WASHINGTON -- In the midst of the controversy over U.S. surveillance this summer, top intelligence officials held a briefing for President Barack Obama at the White House -- one that would provide him with a broad inventory of programs being carried out by the National Security Agency.
Some of those programs, including the collection of emails and other communications from overseas, had already been disclosed because of leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. But Mr. Obama was also informed of at least one program whose scope surprised him: "head of state collection."
That program, whose targets included the communications of U.S. allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, began in 2002, according to administration officials. The president never knew that the program targeted American allies, administration officials said, adding that he was aware of collection efforts aimed at leaders of "adversarial countries."
Officials -- who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe still-classified activities in general terms -- declined to outline the scope of the "head of state" collection program. They added that although Mr. Obama ordered the curtailing of some of the program and informed Ms. Merkel that the United States was not currently monitoring her calls, he was not angered that intelligence officials had not told him sooner about the eavesdropping.
"Their job is to get as much information for policymakers as possible," a senior administration official said. "They're used to coming at this from the other direction -- that is, being criticized for not knowing enough. This is a new dynamic for them."
If Mr. Obama and senior officials at the White House were unaware of the program, so, too, were key lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who said Monday that her panel had not been properly informed of activities going back a decade or more.
"With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies--including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany -- let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed," Ms. Feinstein said in a statement, adding that her committee would "initiate a major review into all intelligence collection programs."
"Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance," she said, "I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers. The president should be required to approve any collection of this sort."
White House officials said Mr. Obama was not told about the world leader surveillance program before this summer because briefings are tailored to the president's priorities. Iran, China, counterterrorism and other concerns ranked ahead of an accounting of intelligence collected about leaders of allies as Germany, the officials said.
They said it came up only after news reports of NSA spying appeared in Brazil and in Mexico, among other countries. Mr. Obama asked for information on what exactly the agency was doing in those allied countries and in others.
The review and briefings to the president on the first findings began soon after. Mr. Obama's decision to curtail the program was disclosed late Sunday by the Wall Street Journal.
The latest revelations have sparked fresh outrage over NSA activities, particularly in Europe, which was already fuming at the clandestine collection of communications data.
On Monday, Spain became the latest American ally or partner to protest U.S. espionage activities after the newspaper El Mundo published documents showing that the NSA had tracked more than 60 million Spanish telephone and text messages in about a month. The allegation and the document, obtained from Mr. Snowden, were similar to a report in France last week. In both cases, the U.S. ambassador was summoned to hear European complaints.
The European Union has sent a nine-member delegation to Washington for meetings with U.S. officials this week to underscore European anger over the scope of American electronic surveillance.
The group, which is meeting with diplomatic, trade and other government officials, is warning that the United States must take specific steps to restore confidence or risk scuttling talks on a major trans-Atlantic free-trade pact.
Diplomats say European leaders want the United States to establish a legal right for European citizens anywhere to sue for redress in American courts when they believe that their privacy rights have been violated by either the U.S. government or U.S. companies.
European businesses are also seeking equal footing with American companies in trans-Atlantic data transfers.
German politicians said Monday that they would convene a special session of Parliament next month devoted to the spying issue.