Sen. John McCain said Monday that Congress should consider creating a special select committee dedicated to examining U.S. eavesdropping of foreign governments under the Obama administration as part of an overall review of counterterrorism surveillance activities.
"Obviously, we're going to want to know exactly what the president knew and when he knew it," McCain told reporters after appearing with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., at the City Club of Chicago.
The Republican senator from Arizona was responding to reports that the National Security Agency listened in on calls of nearly three dozen foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"We have always eavesdropped on people around the world. But the advance of technology has given us enormous capabilities, and I think you might make an argument that some of this capability has been very offensive both to us and to our allies," McCain said. "Eavesdropping on someone's private cellphone obviously is something that is offensive to the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany."
The Merkel eavesdropping has caused an uproar in Germany, one of the United States' closest allies. German publications have given different versions of when President Barack Obama was informed about Merkel's cellphone being tapped.
The German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung reported Sunday, without citing a source, that Obama told Merkel in a Wednesday conversation that he had not known her cellphone was monitored. The Bild am Sonntag newspaper, citing an unnamed NSA official, reported Sunday that in 2010, NSA chief Keith Alexander had informed Obama of the monitoring. The NSA denied that story.
The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported that Merkel's communications may have been tapped in 2002 — three years before she became leader of Germany. Der Spiegel cited a leaked NSA document from former contractor Edward Snowden.
McCain said any congressional oversight hearings should involve questions about how Snowden got "all this information" that he said was "damaging to our reputation and our relationship with other countries throughout the world."
"I think it may even call for a select committee, perhaps even bicameral, when you look at the damage that this has done to our relationship with some of our closest friends and allies," said McCain, who was the unsuccessful GOP presidential nominee pitted against Obama in 2008. Still, McCain noted that foreign governments are not "innocent" because they also have spied on the U.S. government.
Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said revelations of U.S. eavesdropping on foreign leaders have raised questions about "the credibility of the United States and the strength of our alliance around the world."
"These revelations call for a thorough review of the collection standards that we are using," Durbin said. "We have to be aware of the fact that collecting information around the world is critical to keeping America safe. We must continue to do so. But there must be limits to that collection."