Conducted without administration’s knowledge, some of it on ‘autopilot’

In the clearest sign yet of a growing chasm between the U.S. intelligence community and the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry this week admitted that the covert global surveillance programmes of the National Security Agency (NSA) may have gone “too far” and some of this spying happened “on autopilot”.

Mr. Kerry, who delivered the remarks during a teleconference broadcast from London, suggested that the NSA’s tapping of Internet and phone communications worldwide, including of allies such as Germany and France, may have been conducted without the knowledge of senior administration officials “because the technology is there and the ability is there”.

“We are going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future,” he said, days after a wave of anger engulfed U.S.-Germany relations following revelations that the NSA may have been tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’sphone since 2002.

With France and Italy joining the chorus of sharp criticism, Mr. Kerry’s remarks came days after President Barack Obama appeared to put distance between the White House and the spying programmes.

Earlier this week White House Spokesperson Jay Carney said, “The concerns raised by our allies cause us concern too,” adding that Mr. Obama was “supportive of the idea that we need to make some reforms”, and that he hoped to “provide greater oversight and greater transparency as well as more constraints on the authorities that exist”.

Speaking to The Hindu about the import of Mr. Kerry’s comments, Amie Stepanovich, Director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) public interest research group, said that the Secretary was one among “a growing number of U.S. government officials who have recognised that the public will not tolerate the NSA’s expansive surveillance authorities”.

She added that recognition was however not enough without action, and EPIC and other Internet privacy advocacy groups hoped that “these same officials will take steps to support reforms, including affirmative requirements for transparency in future surveillance operations”.

While NSA personnel have reportedly been quoted saying they are no longer getting support from the administration, “it is fairly apparent that the NSA has enjoyed nothing but executive support and a virtual blank check for over a decade of invasive surveillance activities”.

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