STOCKHOLM — President Obama sought on Wednesday to reassure Europeans outraged over US surveillance programs that his government isn’t sifting through their e-mails or eavesdropping on their telephone calls. He acknowledged that the programs have not always worked as intended, saying ‘‘we had to tighten them up.’’
Obama said once-secret US surveillance programs that became public knowledge after a government contractor leaked details about them are meant to improve America’s understanding of what is happening around the world. He sought to allay the concerns of Europeans upset that their personal communications may have been swept up in the US government’s massive data collection operations.
‘‘I can give assurances to the publics in Europe and around the world that we’re not going around snooping at people’s e-mails or listening to their phone calls,’’ Obama said at a news conference with Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on his first visit as president to Sweden. ‘‘What we try to do is to target very specifically areas of concern.’’
Leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about surveillance programs sparked outrage overseas, particularly among Europeans who place a premium on personal privacy and civil liberties and recall life under governments that routinely spied on them. A question about the NSA program was the first Obama received from the Swedish press.
Obama said additional changes to the programs may be required because of advances in technology. He said his national security team along with an independent board are reviewing everything to strike the right balance between the government’s surveillance needs and civil liberties.
‘‘There may be situations in which we’re gathering information just because we can that doesn’t help us with our national security but does raise questions in terms of whether we’re tipping over into being too intrusive with respect to the . . . interactions of other governments,’’ Obama said. ‘‘We are consulting with the [European Union] in this process; we are consulting with other countries in this process, and finding out from them what are their areas of specific concern and trying to align what we do in a way that, I think, alleviates some of the public concerns that people may have.’’
The joint appearance with Reinfeldt was one of several events packed into Obama’s whirlwind, 24-hour visit to the Swedish capital. The visit is intended to show a softer side of American diplomacy even as the world’s gaze remains fixed anxiously on Syria.
He intends to focus in the Nordic nation on climate change, trade, and technology, issues on which there is broad consensus with European allies. The topics are a departure from the thornier national security and economic matters he’s facing back home.
The president arrived Wednesday morning in Stockholm after an overnight flight from Washington, where lawmakers were debating his request for congressional authorization for a military strike against Syria. On Thursday, he was scheduled to meet with foreign leaders at the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
He was greeted at the airport by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and leaders of Reinfeldt’s center-right coalition government.
Crowds that lined the highway as Obama’s motorcade sped from the airport thickened in central Stockholm, especially around Obama’s waterfront hotel.
Obama’s trip marks the first bilateral visit by a sitting US president to the northern European nation. Obama will meet with Reinfeldt and King Carl XVI Gustav and dine with Nordic leaders from Norway, Iceland, Finland, and Denmark.