How NSA Anger at President Obama Undermines the Surveillance State

The White House and the intelligence community seem to be contradicting each other with leaks to the press—which ends up making both look bad.
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Reuters

U.S. officials loyal to President Obama began the week by denying that he knew about NSA spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders of other allied countries. Now other current and former intelligence officials say the White House knew all along—and they appear to have implicated Hillary Clinton in approving the high-stakes spying. 

The Los Angeles Times has the scoop:

The White House and State Department signed off on surveillance targeting phone conversations of friendly foreign leaders, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said Monday, pushing back against assertions that President Obama and his aides were unaware of the high-level eavesdropping.

Professional staff members at the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies are angry, these officials say, believing the president has cast them adrift as he tries to distance himself from the disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that have strained ties with close allies.

Did Obama know himself? The article stops short of saying so, but describes the information flow between the NSA and the White House in these terms (emphasis added):

... if a foreign leader is targeted for eavesdropping, the relevant U.S. ambassador and the National Security Council staffer at the White House who deals with the country are given regular reports, said two former senior intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing classified information. Obama may not have been specifically briefed on NSA operations targeting a foreign leader's cellphone or email communications, one of the officials said. "But certainly the National Security Council and senior people across the intelligence community knew exactly what was going on, and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous."

If U.S. spying on key foreign leaders was news to the White House, current and former officials said, then White House officials have not been reading their briefing books. Some U.S. intelligence officials said they were being blamed by the White House for conducting surveillance that was authorized under the law and utilized at the White House. "People are furious," said a senior intelligence official who would not be identified discussing classified information. "This is officially the White House cutting off the intelligence community." Any decision to spy on friendly foreign leaders is made with input from the State Department, which considers the political risk, the official said. Any useful intelligence is then given to the president's counter-terrorism advisor, Lisa Monaco, among other White House officials.

So what do we make of this? Here's what we know for sure: There are some U.S. officials in Washington leaking Team Obama's narrative to journalists, and other current and former U.S. officials leaking the surveillance state's narrative. As much as Team Obama has done to empower Team Surveillance, they have distinct interests. Both have proved willing to lie to advance their interests. And whether Obama knew or not, these leaks are going to make it extremely difficult for him to have plausible deniability when he speaks with allied leaders (though Marcy Wheeler finds it plausible that Obama really didn't know).

That's just the beginning of the bad news for Obama—there's just no way he comes out of this with his reputation intact. Either he knew about the spying and is lying to us, raising the question of how truthful he's been in his other statements about surveillance, or else he was ignorant of spying that he really ought to have known about. Recall Obama's assurances that NSA activities shouldn't worry Americans, due to allegedly stringent oversight from Congress and allegedly intense monitoring and checks within the executive branch. Yet here is a major program of consequence, and both Obama and the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, claim total ignorance! What's more, when it's discovered they say it really shouldn't have happened. What else is the NSA doing that they wouldn't defend if they knew about it?

The irony is that insofar as U.S. surveillance officials succeed in making Obama look like a lying hypocrite, they undermine trust in the surveillance state that he ultimately runs.

Indeed, the legitimacy of the surveillance state is unraveling before our eyes. As yet, it's impossible to know for sure who is lying about what, which claims are true and which are false. But Edward Snowden's revelations and the reaction to them has opened a public rift between the spies and the civilians in charge of them; exposed U.S. officials with conflicting stories; prompted White House narratives in conflict with one another; and bemused a Senate Intelligence Committee leader. And that's just the fallout from a narrow controversy about spying on world leaders.

The impression is of a surveillance state that's out of control.

Spying on tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of innocent foreigners is far more objectionable than NSA spying on 35 world leaders. But if the surveillance state is finally taken down a peg by an angry Angela Merkel and some senators who only seem to get upset at spying on other governing elites, so be it.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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