Now that the issue of the NSA spying on leaders across the world has blown up into an international scandal, the key question has pivoted to how much President Obama knew about his security agency’s spying habits. Administration officials say Obama didn’t know about the spying on world leaders, but the German magazine Der Spiegel reports that he did.
The magazine reported that the U.S. had been spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls since 2002, and that Obama was told about the operation in 2010 but failed to stop it.
However, the National Security Agency denies the claim.
“[NSA chief General Keith Alexander] did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel,” spokeswoman Vanee Vines said.
The Obama administration announced yesterday that the U.S. was ending the NSA program that led to the spying on Merkel and other world leaders.
According to administration officials, the president was not aware of the scope of the spying programs over the course of his five years in office prior to recent revelations about the NSA’s methods.
“These decisions are made at NSA,” a senior U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal. “The president doesn’t sign off on this stuff.”
The United States and the Obama administration have a mounting public relations and diplomatic nightmare on their hands, as classified documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have revealed that the NSA monitored the phone conversations of 35 unnamed world leaders. The Snowden revelation came after Merkel angrily accused the U.S. of tapping her mobile phone.
Though U.S. officials have tried to brush off the charges by saying that nations such as the UK and France perform the same type of intelligence gathering, it appears that the anger at the U.S. is picking up steam.
At a rally held in Washington Saturday in front of the Capitol Reflecting Pool organized by Stop Watching Us, a coalition of more than 100 organizations – including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Freedom Works— demanded changes to stop government eavesdropping on all the phone and Internet activity of U.S. citizens. The rally was held on the 12th anniversary of the signing of the Patriot Act.
The activists also called for a special committee to investigate and report domestic spying violations and create regulatory reforms.
In a statement sent from Russia, Snowden described “a system of pervasive surveillance” working against American citizens, and he urged technology and free rights activists to spread awareness of the spying violations in the name of reform.
“Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no Internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA’s hands. Our representatives in Congress tell us this is not surveillance. They’re wrong,” Snowden said. “Now it’s time for the government to learn from us.”
It was links from Snowden that revealed the NSA had allegedly eavesdropped on cell phone calls by Merkel. Reuters reported that Merkel, who suspected the surveillance after finding her mobile phone number written on a U.S document, spoke with Obama and reportedly called for U.S. surveillance to be placed on a new legal footing.
“The [German] federal government, as a close ally and partner of the U.S., expects in the future a clear contractual basis for the activity of the services and their cooperation,” she told the president.
Katrin Goring-Eckhart, leader of Germany’s Green party, called the alleged spying an “unprecedented breach of trust” between the two countries.
In addition, world leaders from Brazil, France, Spain, Italy, and as many 30 other countries – most of them U.S. allies – have called the NSA spying a violation and said it could seriously impair their relationship with the U.S.
German media have cited a source in Merkel’s office saying that Obama apologized to Merkel when she called him on Wednesday, and told her that he would have stopped the bugging happening had he known about it.
But German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, citing a “U.S. intelligence worker involved in the NSA operation against Merkel,” said NSA chief General Keith Alexander informed Obama in person about it in 2010.
“Obama didn’t stop the operation back then but let it continue,” the mass-market paper quoted the source as saying.
Bild am Sonntag said Obama wanted more material on Merkel, and ordered the NSA to compile a “comprehensive dossier” on her. ” Obama, according to the NSA man, did not trust Merkel and wanted to know everything about the German,” the paper said.
The paper said the NSA first eavesdropped on Merkel’s predecessor Gerhard Schroeder after he refused to back then-president George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. The practice continued when Merkel took over in 2005, the paper said.
Eighteen NSA staff working in the U.S. embassy, some 800 meters from Merkel’s office, sent their findings straight to the White House, rather than to NSA headquarters, the paper said.
The paper said only Merkel’s encrypted landline in her office in the Chancellery had not been tapped.