Obama was at first not convinced of the danger and kept using the phone for several months, albeit with new encryption technology. But his intelligence chiefs were by then acutely aware of the vulnerability because they had been exploiting it to monitor the calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other foreign leaders for years.
Those penetrations were so abundant — and in some cases so effortless — that they upended a long-standing equilibrium in espionage. Stealing secrets from adversaries, let alone allies, had always been limited by daunting logistics and the risk of what intelligence professionals call “blowback,” the costs associated with being discovered, whether by allies or enemies. Those Cold War constraints seemed to crumble in the Internet age.
Now that equilibrium is being scrambled again as U.S. spy agencies confront cascading disclosures of their secrets on a magnitude they never envisioned, triggered by a former intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden. This presents a new quandary for the United States: Curtail spying on allies and lose critical intelligence. Or continue the programs and take on serious diplomatic risks if discovered.
The disorientating effect of Snowden’s revelations was evident as U.S. officials sought to contain the fallout during congressional testimony this week.
“The conduct of intelligence is premised on the notion that we can do it secretly, and we don’t count on it being revealed in the newspaper,” Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., said, essentially acknowledging that a leak of Snowden’s scale was never factored into U.S. spy agencies' cost-benefit analysis.
He and others seemed equally baffled that U.S. agencies were now being faulted for succeeding at what has always been among their principal objectives: gathering intelligence on the intentions of foreign leaders.
That success was enabled to a large degree by U.S. spy agencies’ ability to take advantage of the rapid spread of digital communications networks across the globe. Senior lawmakers warned that U.S. agencies are only beginning to account for an accompanying expansion of risk.
“Our capabilities have grown dramatically, [but] our analysis of their costs and benefits has not grown with them,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “What we’ve found out in the last year and a half with Snowden and Manning is that the potential for disclosure has grown equally dramatically.”
Bradley Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence specialist, was convicted earlier this year of sharing a cache of classified diplomatic cables and other materials with the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks.