STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - The United States does not spy on ordinary people’s mail and phone calls, President Barack Obama said on Wednesday, insisting that U.S. intelligence gathering was targeted at specific areas of concern.
Obama has faced questions at home and abroad after Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, leaked documents showing the organization monitors a vast array of email and telephone data of both Americans and foreigners.
“I can give assurances to the public in Europe and around the world that we are not going around snooping at people’s emails or listening to their phone calls,” Obama said during a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
“What we try to do is to target, very specifically, areas of concern,” he said, adding that such areas included counter-terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and cyber-security.
Obama has said safeguards should be strengthened to make sure surveillance programs stay within certain parameters.
“Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it,” he said.
Snowden was granted asylum in Russia, which further cooled an already difficult relationship with the United States. The Obama administration wants to bring Snowden back to face espionage charges.
Russia, which the United States sometimes accuses of trampling civil liberties, has used Snowden to portray itself as a protector of human rights. It also says the case exposes double standards on Washington’s part.
On Wednesday in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Snowden “a strange guy,” but said he would not be handed over to U.S. authorities.
“It’s clear now that we won’t give him away,” Putin told Russian state television and the Associated Press in an interview. “He should feel safe here.”
Putin said Russian intelligence had not obtained any information from Snowden.
Obama arrived in Sweden on Wednesday seeking to bolster ties with Washington’s Nordic partners before he travels to Russia for a G20 summit expected to be clouded by the Syria crisis.
Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Roberta Rampton and Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow; Editing by Andrew Heavens