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WASHINGTON (AP) — Faced with a flood of revelations about U.S. spying practices, the White House is considering ending its eavesdropping on friendly foreign leaders, a senior administration official said.
A final decision has not been made and the move is still under review, the official said. But the fact that it is even being considered underscores the level of concern within the administration over the possible damage from the months-long spying scandal — including the most recent disclosure that the National Security Agency was monitoring the communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
On Monday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called for a "total review of all intelligence programs" following the Merkel allegations. In a statement, the California Democrat said the White House had informed her that "collection on our allies will not continue."
The administration official said that statement was not accurate, but added that some unspecified changes already had been made and more were being considered, including terminating the collection of communications from friendly heads of state.
The official was not authorized to discuss the review by name and insisted on anonymity.
Reports based on new leaks from former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden indicate that the NSA listened to Merkel and 34 other foreign leaders.
"With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies — including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany — let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed," Feinstein said. She added that the U.S. should not be "collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers" unless in an emergency with approval of the president.
In response to the revelations, German officials said Monday that the U.S. could lose access to an important law enforcement tool used to track terrorist money flows. Other longtime allies have also expressed their displeasure about the U.S. spying on their leaders.
As possible leverage, German authorities cited last week's non-binding resolution by the European Parliament to suspend a post-9/11 agreement allowing the Americans access to bank transfer data to track the flow of terrorist money. A top German official said Monday she believed the Americans were using the information to gather economic intelligence apart from terrorism and said the agreement, known as the SWIFT agreement, should be suspended.
European Union officials who are in Washington to meet with lawmakers ahead of White House talks said U.S. surveillance of their people could affect negotiations over a U.S.-Europe trade agreement. They said European privacy must be better protected.
Many officials in Germany and other European governments have made clear, however, that they don't favor suspending the U.S.-EU trade talks which began last summer because both sides stand to gain so much through the proposed deal, especially against competition from China and other emerging markets.
As tensions with European allies escalate, the top U.S. intelligence official declassified dozens of pages of top-secret documents in an apparent bid to show the NSA was acting legally when it gathered millions of Americans' phone records.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said he was following the president's direction to make public as much information as possible about how U.S. intelligence agencies spy under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Monday's release of documents focused on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the bulk collection of U.S. phone records.
The document release is part of an administration-wide effort to preserve the NSA's ability to collect bulk data, which it says is key to tracking key terror suspects, but which privacy activists say is a breach of the Constitution's ban on unreasonable search and seizure of evidence from innocent Americans.
The release of the documents comes ahead of a House Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday on FISA reform.
The documents support administration testimony that the NSA worked to operate within the law and fix errors when they or their systems overreached. One of the documents shows the NSA admitting to the House Intelligence Committee that one of its automated systems picked up too much telephone metadata. The February 2009 document indicates the problem was fixed.
Another set of documents shows the judges of the FISA court seemed satisfied with the NSA's cooperation. It says that in September 2009, the NSA advised the Senate Intelligence Committee about its continuing collection of Americans' phone records and described a series of demonstrations and briefings it conducted for three judges on the secretive U.S. spy court. The memorandum said the judges were "engaged throughout and asked questions, which were answered by the briefers and other subject matter experts," and said the judges appreciated the amount and quality of information the NSA provided.
It said that two days later, one of the judges, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, renewed the court's permission to resume collecting phone records.
The documents also included previously classified testimony from 2009 for the House Intelligence Committee by Michael Leiter, then head of the National Counterterrorism Center. He and other officials said collecting Americans' phone records helped indict Najibullah Zazi, who was accused in a previously disclosed 2009 terror plot to bomb the New York City subways.
The documents also show the NSA considered tracking targets using cellphone location data, and according to an April 2011 memo consulted the Justice Department first, which said such collection was legal. Only later did the NSA inform the FISA court of the testing.
NSA commander Gen. Keith Alexander revealed the testing earlier this month to Congress but said the agency did not use the capability to track Americans' cellphone locations nor deem it necessary right now.
Asked Monday whether the NSA intelligence gathering had been used not only to protect national security but American economic interests as well, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "We do not use our intelligence capabilities for that purpose. We use it for security purposes."
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden later clarified that: "We do not use our intelligence capabilities to give U.S. companies an advantage, not ruling out that we are interested in economic information."
Still, he acknowledged the tensions with allies over the eavesdropping disclosures and said the White House was "working to allay those concerns," though he refused to discuss any specific reports or provide details of internal White House discussions.
Associated Press writers Ted Bridis and Jack Gillum in Washington, Frank Jordan, Geir Moulson and Robert H. Reid in Berlin, Juergen Baetz in Brussels, Ciaran Giles, Jorge Sainz and Alan Clendenning in Madrid and Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris contributed to this report.
HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii's battle over gay marriage brought state lawmakers back to work Monday after the governor called a special session that could make the islands a wedding destination for more couples.
Some 1,800 people signed up to testify in person at a Senate committee hearing, which was carried live on TV and local news websites. Dozens of people gathered around three televisions in the Capitol rotunda, cheering testimony they agreed with and singing songs.
Opponents of gay marriage solicited honks and shaka signs from passing motorists on the street, staging a large rally of hundreds of people timed with afternoon rush hour.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie called the special session after House and Senate lawmakers couldn't muster the two-thirds support needed to do it themselves. He says passing a bill would put Hawaii in line with two Supreme Court rulings that affirmed gay marriage and granted federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
Hawaii already allows civil unions, and some members of a Senate committee questioned Monday whether it was important to also allow gay marriage.
After Hawaii Attorney General David Louie said same-sex couples in civil unions in Hawaii who got married in other states would essentially get similar benefits to couples married under the new law, Republican Sen. Sam Slom questioned the point of debating further.
His comments drew responses of "Amen" from some in the crowd.
But Louie, who supports legalizing gay marriage, said traveling to the U.S. mainland is no small issue, given costs and effort needed to arrange a marriage in other states.
"That is not an unsubstantial burden," Louie said.
Judiciary Chairman Sen. Clayton Hee asked Louie to prepare a report detailing any other tangible benefits Hawaii couples would gain or lose, including implications for taxes, insurance and other federal and state benefits.
Louie promised a response and said a law may have implications for Medicaid and Family and Medical Leave Act benefits.
"I have to tell you, I'm kind of confused now," said Sen. Malama Solomon, who said she didn't know until Monday's hearing that gay couples who legally marry in other states would get only minimal benefits by being allowed to marry in Hawaii.
Proponents say they shouldn't have to wait for gay marriage, calling it a civil right, and have argued gay marriage could be a boon for tourism in Hawaii as an appealing destination for ceremonies and honeymoons.
Opponents say society needs to encourage marriage between men and women, in part to protect children. They also say a religious exemption proposed in the bill doesn't do enough to protect people who don't believe in gay marriage from having to facilitate ceremonies. Other opponents want a public vote, rather than a special session in a Legislature dominated by Democrats.
Nearly 4,000 pages of written testimony were submitted ahead of the hearing, which was held under tight security in a crowded basement auditorium in the Capitol.
Testimony was expected to go into the night with a committee vote to send the bill to the full Senate.
On the House side, Rep. Bob McDermott, a Republican representing Ewa and Ewa Beach, introduced a proposal to amend the Hawaii Constitution to explicitly restrict marriage to between men and women. The constitution currently gives the Legislature the power to decide whether marriage between two people of the same sex should be allowed.
It's not clear whether McDermott's proposal will be heard before a committee. It had been referred to the judiciary and finance committees, but no hearing was scheduled.
Rep. Karl Rhoads, chairman of the House judiciary committee, said a final decision had not yet been made.
The same House committees scheduled a Thursday joint hearing on the Senate bill to legalize gay marriage, presuming it crosses over from the other chamber.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans said Sunday they intend to press Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the Obama administration's troubled launch of healthcare.gov, the online portal to buy insurance — even as the website suffered yet another setback.
A component of the online system that has been working relatively well experienced an outage Sunday. The federal data services hub, a conduit for verifying the personal information of people applying for benefits under the law, went down in a failure that was blamed on an outside contractor, Terremark.
"Today, Terremark had a network failure that is impacting a number of their clients, including healthcare.gov," HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters said. "Secretary Sebelius spoke with the CEO of Verizon this afternoon to discuss the situation and they committed to fixing the problem as soon as possible."
Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon Enterprise Solutions, of which Terremark is a part, said: "Our engineers have been working with HHS and other technology companies to identify and address the root cause of the issue. It will fixed as quickly as possible."
The Obama administration will face intense pressure this week to be more forthcoming about how many people have actually succeeded in enrolling for coverage in the new insurance markets. Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner is to testify during a House hearing Tuesday, followed Wednesday by Sebelius before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The officials will also be grilled on how such crippling technical problems could have gone undetected prior to the website's Oct. 1 launch.
"The incompetence in building this website is staggering," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the second ranking Republican on the panel and an opponent of the law.
Democrats said the new system needed time to get up and running, and it could be fixed to provide millions of people with affordable insurance. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, said the system was "working in Kentucky," a state that has dealt with "some of the worst health statistics in the country. ... The only way we're going to get ourselves out of the ditch is some transformational tool," like the new health insurance system.
Blackburn said she wanted to know much has been spent on the website, how much more it will cost to fix the problems, when everything will be ready and what people should expect to see on the site. Blackburn and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., raised questions of whether the website could guard the privacy of applicants.
"The way the system is designed it is not secure," said Rogers, who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
The administration sought to reassure applicants about their personal information. HHS' Peters said when consumers fill out their applications, "they can trust that the information they're providing is protected by stringent security standards and that the technology underlying the application process has been tested and is secure."
The botched rollout has led to calls on Capitol Hill for a delay of penalties for those remaining uninsured. The Obama administration has said it's willing to extend the grace period until Mar. 31, the end of open enrollment. That's an extra six weeks. The insurance industry says going beyond that risks undermining the new system by giving younger, healthier people a pass.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who is seeking a yearlong delay to the penalty for noncompliance, said his approach would "still induce people to get involved, but it will also give us the time to transition in. And I think we need that transition period to work out the things." Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who has urged the Obama administration to postpone the March 31 deadline, said she was concerned applicants would not have a full six months to enroll.
The administration was under no legal requirement to launch the website Oct. 1. Sebelius, who designated her department's Medicare agency to implement the health care law, had the discretion to set open enrollment dates. Officials could have postponed open enrollment by a month, or they could have phased in access to the website.
But all through last summer and into early fall, the administration insisted it was ready to go live in all 50 states on Oct. 1.
The online insurance markets are supposed to be the portal to coverage for people who do not have access to a health plan through their jobs. The health care law offers middle-class people a choice of private insurance plans, made more affordable through new tax credits. Low-income people will be steered to Medicaid in states that agree to expand that safety net program.
An HHS memo prepared for Sebelius in September estimated that nearly 500,000 people would enroll for coverage in the marketplaces during October, their first month of operation. The actual number is likely to be only a fraction of that. The administration has said 700,000 people have completed applications.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the president had been poorly served by Sebelius "in the implementation of his own signature legislature. So if somebody doesn't leave and if there isn't a real restructuring, not just a 60-day somebody come in and try to fix it, then he's missing the point of management 101, which is these people are to serve him well, and they haven't."
Blackburn spoke on "Fox News Sunday," Beshear appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," Rogers was on to CNN's "State of the Union," Manchin was interviewed on ABC's "This Week," and Shaheen and Issa made their comments on CBS "Face the Nation."