Kerry admits US surveillance has, at times, 'gone too far'

Secretary of state set to embark on damage control trip to Middle East and Europe this weekend

Secretary of State John Kerry said, however, that U.S. intelligence efforts since 2001 have averted attacks.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

After days of news reports based on revelations by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden about U.S. surveillance activities, Secretary of State John Kerry has admitted that in some cases, the U.S. program went too far.

"I assure you, innocent people are not being abused in this process, but there's an effort to try to gather information," Kerry told a London conference via video link on Thursday. "And, yes, in some cases, it has reached too far inappropriately."

The statement was the first from a government official to explicitly acknowledge overstepping by U.S. intelligence.

Kerry, however, tried to justify the surveillance in broad terms, citing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, as well as attacks in London, Madrid and elsewhere, to argue that the U.S. and other countries have had to come together to fight "extremism in the world that is hell-bent and determined to try to kill people and blow people up and attack governments."

He said U.S. intelligence has since 2001 averted attacks by intercepting communications. But he acknowledged, without going into specifics, that at times it has been too much.

Damage control

Kerry will embark this weekend on a damage-control mission to Europe and the Middle East, where anger is high over U.S. strategies in Syria, Egypt and Iran. 

He will visit Saudi Arabia, Poland, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Morocco, the State Department said Thursday. 

With tensions between the United States and many of its allies rising, the department acknowledged that at least parts of the nine-day trip may be difficult.

At his first scheduled stop, in Riyadh, Kerry will confront disagreements with the Saudi government over resolving the conflict in Syria, nuclear negotiations with Iran and President Barack Obama's decision to withhold significant amounts of U.S. assistance to Egypt.

Click for in-depth coverage of the surveillance controversy

From Saudi Arabia, Kerry will travel to Warsaw for discussions with senior Polish officials on strategic and democracy issues, including missile defense and plans for NATO's withdrawal from Afghanistan next year.

Although it is the only European stop on Kerry's schedule, the visit to Poland will likely highlight the uproar over the revelations of alleged NSA spying in the continent and elsewhere. The controversy is particularly acute in neighboring Germany, where officials are incensed over reports that Chancellor Angela Merkel was targeted for surveillance.

From Poland, Kerry will fly back to the Middle East, visiting Israel and the West Bank. It will be his fifth solo trip to Israel since April. In Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Kerry will go over developments in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Earlier this week, Israel released a second batch of Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture. The next day, however, it announced plans for new construction in eastern Jerusalem, angering the Palestinians, who claim it for their future capital.

Nuclear negotiations with Iran, which will enter their second round in Geneva while Kerry is in Jerusalem, will also be a topic of discussion with Israeli officials, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been openly disdainful of the administration's outreach to Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, who took office in August promising reforms.

Netanyahu has warned that Rouhani cannot be trusted in negotiations meant to get Iran to prove that is not trying to develop nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy program.

After seeing Palestinian officials in Bethlehem, Kerry will fly to Amman, where he will discuss the peace process and the situation in Syria with top Jordanian officials. Jordan is under significant strain from to the conflict in neighboring Syria and is hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, who are proving a drain on its already shaky economy.

Then Kerry will head to the United Arab Emirates, another strong supporter of increased U.S. involvement in Syria.

Before returning to Washington, he will go to Algeria and Morocco, where he will compare notes on security and counterterrorism matters as well as democratic and economic reforms in the wake of the revolutions that convulsed the region. 

Wire services 

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