We’re supposed to believe President Obama had no idea the NSA was spying on Angela Merkel’s cell phone, but the Liar-in-chief was effectively refuted by his own underlings when NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines huffily told the Wall Street Journal:
“The agency’s activities stem from the National Intelligence Priorities Framework, which guides prioritization for the operation, planning and programming of U.S. intelligence analysis and collection.”
The NIPF is essentially a list of intelligence targets that sets the general parameters of US covert surveillance activities in various countries, and is personally approved by the President. It’s therefore well nigh impossible Obama didn’t know about the NSA’s surveillance of Merkel, not to mention all the other world leaders we’ve been keeping tabs on. It may very well be that spying on Merkel began in 2002, before she was elected, but the German paper Bild am Sonntag – citing a “U.S. intelligence worker involved in the NSA operation against Merkel” – is reporting the President personally approved the surveillance in 2010, when he was informed of it by NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander.
It’s fun to watch the consternation in Obama-land as the blowback from the Snowden revelations lands on Washington’s doorstep in the form of angry phone calls from world leaders. Of course, most of them were to some extent complicit when the NSA wanted to spy on their countrymen: in Germany, the intelligence services cooperated with the Americans, as the Brits certainly did, along with the French. It’s just that they thought they were personally exempt.
Their outrage is echoed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, once the Senate’s biggest champion of the Surveillance State, who is now on the warpath because of the Merkel eavesdropping scandal. After announcing she is “totally opposed” to NSA spying on our European allies, she declared her intention to conduct a comprehensive formal review of US intelligence-gathering programs.
While many commentators remarked that if the NSA has even lost Feinstein they’re screwed, the oddity of her unexpectedly harsh reaction was pointed out by Spencer Ackerman and Dan Roberts writing in the UK Guardian: “Her position,” they noted, “left many longtime intelligence observers puzzled. NSA spying on foreign leaders is far more traditional than its domestic bulk collection, which Feinstein has not criticized. Regardless of Feinstein’s motivations, intelligence veterans seemed to understand that the political momentum is not on their side.”
Yes, but what is her motivation, anyway? It seems to me worthwhile pursuing the subject, since, if the US intelligence apparatus has any legitimacy at all, it’s one legitimate function is to haul in intelligence of this very sort. Surely knowing what’s on the mind of a leader we must deal with regularly is almost a prerequisite for a successful relationship, one that’s in the national interest to maintain. In this realpolitik sense, then, it is routine – or “traditional,” as Ackerman and Roberts put it – and arguably justifiable.