Obama Didn’t Know About NSA Spying On Foreign Leaders?
With the United States still dealing with the blowback coming from the revelation that the National Security Agency had been monitoring the communications of as many as 35 foreign leaders, including such stalwart U.S. allies as German Chancellor Chancellor Angela Merkel, The Wall Street Journal is out with a report that the President was completely unaware of the program until it was revealed by a White House review this summer:
WASHINGTON—The National Security Agency ended a program used to spy on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a number of other world leaders after an internal Obama administration review started this summer revealed to the White House the existence of the operation, U.S. officials said.
Officials said the internal review turned up NSA monitoring of some 35 world leaders, in the U.S. government’s first public acknowledgment that it tapped the phones of world leaders. European leaders have joined international outrage over revelations of U.S. surveillance of Ms. Merkel’s phone and of NSA’s monitoring of telephone call data in France.
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. Other programs have been slated for termination but haven’t been phased out completely yet, officials said.
The account suggests 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.
They added that the president was briefed on and approved of broader intelligence-collection “priorities,” but that those below him make decisions about specific intelligence targets.
The senior U.S. official said that the current practice has been for these types of surveillance decisions to be made at the agency level. “These decisions are made at NSA,” the official said. “The president doesn’t sign off on this stuff.” That protocol now is under review, the official added.
One would certainly think that it would be.
Realistically, of course, one does not expect the President of the United States to be personally aware of, or to have personally authorized, every single person under investigation by the NSA, the CIA, or any other Federal intelligence or law enforcement agency. For one thing, that’s a level of detail that is simply too specific for his position; it would be like the CEO of General Motors being personally involved in the negotiations over which subcontractor will be used to provide a certain part on a new model the company is developing. By definition, the very nature of being a Chief Executive, whether in a governmental or private capacity, means that certain matters are delegated to those below you who will be making decisions within the boundaries that you set forth (and in the case of the government, hopefully, the law). A system where the President has to be bothered with the minute details of every individual intelligence agency would quite simply be unworkable. So, on a broad level, it’s not surprising that the President might not know the specific details of every single thing the NSA is doing.
At the same time, though, the thought occurs that there are some intelligence and law enforcement investigations that ought to be at least known to a Chief Executive, and possibly even authorized by him in advance. Specifically, it would seem that those that carry with them the possibility of significant diplomatic or political ramifications would fall into that category. Monitoring the communications of a foreign leader, most especially the leader of a putative ally, strikes me as being far more serious in that regard than, say, monitoring the communications of someone suspected of having ties to a terrorist organization. If the NSA is going to monitor Angela Merkel’s phone calls, which it had apparently been doing since 2002 according to some reports, then shouldn’t the President know about this, perhaps so it can be discussed with those responsible for making such decisions whether or not this is a wise or necessary thing to do given the potential diplomatic consequences? While I’m admittedly not an expert in the spying field, the answer seems axiomatic to me and the idea that the President didn’t know about this, even on some abstract level, is rather disturbing.
There’s a broader question here, of course, that goes far beyond this one report and touches upon the question of how much discretion agencies like the NSA ought to have without being subjected to review by political officials. There would seem to be a reasonable line somewhere between a world where the White House has to sign off on every NSA surveillance target and one where the NSA essentially does whatever it wants without having to justify its actions to anyone. At the moment, it seems quite clear that we have strayed far too much into that second world.
Update: As suggested in the comments, it is possible, of course that this report is merely an attempt to provide the President with some plausible deniability when dealing with foreign leaders. If that’s the case, one wonders if the leaders would actually believe his assertion of ignorance.