The NSA Spying Uproar: An RCP Primer

The NSA Spying Uproar: An RCP Primer

By Alexis Simendinger - October 29, 2013

Spying by the National Security Agency on heads of state, including in countries that consider themselves U.S. partners, has European capitals in tizzies -- and demanding explanations from Washington.

President Obama and his team argued Monday that whatever the United States has been doing with its secret data-gathering, it’s aimed at safeguarding a dangerous world. According to spokesmen, Obama assured German Chancellor Angela Merkel that her phone communications are not and will not be collected going forward (sidestepping comments about past practices). The Wall Street Journal reported Obama was in the dark until recently about U.S. spying on the communications of other heads of state, but ended the practice when he found out.

Obama said Monday he would not discuss classified NSA programs and activities, but suggested the government’s know-how about vacuuming up phone and electronic data compels policymakers to carefully supervise the spymasters.

“We give them policy direction,” he said during an interview with ABC’s new “Fusion” program. “But what we've seen over the last several years is their capacities continue to develop and expand, and that's why I'm initiating now a review to make sure that what they're able to do, doesn't necessarily mean what they should be doing.”

On Monday, the Spanish government officially called U.S. Ambassador James Costos on the carpet, demanding information in the wake of media reports that NSA collected data and location information from 60 million telephone calls in Spain. The Spaniards’ outrage followed tempests in France, Germany, Mexico and Brazil over similar reports.

To placate agitated allies as well as U.S. critics, and to buy time to better assess what leaker-in-exile Edward Snowden might share next with journalists, the president months ago ordered reviews of intelligence activities -- reviews that, according to some accounts, proved illuminating even to the occupant of the Oval Office.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and frequently a staunch supporter of NSA activities, said Monday that Congress should conduct its own review of these matters. The California Democrat also caused a stir when she said that “the White House has informed me that collection on our allies will not continue, which I support.” A National Security Council spokeswoman issued a statement Monday night specifically refusing to comment on “assertions made in the senator’s statement today.”

On Tuesday, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence will hold an open hearing on NSA programs.

To keep up with recent developments as well as ongoing government reviews and their aims, the following Q&A was compiled by RCP as a recap:

Did the Obama administration spy on the phone communications of international heads of state, and why?

According to information provided by Snowden to The Guardian newspaper -- and then corroborated by media in United States and abroad -- the answer is yes. The administrations of George W. Bush and Obama snooped on other heads of state, which is not a particularly startling revelation, but media reports assert the United States monitored Merkel’s personal phone data going back to 2002, three years before she was elected to lead Germany. It is unclear from a secret 2006 memo revealed by Snowden whether the government listened to actual conversations, or simply gathered data from the phones of heads of state.

“We have made clear that the president spoke with Chancellor Merkel and assured her that we do not and will not collect intelligence on her communications,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, avoiding any comments on past monitoring.

The purpose of U.S. snooping on allies ostensibly was tied to counterterrorism, but in Merkel’s case, it has also been reported the administration sought to track her handling of the European financial crisis. The White House denies the government spied on the leaders of other countries to gain economic policy advantages or financial information.

How have other countries reacted?

Not well, but the impact on U.S. foreign policy is unclear. The Obama administration says it is attempting to smooth relations through diplomatic channels and personal reassurances extended from the president to other heads of state. Merkel has hotly objected to violations of her privacy. There’s been talk about sanctions against the United States and a dramatic loss of trust. And a European Union delegation dispatched to the United States this week is expected to register formal objections.

Did Obama approve the data-gathering abroad?

That is murky. A German newspaper reported Obama learned of the surveillance of Merkel in 2010. The Wall Street Journal reported Obama learned of the monitoring involving other heads of state this summer. The president has not described what he knew, and when.

What are the intelligence policy and practice reviews Obama keeps talking about?

Reacting to the Snowden leaks and U.S. opinion polls that showed public distrust of domestic surveillance programs, the president pledged to scrub through intelligence practices and policies, both internally and with the help of outside advisers, to assess programs that have matured in the dozen years since 9/11.

During a speech at the National Defense University in May, Obama said many of the government responses following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were sound. “But some, like expanded surveillance, raised difficult questions about the balance that we strike between our interests in security and our values of privacy,” he said.

Spokesman Carney has tried to discourage the appearance of a runaway U.S. data-gathering operation. “We are focused on using the tools available to us to gather intelligence that we need, not just gather intelligence because we can,” he said.

The White House controls an internal review, which is expected to be completed at the end of the year. Carney noted that even as the assessment continues, decisions have been made to change certain practices -- which he didn’t specify but apparently are tied to snooping on the phone data of foreign leaders.

“We will be able to share more information … about the decisions that the president will make after the review is completed,” he said. “As this review has been undertaken, some decisions have been made … to improve our intelligence-gathering operations in a way that is consistent with the balance the president believes is necessary to strike.”

Obama, under pressure as Snowden’s leaks of NSA documents continued to seize headlines in the summer, formed an outside Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, charged with weighing surveillance aims and techniques against civil liberties. That group is expected to submit an interim report to Obama soon, and its findings by December. Watchdog organizations criticized the president in August for assembling a group of former officials and male experts seen as sympathetic to the administration, who are conducting their review under the watchful eyes of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Obama also tasked the executive branch Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to advise the executive and legislative branches, which it accomplishes with reports to Congress twice a year. The board’s next hearing in Washington is scheduled for Nov. 4. On that agenda: key provisions of the USA Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, respectively.

The administration, working with Congress, is re-examining the Patriot Act’s Section 215, which permits the government to ensnare domestic phone and Internet meta-data from companies such as Verizon and Facebook without alerting users and customers -- if the data is deemed relevant to foreign intelligence operations conducted by NSA aimed at thwarting terrorism.

The administration and Congress are also weighing changes affecting oversight tied to the super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is responsible for approving certain U.S. data-gathering and clandestine operations.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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