The US Secretary of State has publicly admitted for the first time that the National Security Agency went “too far” in some of its intelligence gathering.
John Kerry told an audience at an international summit that the NSA had been operating on “automatic pilot”, rather than under full control of the government.
He had, he said, learned things about what the agency had been doing only recently, even though some of its spying programmes had been happening for some time.
Speaking via video link he said: “In some cases, I acknowledge to you, as has the President, that some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to make sure that that doesn’t happen in the future.
“There is no question that the President and I, and others in government, have actually learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on automatic pilot because the technology has been there and the ability has been there over the course of a long period of time.”
He made his comments to delegates at the Open Government Partnership 2013 summit, which was also attended by British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
The meeting aims to bring together politicians and others interested in making governments more open and accountable.
Although Barack Obama has promised a review into the intelligence gathering carried out by his administration, he has not actually admitted it went too far.
Mr Kerry’s comments will be interpreted as an attempt to show some contrition amid a heated atmosphere in Europe.
Many politicians in France, Spain and Germany have expressed fury that communications in their countries have been intercepted.
Among the most concerned has been German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has sent a number of senior officials to Washington DC to ask for an explanation.
His comments also come the day after it emerged that the NSA hacked into cloud data storage systems operated by Yahoo and Google.
The diplomatic flak that has resulted from the scandal has threatened to drive a wedge between the US and normally friendly European governments.
Mr Kerry made his comments as part of a spirited defence of the NSA’s spying programme which was first revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
He added: “Going back to World War Two and to the very difficult years of the Soviet Union Cold War and then, of course, to 9/11, the attack on the United States and the rise of radical extremism in the world that is hell-bent determined to try to kill people and blow people up and attack governments.
“Not just us, Tokyo subway, London train station, Madrid, many many parts of the world have been subject to these terrorist attacks and in response to them the United States and others came together.
“(The US and its allies) realise that we are dealing in a new world where people blow themselves up. Look at Nairobi the other day.
“So what if you were able to intercept that before it happens? We have actually prevented aeroplanes from going down, buildings from being blown up, people from being assassinated because we’ve been able to learn ahead of time of the plans.
“I assure you innocent people are not being abused in this process but there’s an effort to try to gather information and yes, in some cases, reach too far, inappropriately, and the President, our President is determined to try to clarify and make clear for people we are now doing a thorough review in order that nobody will have a sense of abuse.”