Washington • Secretary of State John Kerry's remark that some National Security Agency surveillance "reached too far" was the first time a high-ranking Obama administration official acknowledged that U.S. snooping abroad might be seen as overzealous.
After launching into a vigorous defense of surveillance as an effective counterterror tool, Kerry acknowledged to a video-conference on open government in London that "in some cases, I acknowledge to you, as has the president, that some of these actions have reached too far, and we are going to make sure that does not happen in the future."
"There is no question that the president and I and others in government have actually learned of some things that had been happening, in many ways, on an automatic pilot because the technology is there," Kerry said, responding to a question about transparency in governments.
Kerry was responding to questions from European allies about reports in the past two weeks that the National Security Agency had collected data on tens of millions of Europe-based phone calls and had monitored the cell phones of 35 world leaders, including that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The State Department said Friday his remarks were in sync with what President Barack Obama has already said on the controversial spying practices. But Obama has said the administration was conducting a review of surveillance practices and said that if the practices went too far, they would be halted.
Kerry first joked with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, whom he said should also answer the question about surveillance because otherwise, would it mean that Britain did not do its own surveillance abroad? The joke was a subtle jab at the U.S. position that allies spy on each other routinely.
Kerry said in the wake of 9/11, the United States and other countries realized they were dealing with a new brand of extremism where people were willing to blow themselves up, even if it meant civilians would be killed.
"There are countless examples of this," Kerry said, citing the Sept. 21 al-Qaida-affiliated al-Shabab attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, which killed at least 67 people.
"So what if you were able to intercept that and stop it before it happens?" Kerry asked. "We have actually prevented airplanes from going down, buildings from being blown up and people from being assassinated because we've been able to learn ahead of time of the plans."
In an interview on Monday with Fusion, Obama said intelligence capabilities have continued to develop and expand in recent years.