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White House reviews spying targets for potential embarrassment

A National Security Agency (NSA) data gathering facility is seen in Bluffdale, about 25 miles (40 km) south of Salt Lake City, Utah, Decembe
A National Security Agency (NSA) data gathering facility is seen in Bluffdale, about 25 miles (40 km) south of Salt Lake City, Utah, Decembe

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - White House officials are reviewing National Security Agency spying targets to weigh whether the risk of embarrassment to the United States if snooping on them is exposed is worth any gains to national security from the surveillance.

Two U.S. government sources said two officials assigned to the White House are conducting a detailed assessment of target lists used by the NSA, as part of a review of intelligence policy sparked by leaks from former contractor Edward Snowden.

The objective of the review by a former Justice Department official and a former NSA official is to evaluate if the risks of diplomatic or political embarrassment if the spying were publicly exposed outweigh any benefits, the sources said.

Politically awkward revelations based on documents disclosed by Snowden have upset American allies from Germany to Brazil and already led to changes in U.S. intelligence collection.

In the wake of German media revelations that NSA had targeted the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. officials acknowledged such spying was no longer occurring.

Britain's The Guardian, one of the media outlets that had direct access to Snowden and his cache of classified material, reported in October that the United States had monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders.

White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said that in reviewing U.S. eavesdropping policy, the administration is "more effectively weighing the risks and rewards of our activities. That includes ensuring that we are focused above all on threats to the American people."

She said that the White House was also conducting a broader review of U.S. intelligence activities around the world "with a special emphasis on: examining whether we have the appropriate posture when it comes to Heads of State; how we coordinate with our closest allies and partners; and what further guiding principles or constraints might be appropriate for our efforts."

U.S. officials acknowledged that the NSA and other U.S. spy agencies request information from top policy makers, such as White House officials, when drawing up lists of targets for eavesdropping or other spying methods.

President Barack Obama met with 16 lawmakers on Thursday to discuss reforming how U.S. intelligence agencies collect telephone and internet data after Snowden's revelations.

Obama is due to announce decisions on reforms in a speech that could come as early as next week. He is expected to include some restrictions on spying on foreign leaders, changes in storing bulk telephone data and the appointment of a civil liberties defender in secret intelligence courts.

(Reporting By Mark Hosenball, Editing by Alistair Bell and Chizu Nomiyama)

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