After European fallout, Obama frantically takes heat as key NSA backer shifts her position.
The United States finds itself in unprecedented deep water recently in regards to its international diplomacy. Last week, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that German Chancellor Angela Merkel suspects that the U.S. has been eavesdropping on her cell phone for years. If this is proven to be true, it would constitute a breach of trust so grave that it may permanently impair diplomatic relations between Germany and the U.S. — not considering the multitude of domestic and international laws such a phone tap would be in violation of. Based on research Der Spiegel conducted — in collaboration with the German Federal Office for Information Security and its Federal Intelligence Service — the Chancellery found the allegations plausible enough to confront the White House.
“If that is true, what we hear, then that would be really bad,” German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière told ARD, Germany’s leading state television channel. America is Germany’s best friend, he noted, adding: “It really can’t work like this.”
“We can’t simply go back to business as usual,” he added.
Dodging questions from Europe
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stated that the president told Merkel that the U.S. “is not monitoring and will not monitor” her phone calls. However, clarification of if Merkel’s telephone was ever surveilled by the United States or if collection of information from Merkel’s telephone was collected inadvertently were sidestepped. The United States is also being accused of spying on other allies — including France, Mexico and Brazil.
For example, earlier this week, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a denial to the French newspaper Le Monde that the National Security Agency has collected millions of “recordings” of French telephone calls, without denying that the NSA did collect the metadata on French communiques. This dancing on semantics has constituted the country’s defense against recent intelligence overreaches.
“While we are not going to discuss the details of our activities, we have repeatedly made it clear that the United States gathers intelligence of the type gathered by all nations,” James Clapper, the Director for National Intelligence, wrote in a statement. “The U.S. collects intelligence to protect the nation, its interests and its allies from, among other things, threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The United States values our longstanding friendship and alliance with France, and we will continue to cooperate on security and intelligence matters going forward.”
Le Monde’s story — written by Jacques Follorou and Glenn Greenwald — alleges that among the documents that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked of classified intelligence operations is a description of an American phone-tapping operation in France. “Amongst the thousands of documents extracted from the NSA by its ex-employee there is a graph which describes the extent of telephone monitoring and tapping (DNR—Dial Number Recognition) carried out in France,” wrote Follorou and Greenwald. “It can be seen that over a period of thirty days — from 10 December 2012 to 8 January 2013, 70.3 million recordings of French citizens’ telephone data were made by the NSA. This agency has several methods of data collection.”
According to Follorou and Greenwald, this was done of French soil. The French government has summoned the American ambassador and has demanded immediate answers from Washington. The French prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation of possible violations of French law in the NSA’s data collection of French citizens in French territory.
“We work in a meaningful way in the field of the fight against terrorism, but it does not justify everything,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Paris, adding that this will require “a very quick clarification” from Secretary of State John Kerry.
With Der Spiegel also alleging that the NSA — under its “Tailored Access Operations” division — covertly and repeatedly mined Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s public email account during his term in office, with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff moving to exclude her country from American-controlled communication routing after charges of the U.S. spying on Brazil-entering and -exiting international cables emerged and with recent revelations — again, from Snowden — that the NSA monitored the telephone conversations of 35 world leaders after the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and other government agencies shares their “rolodexes” with the security agency with the expressed intent to surveil, the White House finds itself in the impossible position of defending the nation’s intelligence apparatus — which may prove impossible, considering that the president, most likely, knew nothing about the programs previously.
Who’s watching the watchers?
According to a Wall Street Journal report, “President Barack Obama went nearly five years without knowing his own spies were bugging the phones of world leaders. Officials said the NSA has so many eavesdropping operations under way that it wouldn’t have been practical to brief him on all of them.”
“The White House cut off some monitoring programs after learning of them, including the one tracking Ms. Merkel and some other world leaders, a senior U.S. official said,” the Wall Street Journal continued. “Other programs have been slated for termination but haven’t been phased out completely yet, officials said.”
This scenario — in which the president and senior administration officials know nothing about potentially controversial or illegal actions by the intelligence community or the military — is known as “plausible deniability.” The theory goes like this: the president establishes a goal to be achieved — say, increasing international intelligence on potential national security threats — but leaves the details blank. The intelligence community takes on the goal and assigns actionable tasks to it. As the president and the leadership knew nothing of the actual programs involved, they are “clean” if the details of the operation are ever disclosed, and as political blowback is no longer a consideration, the intelligence community is free to act without consideration of the popular response.
This, however, suggests that the intelligence community has been acting as its own agent — extralegally and without oversight. This may have created a situation in which the nation lost its ability to act properly in a diplomatic setting due to an action not authorized by the president or Congress.
Senate NSA hawk shifts tone
On October 20, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein wrote in USA Today, “The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight. Above all, the program has been effective in helping to prevent terrorist plots against the U.S. and our allies. Congress should adopt reforms to improve transparency and privacy protections, but I believe the program should continue.”
“Only a strictly limited number of NSA analysts (among the thousands of professionals at the agency) may search the phone records database and only after articulating a specific reason that must be approved by a senior official. Those decisions are reviewed regularly by the Justice Department, Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, which imposes strict privacy protections.”
After a rare response from Snowden, published by the American Civil Liberties Union on its website — in which Snowden asserted “We’ve learned that the U.S. intelligence community secretly built a system of pervasive surveillance” — Feinstein, in reflection of global events, made a course correction.
“It is abundantly clear that a total review of all intelligence programs is necessary so that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are fully informed as to what is actually being carried out by the intelligence community,” Feinstein said in a statement, released on her Senate website. “Unlike NSA’s collection of phone records under a court order, it is clear to me that certain surveillance activities have been in effect for more than a decade and that the Senate Intelligence Committee was not satisfactorily informed. Therefore our oversight needs to be strengthened and increased.”
“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. Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, 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.”
With the loss of Feinstein’s support, the intelligence community is struggling to find friends, and the president’s continued denial of knowledge of the intelligence community’s actions — particularly, in light of promises made by the president to review Bush-era intelligence operations — is putting the White House in a position that teeters between incompetence and dishonesty, and which is destroying the nation’s and the president’s reputation at home and abroad.
Juan Zarate, an intelligence analyst for CBS News, argues that the president should be informed of surveillance at that level, and if he is not, that is an indictment against the director of national intelligence — whose job it is to advise the president of the activities of the intelligence community. “[So,] in some ways if the president didn’t know, shame on him, and shame on him and his leadership for not asking the question, but also it may not be believable [that he didn’t know] given the intensity and scope of this type of surveillance,” Zarate said.
“At the end of the day the administration is responsible for the programs and authorizes these programs so the president has to answer for them,” Zarate concluded.