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Obama reassures Europeans over US surveillance

September 05, 2013
US President Barack Obama is on a visit to Sweden, ahead of the G20 summit, held in St. Petersburg, Russia. -AP Photo
US President Barack Obama is on a visit to Sweden, ahead of the G20 summit, held in St. Petersburg, Russia. -AP Photo

STOCKHOLM: President Barack Obama sought on Wednesday to reassure Europeans outraged over US surveillance programmes that his government isn’t sifting through their emails or eavesdropping on their telephone calls. He acknowledged that the programs haven’t always worked as intended, saying “we had to tighten them up”.

Obama said once-secret US surveillance programmes that became public knowledge after a government contractor leaked details about them are meant to improve America’s understanding of what is happening around the world. He sought to allay the concerns of Europeans upset by the thought their personal communications may have been swept up in the US government’s massive data collection operations.

“I can give assurances to the publics in Europe and around the world that we’re not going around snooping at people’s emails or listening to their phone calls,” Obama said at a news conference with Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on his first visit as president to Sweden.

What we try to do is to target very specifically areas of concern.

Leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about US surveillance programmes sparked outrage overseas, particularly among Europeans who place a premium on personal privacy and civil liberties and recall life under governments that routinely spied on them. The NSA programme was the first question he received from the Swedish press. Obama said additional changes to the programmes may be required because of advances in technology. He said his national security team along with an independent board is reviewing everything to strike the right balance between the government’s surveillance needs and civil liberties.

“There may be situations in which we’re gathering information just because we can that doesn’t help us with our national security, but does raise questions in terms of whether we’re tipping over into being too intrusive with respect to the ... the interactions of other governments,” Obama said. “We are consulting with the (European Union) in this process; we are consulting with other countries in this process and finding out from them what are their areas of specific concern and trying to align what we do in a way that, I think, alleviates some of the public concerns that people may have.’’

The joint appearance with Reinfeldt was one of several events packed into Obama’s whirlwind, 24-hour visit to the Swedish capital to show a softer side of American diplomacy even as the world’s gaze remains fixed anxiously on Syria. He intends to focus in the Nordic nation on climate change, trade and technology, issues on which there is broad consensus with European allies. The topics are a marked departure from the thornier national security and economic matters he’s facing back home.

Obama also paid homage to a Holocaust-era hero whose name is commemorated on street signs from Paris to Tel Aviv.

The president arrived Wednesday morning in Stockholm after an overnight flight from Washington, where lawmakers are debating Obama’s request for congressional authorization for a military strike against Syria.

On Thursday, Obama was scheduled to meet with foreign leaders at the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Greeting Obama at the airport on a mild, sunny morning were Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and leaders of Reinfeldt’s centre-right coalition government. Sporadic crowds lined the highway as Obama’s motorcade sped from the airport and they thickened in central Stockholm, especially around Obama’s waterfront hotel.

Obama’s trip marks the first bilateral visit by a sitting US president to the northern European nation. Obama will meet with Reinfeldt and King Carl XVI Gustav and dine with Nordic leaders from Norway, Iceland, Finland and Denmark. He’ll also stop at Sweden’s premier technical university to call attention to Sweden’s goal to phase out fossil fuels by 2050.

The White House hastily arranged the Stockholm visit after Obama, incensed when Russia granted asylum to Snowden, scrapped a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The cancellation created a two-day scheduling void when Obama was expecting to be overseas but had nowhere to go. The White House added Sweden to his itinerary.

—Contributons by AP