U.S. Spy-Program Overhaul Draws Mixed Reaction Overseas

Some European Politicians Say Changes Are a Positive Step; Others Say More Must Be Done

By Andrea Thomas in Berlin, Sam Schechner in Paris and Siobhan Gorman in Washington

Jan. 17, 2014

Officials of foreign governments greeted President Barack Obama's overhaul of U.S. spy practices Friday with a mix of skepticism and measured support, suggesting Washington still has a way to go to quell the chorus of outrage that followed revelations last year of the National Security Agency's sweeping efforts to monitor the communications of non-U.S. citizens.

Some European politicians said the changes were a positive step toward repairing a trans-Atlantic relationship that has been battered. One major sore point has been that the NSA had no obligation to minimize data collection on people outside the U.S.

Clemens Binninger, the head of the German parliamentary committee that oversees the country's intelligence service, said Mr. Obama "has drawn the right conclusion from the NSA spying affair."

"His speech has demonstrated that a process of rethinking has started in the U.S. regarding dealing with citizens' data at home and abroad," Mr. Binninger said.

Mr. Obama's new directive will end the government's mass collection of American phone data and offer new protections for non-U.S. citizens, including limiting the scope of surveillance to counter espionage, terrorism, cyberthreats and certain other dangers. It will also end spying on the heads of state of close U.S. allies and place new limits on how long the U.S. can hold data of non-U.S. individuals who aren't of foreign intelligence interest.

"The bottom line is that people around the world--regardless of their nationality--should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account," Mr. Obama said in his speech. "This applies to foreign leaders as well."

The changes follow months of sensitive leaks by former government contractor Edward Snowden and are part of Mr. Obama's broader reexamination of post-Sept. 11 security practices. In October, U.S. officials said an internal review had revealed NSA monitoring of some 35 world leaders, including close allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A senior administration official said the U.S. has ended monitoring of dozens of foreign leaders.

"I am encouraged to see that non-U.S. citizens stand to benefit from spying safeguards," EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding wrote on Twitter following Mr. Obama's speech. "I look forward to seeing these commitments followed by legislative action," she added, in comments verified by her spokeswoman.

Critics of U.S. surveillance practices suggested that carve-outs for reasons of national security make the new protections hollow.

"There is a rhetorical shift, but it's not sufficient," said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a Green Party member of European Parliament, member of a committee that has recommended cutting off some types of data transfers to the U.S. without reforms. "All of these caveats mean that these programs can continue to exist in the future."

Jeremie Zimmerman, co-founder of European digital-rights group La Quadrature du Net, described the speech as an exercise in "crisis communications."

"I don't think it's possible in one speech to change this U.S. exceptionalism --that if you hold a U.S. passport your rights are protected, and if you don't, you're dust," he said.

Ms. Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said the German government welcomes Mr. Obama's speech, but he added, "The German government still thinks that German law must be respected on German soil, also and in particular by our close partners and allies."

Germany will continue talks about the "new and clear" basis for the cooperation between the intelligence services based on Mr. Obama's speech, said Mr. Seibert.

Ms. Merkel has said the NSA is putting "to test" the relationship between the two countries. Germany has lobbied hard for a "no-spy" agreement with the U.S. and wants to include tough data-privacy measures into a transatlantic trade pact between the U.S. and Europe.

Russian state media were dismissive of the planned reforms, at least those reported before the speech. "The reform of the NSA will amount to just a legislative fine-tuning of the mechanisms of eavesdropping and that large-scale surveillance of Americans will continue, and of course the U.S. will continue to spy on the entire world," state-run Rossiya television's correspondent reported from Washington Friday.

In Brazil, where documents leaked by Mr. Snowden suggested the NSA had spied on President Dilma Rousseff, straining U.S.-Brazil ties, the president's office did not have an immediate statement.

The Associated Press reported that Sen. Vanessa Grazziotin, head of the Senate panel investigating U.S. spying, said in a statement that "the spying on friends and allies should have never happened."

"Besides the words of the American president, the entire world wants concrete actions of respect for the sovereignty of nations," Ms. Grazziotin said, according to AP.

Mexico's Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade, who met Friday in Washington with his U.S. and Canadian counterparts, noted in an interview on Mexican radio a positive reaction from Europe and elsewhere.

"We also feel it's important, the message given today on this first stage of the revision of the processes...We have to understand it clearly and be certain that it will give us the security we need to continue working on the basis of confidence on shared problems and challenges," he said.

Mexico last year demanded an investigation by the U.S. into reports that the NSA spied on text messages of President Enrique Peña Nieto when he was still a presidential candidate, and later reports that it had intercepted emails of former president Felipe Calderón.

China's Foreign Ministry didn't respond to a request for comment on Mr. Obama's speech Saturday morning.

Asked about the issue at a regular briefing on Friday, before the speech, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said:

"We hope the U.S. government will pay heed to the voices of justice in the international community on the relevant issue."

--Greg White in Moscow, Anthony Harrup in Mexico City, Paulo Trevisani in Brasilia and Jeremy Page in Beijing contributed to this article.

Write to Andrea Thomas at, Sam Schechner at and Siobhan Gorman at