If the National Security Agency has been spying on the private communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for over a decade, as news reports over the weekend suggest, which scenario is more damaging for U.S. President Barack Obama: that he knew of the surveillance and allowed it to continue, or that he was, for whatever reason, kept in the dark by his own intelligence agency?
"The NSA appears to be a secret kingdom that appropriates our money with no oversight or accountability. We didn’t elect it, and if it doesn’t let our chosen representatives know what it is up to, than it is taxing us without giving us any representation. It is a tyrant. It is an ominous homunculus within the body politic." –Juan Cole, historian
New reports from the German press over the weekend—and a flurry of statements from both the White House and the NSA—leave many questions lingering about what President Obama knew about the alleged spying, when he knew it, and what actions were, or could have been, taken to address the issue.
As the Guardian reports:
The US National Security Agency was forced on Sunday to deny that [NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander] ever discussed a surveillance operation against the German chancellor with President Barack Obama, as the White House tried to contain a full-scale diplomatic crisis over espionage directed at allied countries.
The Obama administration appeared in disarray as it struggled with the fallout over the disclosure that the National Security Agency monitored the phone conversations of at least 35 world leaders, and that the phone of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, had been monitored.
Early on Sunday, the White House refused to comment on an overnight report in the German tabloid Bild, which alleged that Obama was personally briefed about by the operation to target Merkel's phone by the NSA's director, Keith Alexander, and allowed it to continue.
A separate revelation on Sunday published in Der Spiegel, however, deepened the controversary by reporting that the NSA has been conducting surveillance operations from within "nest of espionage" located on the rooftop of the US Embassy in Berlin since 2008, and that surveillance operations against Merkel may go back to as early as 2002.
According to Der Spiegel:
When the United States moved into the massive embassy building in 2008, it threw a huge party. Over 4,500 guests were invited. Former President George H. W. Bush cut the red-white-and-blue ribbon. Chancellor Angela Merkel offered warm words for the occasion. Since then, when the US ambassador receives high-ranking visitors, they often take a stroll out to the roof terrace, which offers a breathtaking view of the Reichstag and Tiergarten park. Even the Chancellery can be glimpsed. This is the political heart of the republic, where billion-euro budgets are negotiated, laws are formulated and soldiers are sent to war. It's an ideal location for diplomats -- and for spies.
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Research by SPIEGEL reporters in Berlin and Washington, talks with intelligence officials and the evaluation of internal documents of the US' National Security Agency and other information, most of which comes from the archive of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, lead to the conclusion that the US diplomatic mission in the German capital has not merely been promoting German-American friendship. On the contrary, it is a nest of espionage. From the roof of the embassy, a special unit of the CIA and NSA can apparently monitor a large part of cellphone communication in the government quarter. And there is evidence that agents based at Pariser Platz recently targeted the cellphone that Merkel uses the most.
The NSA spying scandal has thus reached a new level, becoming a serious threat to the trans-Atlantic partnership. The mere suspicion that one of Merkel's cellphones was being monitored by the NSA has led in the past week to serious tensions between Berlin and Washington.
With special focus on the accusation in Bild that Obama was briefed on the Merkel spying and allowed it to continue, the NSA issued a rare public statement on Sunday in order to push back agianst the claims.
According to the NSA, “General Alexander did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel. News reports claiming otherwise are not true.”
And the Wall Street Journal, citing various unnamed White House officials, also assembled a story saying that the Bild story was not accurate and that the spying on Merkel was ended "after a White House review" of the program.
As historian Juan Cole points out, however, the claims that Obama was not fully aware of the surveillance—if accurate—creates a new problem for the Obama administration. Saying that many pundits and political observers in Washington treat the NSA scandal as an inside-the-Beltway power squabble, writes Cole, few people are asking what the "implications are that an occult intelligence bureaucracy funded at $52 billion a year by your and my tax dollars keeps our elected leaders in the dark about its activities." He continues:
Among the founding principles of the United States was “no taxation without representation.” But the NSA appears to be a secret kingdom that appropriates our money with no oversight or accountability. We didn’t elect it, and if it doesn’t let our chosen representatives know what it is up to, than it is taxing us without giving us any representation. It is a tyrant. It is an ominous homunculus within the body politic.
Secrecy is anathema to a democratic republic. If we ever had one, it is long gone. The only real question left is what the unelected fourth branch of government, created inadvertently by Harry Truman, is really up to. It is clearly involved in a great deal of industrial espionage, but how are its discoveries transferred to US corporations? Who do the mostly right wing NSA bureaucrats really report to if not to Obama? And, what are they really doing with our cell phone records, which reveal to whom we speak, how often, and where exactly we are? How are these being data-mined and for what purposes?