The Spectacle Blog

What’s the Point of Spying if Obama Didn’t Know?

By on 10.28.13 | 5:19PM

Disgruntled heads of state all over Europe are enraged to learn that the NSA has been listening in on their telephone calls. The people at the White House, incredibly, would like to join these leaders in condemning the surveillance programs. Also, President Obama had no idea that any of this was going on.

New leaks from Edward Snowden last week revealed that the NSA had been listening in on some French phone conversations, including those by President Francois Hollande. The U.S. ambassador to France was quickly summoned by the French foreign minister to discuss the allegations. Not long after, it was revealed that a similar spying program had been implemented in Germany, and that Chancellor Angela Merkel was targeted.

The German Chancellor seemed especially furious and shocked at the development, declaring that “an alliance can only be built on the basis of trust” and that such spying is “not acceptable.” Merkel and Germany may have had it easy, though—new reports emerged today suggesting that in Spain, data on  60 million phone conversations were scooped up by the NSA. This, incidentally, was within the span of only one month, between December and January this year.

In what seems to be standard operating procedure for embarrassments like this, the NSA issued a statement declaring that President Obama was not made aware about the Merkel eavesdropping—at least not made aware by General Keith Alexander, who heads the agency. Whether he was briefed about Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls by some other official remains to be seen, but some sources contend that Obama knew about it as early as 2010. The NSA statement was issued in response to these allegations.

At today’s White House press briefing, one could practically see the steam emerging from Press Secretary Jay Carney’s head as his brain struggled not to explode. Questions about the spying programs were deflected, and Carney seemed to try to pin some blame on lawmakers, suggesting that Congress, not the White House or NSA, has a lot of work to do. He said that the president wants to find ways to constrain his authority when it comes to spying, which is hypocritical if the president knew about these programs in advance, and nonsensical if he didn't.

Carney alternated from praising NSA surveilance as life-saving, to criticizing it for interfering with international cooperation. He also claimed that the Obama administration has declassified “unprecedented” amounts of information on the NSA. “We have released more information about the NSA than has ever been released before”, said Carney. Perhaps when he says “we,” Carney includes Edward Snowden.

So: Is there anything that the president does know about? And what point is there to compiling all of this data, especially on foreign heads of state in allied nations, if it isn’t used by the president in a briefing or policy initiative? Perhaps the president doesn’t care to find out where his information comes from.

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