“The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to learn what they think about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them rather than turning to surveillance,” said Obama, who also called on the Justice Department to look for ways to extend privacy protections to foreign citizens.
The president’s assurances were welcomed by officials in Europe, though they cautioned that details of the plans still needed to be analyzed.
“The government continues to expect that German law be respected on German territory, including and particularly by our close partner,” said Steffan Seibert, a spokesman for Germany’s government.
The reaction was not as warm in Brazil. Vanessa Grazziotin, a Brazilian politician investigating U.S. spying there, said, “The spying on friends and allies should have never happened.”
Many of the president’s recommendations were aimed at increasing the American public’s trust in the spying operations. He called on Congress to approve a panel of outside advocates who could represent privacy and civil liberty concerns before the FISA court. Those advocates would be present for cases where the court was considering issues that were significant or raised an issue the court hadn’t dealt with previously.
The president also called for lifting some of the secrecy surrounding the demands that might be sent to companies for data on customers involved in a national security investigation. The White House says those demands, called “national security letters,” will no longer remain secret indefinitely, unless the government establishes a need for the secrecy when they are being used in an investigation.
Roughly 20,000 such letters are sent yearly by the FBI to banks, telecommunication companies and other businesses, but recipients are barred from disclosing anything about them. Obama wants to change that and allow some of the information to be made public.