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With the White House claiming President Obama did not know the United States was listening to the phone conversations of leaders of friendly nations, officials within the National Security Agency are pushing back, saying Obama’s own administration approved of the spying.
This all comes as members of the media and some in Congress are beginning to ask: What did the president know, and when did he know it?
Around 35 heads of government, including friends of the United States that pose no military or terrorist threat to the US, were targeted. The NSA surveillance threatens to undermine not only US foreign policy but possibly national security.
“A grave breach of trust,” and “completely unacceptable” are how German Chancellor Angela Merkel described allegations that the NSA hacked her smartphone. The allegations were exposed by the German magazine Der Spiegel and seem to have been confirmed by German spy agencies. Additionally, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that the NSA monitored 60 million calls within Spain during a single month last year – a revelation that threatens relations with that country.
If these allegations, are true, they could damage US national security by turning important allies against America. Germany is the largest and richest nation in the European Union. Germany also hosts military forces and German forces did participate in operations in Afghanistan.
The surveillance allegations are apparently threatening negotiations to create a free trade zone between the US and the EU.
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank said it “stretches credulity to think that the United States was spying on world leaders without the president’s knowledge.” But that is what the White House has implied.
The Associated Press’s Josh Lederman asked during Monday’s White House press briefing: “Was the president kept out of the loop about what the NSA was doing?”
“I am not going to get into details of internal discussions,” press secretary Jay Carney said, adding that “we do not and will not monitor the chancellor’s communications.” Carney omitted the phrase “did not.”
CNN’s Jim Acosta tried a different angle: “Republican critics are making the case, though, that the president appears to be in the dark about some pretty significant stories that are swirling around this White House.”
“Well, Republican critics say a lot of things, Jim,” Carney replied.
But the White House and the State Department did sign off on the surveillance of foreign leaders, current and former intelligence officials told The Los Angeles Times. These officials are angry at the White House, believing Obama has thrown them under the bus.
“People are furious,” said a senior intelligence official. “This is officially the White House cutting off the intelligence community.”
Sen. John McCain (R.-Arizona) put it another way.
“Obviously, we’re going to want to know exactly what the president knew and when he knew it,” McCain said. “We have always eavesdropped on people around the world. But the advance of technology has given us enormous capabilities, and I think you might make an argument that some of this capability has been very offensive both to us and to our allies.”
Chancellor Merkel is particularly sensitive to such allegations because she grew up in East Germany where all citizens were under constant surveillance by the Communist secret police or Stasi. The German media has actually compared the NSA’s activities to the Stasi, the secret police of the former East Germany.
The NSA surveillance is an “unprecedented breach of trust,” between the US and Germany, the leader of the German opposition Green Party, Katrin Goring-Eckhart told the media. Goring-Eckhart’s comments represent popular opinion in Germany.
Unfortunately Germany isn’t the only ally angry about NSA spying. As previously reported by Off The Grid News, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff refused to attend a state dinner with Obama after allegations that the NSA monitored her phone calls and emails came out. Brazil is one of America’s oldest allies which stood by the US during World War II and the Cold War.
The Mexican foreign ministry also criticized the US about suspected acts of spying that include the hacking of former President Felipe Calderon’s email account. Another report claimed that current President Enrique Pena Nieto was under surveillance during the last Mexican presidential election.
“The practice is unacceptable, illegal and against Mexican and international law,” a Mexican foreign ministry press released noted.
Why foreign leaders are so angry at the NSA
The foreign leaders’ anger was triggered by a memo apparently leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The memo details illegal activities that seem to have little or nothing to do with national security. The Guardian reported that the NSA’s activities included:
- Asking US government employees, including State Department diplomats, the White House staff and officers at the Pentagon to turn over contact information for foreign politicians. The information was apparently used to hack the leaders’ communications.
- One official reportedly turned over 200 phone numbers with connections to 35 world leaders.
- The memo noted that the NSA already had 157 of the phone numbers. It noted that 43 of the numbers were unknown.
- The NSA’s Signals Intelligence Directorate (SID) actually issued a memo titled Customers can help SID Obtain Targetable Phone Numbers.”
- The purpose of these activities was not stated. The memo itself noted that the monitoring produced little or no useful intelligence.
- The spying extends to international organizations including the United Nations and the European Union (EU). Der Spiegel revealed that the NSA is spying on the EU building in New York. The NSA spied on a number of EU missions and tapped the EU’s computer network.
- The activity specifically violates international agreements the U.S. entered into including the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which set rules for negotiations between nations.