The revelations about NSA spying on allied leaders are now officially a scandal. No, that scandal isn’t that the U.S. spies on its allies–all nations do that and some go further than that. See, for instance, this report claiming that South Korea has been stealing U.S. military technology. No, the scandal is that, faced with embarrassing allegations, President Obama is trying to throw General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, and the rest of the intelligence community under the bus by claiming that he had no idea what was going on.
Not surprisingly, anonymous leakers in the intelligence community are pushing back to shred the White House alibi. According to the Los Angeles Times:
Obama may not have been specifically briefed on NSA operations targeting a foreign leader’s cellphone or email communications, one of the officials said. “But certainly the National Security Council and senior people across the intelligence community knew exactly what was going on, and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous.”
If U.S. spying on key foreign leaders was news to the White House, current and former officials said, then White House officials have not been reading their briefing books.
The intel community isn’t happy about being blamed for conducting what Obama implies is a rogue operation: “People are furious,” said a senior intelligence official. “This is officially the White House cutting off the intelligence community.”
Not only is Obama blaming the intel community for doing something wrong, he is leaking word that he will order a ban on spying on allied leaders. One wonders how “allies” will be defined since no nation stands with the U.S. on every single important issue. Germany, for example, supported us in Afghanistan but not in Libya. (I am tempted to say Germany didn’t support us in Syria either but since we have no coherent policy on Syria it is hard to say whether they support us or not.) If he is serious about it, Obama’s actions will result in a loss of valuable intelligence and will hardly appease the NSA’s critics who think that all data-hunting operations except perhaps those focused on Ayman al-Zawihiri’s emails should be shut down.
Obama was aware earlier in his administration of the danger of stigmatizing the hard-working intelligence professionals he needs to keep America safe; that’s why the administration shut down attempts to prosecute CIA personnel over the use of torture. But now, in a frenzy to appease European critics, the president is demoralizing the intel community and sending them a signal that aggressive collection efforts will not be rewarded. That’s a bad tradeoff.