Kerry says certain practices occurred 'on autopilot' and vows to meet allies to repair damage caused by NSA spying revelations
John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, conceded on Thursday that some of the country's surveillance activities had gone too far, saying that certain practices had occurred "on autopilot" without the knowledge of senior officials in the Obama administration.
In the most stark comments yet by a senior administration official, Kerry promised that a previously announced review of surveillance practices would be thorough and that some activities would end altogether.
"There is no question that the president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there," he told a conference in London via video link.
"In some cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn't happen in the future."
His comments came as the U.S. State Department announced that Kerry would embark on a tour of Europe and the Middle East, in part to repair the damage caused by reports that the U.S. eavesdropped on on its allies, including monitoring the cell phone of Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel.
In Washington, the Senate intelligence committee approved a bill that placed largely cosmetic restrictions on the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance programme.
The bill, sponsored by committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, allows the NSA continue to collect phone metadata of millions of Americans for renewable 90-day periods, but orders it to be more transparent about the practice.
"I think there's huge misunderstanding about this NSA database programme, and how vital I think it is to protecting this country," Feinstein told reporters.
The bill, which is competing with more restrictive measures from other committees, now moves forward to a full Senate vote. The stage is now set for a showdown with the USA Freedom Act, a bipartisan bill that would prohibit bulk collection of Americans' telephone records.
Senator Mark Udall, a Democratic member of the Senate intelligence committee and a supporter of NSA reform, said it did not go far enough.
"The NSA's invasive surveillance of Americans' private information does not respect our constitutional values and needs fundamental reform, not incidental changes," he said.
In a separate development on Thursday, a group of technology giants called for substantial reforms to the US government's surveillance programmes. The companies were furious about revelations this week – the latest to emerge from documents leaked by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden – that the agency had intercepted the cables that link the worldwide data centres belonging to Google and Yahoo.
"Recent disclosures regarding surveillance activity raise important concerns both in the United States and abroad," said the letter to the Senate judiciary committee, signed by Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft.
The companies said they supported the USA Freedom Act and added: "We urge the administration to work with Congress in addressing these critical reforms that would provide much needed transparency and help rebuild the trust of internet users around the world."
Kerry, in his comments to a conference organised by the Open Government Partnership, acknowledged that trust needed to be restored. "There is an effort to try to gather information, yes, in same cases inappropriately, and the president is now doing a thorough review, in order that nobody will have a sense of abuse," he said.
But he defended the motives of US intelligence agencies, insisting no "innocent people" were being abused and saying surveillance by several countries had prevented many terrorist plots.
After the 9/11 attacks, he said, the "US and others – I emphasise to you, others – realised that we are dealing with a new world where people are willing to blow themselves up. There are countless examples. Look at Nairobi. What if you were able to intercept that? We have prevented airplanes from going down and buildings from being blown up because we have learned ahead of time of such plans."
Kerry also criticised what he said was an "enormous amount of exaggeration and misreporting" about the extent of the surveillance programmes, appearing to single out recent European reports that millions of French and Spanish citizens had been targeted by the U.S.
Kerry will leave Washington this weekend for Saudi Arabia, Poland, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Morocco. With tensions between the US and many of its allies rising, the department acknowledged that at least parts of the nine-day trip might be difficult.
"The secretary believes that rolling up his sleeves and having personal diplomacy is the way that we should continue to approach either issues we work together on, global challenges, or issues where there may be concerns as it relates to the intel-gathering reports," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
A German MP said he met Snowden in Moscow on Thursday, and said the NSA whistelblower was prepared in principle to help Germany investigate allegations of surveillance by U.S. intelligence.
Hans-Christian Stroebele, a lawmaker with Germany's opposition Greens and a prominent critic of the NSA's alleged actions, told ARD television that Snowden "made clear he knows a great deal."
He said Snowden would be prepared to travel to Germany and testify, "but the circumstances would have to be cleared up".
[Image via Agence France-Presse]