German media reports new details related to National Security Agency spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone. Her phone was on a list for monitoring since 2002. President Barack Obama was also apparently briefed by NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander on the program in 2010 and did not stop it.
The NSA’s Special Collection Service (SCS) was the unit involved in the surveillance. According to Bild am Sonntag, Gerhard Schröder, Merkel’s predecessor, was also a target of surveillance. Part of the motivation for the spying was the country’s participation and support in the Iraq War.
The same newspaper quoted an unnamed “high-ranking” NSA official, who claimed, “Obama did not halt the operation but rather let it continue.” This sharpens the scandal between Germany and the United States considerably, as it had seemed the spying had only taken place while President George W. Bush was in office.
It also reported that a phone Merkel began to use in the summer, which was supposed to be secure, had been the target of eavesdropping. The only communication the NSA was not able to tap was a special, secure landline phone that she had in her office.
Der Spiegel reported that the document showing Merkel’s cellphone was being spied upon indicated it was being done by a “not legally registered spying branch” inside the US embassy in Berlin. The document stated if the branch was exposed “grave damage” to relations with the United States would occur.
Both NSA and CIA staff were tapping into communications in Berlin’s government district through this branch and similar branches, according to the same document, existed in 80 locations around the world. Those locations include Frankfurt, Geneva, Madrid, Paris, Prague and Rome.
If spying on Merkel’s cellphone is indeed no longer occurring (as the White House claimed three days ago), it is now clear the spying on her phone at least occurred up until Merkel called Obama to express her anger. However, it is important to understand that there is no way to independently confirm that the NSA has stopped spying on Merkel’s phone. German officials are meeting in the US and hopefully they will give public statements on whether they are satisfied that this intrusion into privacy is no longer taking place.
Bild am Sonntag is one of the largest selling newspapers in Germany.
The statement on what Obama knew about the spying does come from an anonymous official within the NSA so there are multiple considerations that should be made.
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The official may have been asked by the newspaper to confirm and the source chose to confirm that Obama had known about the program to spy on Merkel’s cellphone. It is also possible that this official inside the NSA was willing to send some kind of a message to the Obama administration by providing this information that would escalate the controversy.
In a letter to family of NSA employees by Alexander and NSA deputy director John Inglis, which I obtained in September, it quoted Lawfare’s editor-in-chief Benjamin Wittes, who has been a vocal defender of the NSA’s surveillance capabilities in the wake of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures.
Shameful as it is that these documents were leaked, they actually should give the public great confidence both in NSA’s internal oversight mechanisms and in the executive and judicial oversight mechanisms outside the agency. They show no evidence of any intentional spying on Americans or abuse of civil liberties. They show a low rate of the sort of errors any complex system of technical collection will inevitably yield. They show robust compliance procedures on the part of the NSA. And they show an earnest, ongoing dialog with the FISA Court over the parameters of the agency’s legal authority and a commitment both to keeping the court informed of activities and to complying with its judgments on their legality. While it took a criminal act to make this record public, we are deeply proud of this record and make no apologies for it.
This is what Wittes thought the Obama administration should have been saying to defend the NSA in the midst of leaks. It suggests that both Alexander and Inglis are unhappy with how the White House has responded and raises the possibility of high-ranking officials being willing to leak key details of Obama administration complicity or outright support so the administration cannot get away with pretending they had nothing to do with the surveillance.
In other words, perhaps, some high-ranking officials are willing to leak details now so that they are not forced to bear the burden of justifying certain surveillance programs, which are exposed, on their own and with little help from the administration.
Finally, it has been said in media, for example, on CNN, “Remember, Germany is particularly sensitive about this because of its own history with the East German Stasi police, who [were] listening in on the conversations of citizens there.”
This statement is as if Germans would not be outraged about the mass surveillance state in the US being turned on them if they did not have this history. It serves to make their anger seem exceptional and something which America has to tolerate, even if we do not think they have a right to be upset.
Even if Germany did not have a history of fascism, where surveillance had been turned aggressively on all of its citizens, European countries would still be demanding the US stop the spying. In fact, the fact that Germany has this history should not be mentioned to downplay the reaction but to educate Americans on how they need to be concerned about the powers the NSA has been granted in the United States.