Obama didn’t know about surveillance of U.S.-allied world leaders until summer, officials say

The White House claims President Obama didn't know about NSA spying on world leaders. Washington Post chief White House correspondent Scott Wilson weighs in on the strategy of keeping the president out of the loop. (The Washington Post)

In the midst of the controversy over U.S. surveillance this summer, top intelligence officials held a briefing for President Obama at the White House — one that would provide him with a broad inventory of programs being carried out by the National Security Agency.

Some of those programs, including the collection of e-mails and other communications from overseas, had already been disclosed because of leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. But Obama was also informed of at least one program whose scope surprised him: “head of state collection.”

That program, whose targets included the communications of U.S. allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, began in 2002, according to administration officials. Obama never knew that the program targeted American allies, officials said, adding that he was aware of collection efforts aimed at leaders of “adversarial countries.”

Officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe still-classified activities in general terms, declined to outline the scope of the “head of state” collection program. They added that although Obama ordered the curtailing of some of the program and informed Merkel that the United States was not currently monitoring her calls, he was not angered that intelligence officials had not told him sooner about the extent of the eavesdropping.

“Their job is to get as much information for policymakers as possible,” a senior administration official said. “They’re used to coming at this from the other direction — that is, being criticized for not knowing enough. This is a new dynamic for them.”

If Obama and senior officials at the White House were unaware of the scope of the program, so, too, were key lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who said Monday that her panel had not been properly informed of activities going back a decade or more.

“With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies — including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany — let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed,” Feinstein said in a statement, adding that her committee would “initiate a major review into all intelligence collection programs.”

“Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance,” she said, “I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers. The president should be required to approve any collection of this sort.”

White House officials said Obama was not told about the extent of the world leader surveillance program before this summer because briefings are tailored to the president’s priorities. Iran, China, counterterrorism and other concerns ranked ahead of an accounting of intelligence collected about leaders of allied nations such as Germany, the officials said.

They said the issue came up only after news reports of NSA spying in Brazil and in Mexico, among other countries. Obama asked for information on what exactly the agency was doing in those allied countries and in others.

The review and briefings to Obama on the first findings began soon after. His decision to curtail the program was disclosed late Sunday by the Wall Street Journal.

The latest revelations have sparked new outrage over NSA activities, particularly in Europe, which was already fuming at the clandestine collection of communications data. The breadth of the anger at U.S. prying, and the degree to which Obama is seen as responsible, may have been summed up by a rare English headline on the opinion page of the French daily Le Monde on Monday. “No You Can’t,” it reads, a reference to the 2008 Obama campaign slogan and to French ire over his actions since.

On Monday, Spain became the latest American ally or partner to protest U.S. espionage activities after the newspaper El Mundo published documents showing that the NSA had tracked more than 60 million Spanish telephone calls and text messages in about a month. The allegation and the documents, obtained from Snowden, were similar to a report in France last week. In both cases, the U.S. ambassador was summoned to hear European complaints.

The European Union has sent a nine-member delegation to Washington for meetings with U.S. officials this week to underscore European anger over the scope of American electronic surveillance.

The group, which is meeting with diplomatic, trade and other government officials, is warning that the United States must take specific steps to restore confidence or risk scuttling talks on a major transatlantic free-trade pact.

“We are not in denial about the fact that these disclosures have raised some significant challenges in some of our most important relationships and partnerships, and we are addressing those as they come,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

“These disclosures, in our view, have not prevented us from cooperating with other countries, moving forward our agenda on a range of issues, including trade, national security priorities, counterterrorism cooperation, other issues that are of great significance globally,” Psaki said, without addressing the specific agenda for the E.U. visit.

Diplomats say European leaders want the United States to establish a legal right for European citizens anywhere to sue for redress in American courts when they believe that their privacy rights have been violated by either the U.S. government or U.S. companies. European businesses are also seeking equal footing with American companies in transatlantic data transfers.

“Friends and partners do not spy on each other — that is simply a principle,” delegation head Viviane Reding, vice president of the European Commission, said in an interview Monday.

“It is a real crisis of confidence,” Reding said. “How can you build this trade agreement, which is in the common interest, if you do not have at the basis confidence and trust?”

German politicians said Monday that they would convene a special session of Parliament next month devoted to the spying issue. Lawmakers want to press their intelligence agencies about how Merkel’s phone could have been monitored for years without the eavesdropping being discovered.

Germany also plans to send a top-level delegation to Washington for more-precise discussions about the intelligence practices, Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert said Monday in Berlin.

“Where trust has been damaged, it will need to be rebuilt, and that will be done together with the Americans,” he said.

Merkel’s national security adviser and the heads of Germany’s domestic and foreign intelligence services are expected in Washington this week, said German officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because plans have not been finalized.

Administration officials admit that the relationship with Germany’s leader, important to U.S. security and economic interests, has been damaged by the disclosure of a program that many inside the government never imagined would be made public.

Merkel was born and raised in East Germany, where eavesdropping on citizens was an oppressive tool of the police state. White House officials acknowledge that her personal sensitivity to spying has made the program even more difficult to explain.

Michael Birnbaum in Berlin and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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