The intelligence community has struck back, responding to the contention of the White House this week that President Obama did not know about surveillance targeting the phone conversations of friendly foreign leaders. Sources inside American intelligence agencies told the Los Angeles Times that the White House and the State Department approved the operation. The president may not have known precise details (seeking a measure of “plausible deniability”) but his aides knew what was taking place.
No surprise that the president has attempted to put distance between himself and the revelations. Or that Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has expressed fury about the failure of the intelligence agencies to keep her panel “satisfactorily informed.”
This is embarrassing, and worse, harmful, eroding trust among partners and working against American economic interests, allies less likely to hire our technology companies to handle digital information. Useful is the debate, or what Edward Snowden said he aimed to trigger in releasing so many classified documents, the Guardian, Der Spiegel and other newspapers most recently reporting on the National Security Agency monitoring the conversations of dozens of world leaders, including those in Germany and Mexico.
Dennis Blair, a former director of national intelligence, offered a helpful perspective via the New York Times, noting: “If any foreign leader is talking on a cellphone or communicating on unclassified email, what the U.S. might learn is the least of their worries.” So there is a hollow element to the outrage of Angela Merkel and other foreign leaders. Friends have been known to spy on friends.
After the Snowden leaks began to surface, President Obama launched two high-level reviews of the country’s surveillance programs. The final recommendations are due by the end of the year. One likely will call for extending to other countries the current ban on spying that covers Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.
At the same time, these latest revelations have reinforced a larger and mounting concern about the size of the NSA surveillance. Remember that Snowden worked for a private contractor hired to help with the massive operation, his presence highlighting the difficulty keeping tabs to maintain sufficient security. An entire industry has emerged the past decade as the country has responded to the Sept. 11 attacks, listening, monitoring, collecting data, growing so huge the government struggles to apply effective oversight.
To say the least, the moment is ripe for weighing just how much surveillance is necessary. Members of Congress already have begun to pursue a better balance. Yes, the likes of al-Qaida must be thwarted but not at the cost of jeopardizing other leading national interests.