If there is information at Siemens that they [the NSA] think would be beneficial to the national interests, not the national security, of the United States, they will go after that information and they'll take it,” Snowden said.

For his part, Amnesty International’s secretary general Sahlil Shetty last week told this website he suspects the NSA tapped his phone as well.

“It’s not just the NSA,” he noted, however. “We have friends from China. Amnesty has many friends,” he said of the human rights NGO.

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