The NSA Didn't Tell Obama They Were Spying on World Leaders. It Took Him 5 Years To Find Out.

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Oct. 28 2013 10:33 AM

Did the NSA Keep Obama in The Dark About Its Spying on World Leaders?

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President Barack Obama makes his way to board Air Force One on October 25, 2013 before departing from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Glenn Greenwald's latest Snowden-fueled revelation dropped Monday in Spanish newspaper El Mundo, but the day's most interesting revelation about American spying—at least for those of us not living in Spain—comes courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, which cites unnamed U.S officials to report that the White House ordered an end to the monitoring of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and "a number of other world leaders" only after learning of the existence of the operation this past summer.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

That's noteworthy for two reasons: 1) it largely confirms that the NSA was indeed monitoring its allies abroad as has been suggested by Snowden's leaks/Greenwald's reporting; and 2) it also suggests that President Obama may have gone his entire first term without being briefed on what appears to have been a rather wide-ranging and aggressive surveillance effort. Here's the Journal:

The account suggests President Barack Obama went nearly five years without knowing his own spies were bugging the phones of world leaders. Officials said the NSA has so many eavesdropping operations under way that it wouldn't have been practical to brief him on all of them. They added that the president was briefed on and approved of broader intelligence-collection "priorities," but that those below him make decisions about specific intelligence targets.
The senior U.S. official said that the current practice has been for these types of surveillance decisions to be made at the agency level. "These decisions are made at NSA," the official said. "The president doesn't sign off on this stuff." That protocol now is under review, the official added. ...
The administration didn't end all operations involving world leaders following this summer's revelations because some of the programs are producing intelligence of use to the U.S. It could not be learned Sunday how many of the eavesdropping operations were stopped, or who is on the list of leaders still under surveillance.
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The report may give Obama at least some diplomatic cover abroad as he attempts to smooth things over with those European allies who have been vocal about their displeasure with the apparent ally-on-ally spying. It may be greeted quite differently at home, however, both by the president's conservative critics who have sought to paint him as an ineffective executive, and by those less-partisan critics who have taken specific aim at the NSA and what they say is its unchecked power. It also raises plenty of other questions about how much, exactly, the president knew about the NSA's surveillance efforts before the agency sprung a Snowden-sized leak.

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