President Obama Says He Had No Idea His Own NSA Was Spying On Angela Merkel

from the that-seems-like-a-problem dept

So, last week, there was the report that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had found out about the US NSA spying on her mobile phone and had made an angry call to President Obama. As we noted, US officials made perhaps the weakest response ever, insisting that they weren’t monitoring her phone today and promising that they wouldn’t monitor it in the future — but absolutely refusing to comment on whether or not the NSA had done so in the past. Of course, that just called much more attention to the obvious implication that they had — and it took just a couple days before Spiegel revealed the details. Not only had the NSA been monitoring Merkel’s mobile phone, but they’d been doing it for over a decade, since before she was in power:

There are strong indications that it was the SCS that targeted the cell phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. This is suggested by a document that apparently comes from an NSA database in which the agency records its targets. This document, which SPIEGEL has seen, is what set the cell phone scandal in motion.

The document contains Merkel’s cell phone number. An inquiry to her team revealed that it is the number the chancellor uses mainly to communicate with party members, ministers and confidants, often by text message. The number is, in the language of the NSA, a “Selector Value.” The next two fields determine the format (“raw phone number”) and the “Subscriber,” identified as “GE Chancellor Merkel.”

[….] The time stamp is noteworthy. The order was transferred to the “National Sigint Requirements List,” the list of national intelligence targets, in 2002. That was the year Germany held closely watched parliamentary elections and Merkel battled Edmund Stoiber of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union to become the conservatives’ chancellor candidate. It was also the year the Iraq crisis began heating up. The document also lists status: “A” for active. This status was apparently valid a few weeks before President Obama’s Berlin visit in June 2013.

Spiegel has a lot more, including some revealing information about how the NSA uses the US embassy in Berlin to intercept all kinds of communications.

But then there’s this incredible claim: President Obama insists he had no idea about it when he spoke to Merkel:

Merkel spoke with Obama on Wednesday afternoon, calling him from her secure landline in her Chancellery office. Both spoke English. According to the Chancellery, the president said that he had known nothing of possible monitoring, otherwise he would have stopped it. Obama also expressed his deepest regrets and apologized.

Now, remember, this is the very same President Obama, who just a couple months ago claimed that every time more Snowden news broke, it would be the first he’d heard about some of these programs, and he’d have to go ask the NSA what they were really doing. Could this be one of those situations? It seems almost impossible to believe that the NSA would be spying on the head of state of one of our closest allies without the President being aware. As the Spiegel report notes, those kinds of orders would have to be renewed with approval from the top:

Among the politically decisive questions is whether the spying was authorized from the top: from the US president. If the data is accurate, the operation was authorized under former President George W. Bush and his NSA chief, Michael Hayden. But it would have had to be repeatedly approved, including after Obama took office and up to the present time. Is it conceivable that the NSA made the German chancellor a surveillance target without the president’s knowledge?

However, after trying to avoid the question, over the weekend, the NSA admitted that Keith Alexander had never briefed the President about spying on Merkel (though, it’s possible he heard about it from others).

This makes it sound, again, like the NSA has gone rogue. How can President Obama seriously allow Keith Alexander and James Clapper to remain in charge when they’ve just made him look like a complete fool, supposedly totally unaware of what his own intelligence apparatus is up to — especially when it concerns programs that, once revealed, can have a serious negative impact on a variety of diplomatic fronts?

And for what benefit? The Spiegel report makes it clear that the NSA saw little value in spying on Merkel. They just did it because… reasons.

Former NSA employee Thomas Drake does not see this as a contradiction. “After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Germany became intelligence target number one in Europe,” he says. The US government did not trust Germany, because some of the Sept. 11 suicide pilots had lived in Hamburg. Evidence suggests that the NSA recorded Merkel once and then became intoxicated with success, says Drake. “It has always been the NSA’s motto to conduct as much surveillance as possible,” he adds.

The fact that President Obama hasn’t yet fired Alexander in particular is fairly incredible, given this latest revelation.

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Comments on “President Obama Says He Had No Idea His Own NSA Was Spying On Angela Merkel”

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87 Comments
Rikuo (profile) says:

If Obama wants to stick to this story, then he has only one logical course of action: disband the NSA. According to him, one of his intelligence agencies, a branch of the military, are not reporting to their commander-in-chief. This of course means the agency has gone rogue. So, he has to send in troops to shut them down. If he doesn’t, if he continues with the “I didn’t know nothin'”, then he’s sending out a message that the office of President of the United States does not have any real power or authority behind it, that entire branches of the United States military can do whatever the hell they want and not bother reporting to the White House.

Ninja (profile) says:

How can President Obama seriously allow Keith Alexander and James Clapper to remain in charge when they’ve just made him look like a complete fool, supposedly totally unaware of what his own intelligence apparatus is up to

Shall we go back to that “foxes looking after the hennery/pen” concept? Like Mr Greenspan or Mr Bernanke taking care of the finances and having strong ties to Wall Street thus sparking an economic crisis?

I’ll take the short reply: because… reasons.

Jay (profile) says:

Obama sure isn't a Nixon

I mean just… Wow…

Nixon knew about all of the schemes he did along with a few that weren’t going his way and he was obsessed with domestic spying.

But we have a president that’s so blatantly corrupt and inept that he admits that he doesn’t know what’s going on and wants to maintain plausible deniability?

That’s just mind boggling…

Brazilian Guy says:

Re: Obama sure isn't a Nixon

Well, that works very well in the political world. As long you don’t make any direct statement that could be clearly proved as a lie, you get to keep your job. It’s a national joke in Brazil that our former president motto was “I didn’t know”, spoken at every scandal involving his party or his closest advisors. On his defense, after the usual solidarity with the accused party, he sacked them.

All in all, same political pratices as the oposition, better social initiatives.

That One Guy (profile) says:

There's plausible deniability...

And then there’s implausible deniability.

‘I had no idea one of the US spying agencies was tapping the communications of a foreign head of state.’

He’s either incompetent or corrupt, blind to what his own government agencies are doing, or complicit in their actions and lying about it, and honestly I’m not sure which is more likely at this point.

The only even semi-decent explanation, that wouldn’t lay the blame entirely at his feet, would be if the NSA truly didn’t think they needed permission to spy on such a target, one that would have pretty massive diplomatic repercussions if they were caught, and if that’s the case he’d better get to gutting the agency, soon, and putting those responsible(especially those in charge of the agency) behind bars, as they clearly see themselves as above the laws, national interests of the country, and even the president.

At this point anything less is pretty much a flat out admission that he either agrees with their actions, or at the very least doesn’t disagree with them enough to actually put a stop to them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

If Bush had claimed not to know, I would have believed that. There was a LOT he didn’t know (that he should have) because Cheney was running everything for him. In fact that is why he brought Cheney on board in the first place. He was aware that he didn’t have a clue about how to handle any of that stuff and Cheney had a ton of experience in it dating back to the Nixon administration.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Edmund Stoiber of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union”

Ahh, I remember him, the anti-Iraq war guy. He insisted Germany not invade Iraq without a UN security council mandate. A policy popular in Germany so he was doing well in the polls.

He wasn’t popular with Bush, didn’t win the election. He did badly in debates, always on the back foot.

I can’t prove anything, but I can think it.

ThatFatMan (profile) says:

The fact that President Obama hasn’t yet fired Alexander in particular is fairly incredible, given this latest revelation.

I’m not sure why this is all that incredible. Obama doesn’t hold anyone accountable for anything, unless he is blaming Bush and the Republicans for his latest screw-up. He believes he can just campaign his way through every problem, and that is easier than admitting he made a bad decision to keep incompetent people on the job.

Besides, if he fired someone, the government would get smaller and he doesn’t want that either.

So yeah, not that incredible. Par for the course really.

horse with no name says:

The real problem here...

The real problem here is that you expect Obama to have a micromanagement level of involvement in every government department and agency.

I can imagine that the NSA / CIA / FBI / Homeland and the like all monitor all sorts of things, and they don’t call up Obama every morning to give him a laundry list of what they do.

horse with no name says:

Re: Re: The real problem here...

On site where the most common refrain (and often anonymous coward’s biggest claim) is “due process”, I think that I won’t find Obama guilty of something when there is no real proof.

Made aware, he is making changes. Don’t let Mike’s Teabagger style one sided stories fool you for a minute, there is just no way that the President can be completely aware of all of the activities of every government department and worker at all times.

Due process… it also means “benefit of the doubt”, you should try it!

Beta (profile) says:

one hand whitewashes the other

“…After trying to avoid the question, over the weekend, the NSA admitted that Keith Alexander had never briefed the President about spying on Merkel… How can President Obama seriously allow Keith Alexander and James Clapper to remain in charge when they’ve just made him look like a complete fool?”

He may have had to promise not to fire them, in order to get them to say they never briefed him.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: one hand whitewashes the other

Whether or not Clapper or Alexander briefed the president is a red herring — that’s not their job. A CIA national intelligence officer briefs the president, not the head of NSA.

If they were tapping foreign chief executives, you can bet it had presidential authority.

Where’s the tapes? Every president since Nixon has recorded White House briefings — there is probably a record somewhere.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: one hand whitewashes the other

The CIA and NSA are separate agencies and although they often share information (at least now) they each have a responsibility to inform the administration what they are doing. They at least have to inform Clapper who then informs the President. Since when does the CIA have to report on what a completely different agency is doing?

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: one hand whitewashes the other

$%(&$(&$ on a Popsicle stick. Doesn’t anybody read spy novels anymore? All the Intelligence Agencies (arguable compatible name reference) report to the the Director of National Intelligence, who is none other than James Clapper, of notoriety for confirming his own Perjury of Congress. It’s Clapper who (ahem) ‘didn’t’ tell the President. According to the literature, it ALL goes through that position.

Now why would any self-respecting spy novelist lie about that?

ahow628 (profile) says:

Incredible? Not so much.

The fact that President Obama hasn’t yet fired Alexander in particular is fairly incredible, given this latest revelation.

I don’t really think so. I’ve commented on techdirt almost a half dozen times that the NSA must have some pretty amazing dirt on Obama if Alexander and Clapper have held on this long.

Anonymous Coward says:

It seems almost impossible to believe that the NSA would be spying on the head of state of one of our closest allies without the President being aware.

For a competent, intelligent President, this would be hard to believe. But Obama’s position on the subject has always been that he’s an incompetent idiot that has no idea what’s going on around him, and I’m honestly inclined to believe him.

Anyone know whether gross negligence of office is grounds for impeachment?

Hanii Puppy says:

Re: Re:

The US government works in most places by keeping those elected content in their own little bubble, away from anything that can actually make any substantial changes. Like reforming the currency system that currently demands the US government borrow a dollar from the federal reserve for every dollar minted, like stopping the institutionalised corruption rife in the US government, like avoiding needless bloodshed in a foreign land, or like making any kind of government reform that would turn the American government into anything other than a single-party-with-two-faces state.

roarshock44 says:

one really beautiful thing about all this is that the bumbling nsa has no clue what info is going to eventually come out.? therefore, everybody who makes up an answer has to make it fit what may be coming out next week.

it’s a goon’s worst nightmare, and all are learning exactly why is a bad idea to behave like we have been behaving.

The Baker says:

Re: Still his fault

That is so yesterday!
Modern leadershit principles don’t include responsibility, honesty and integrity. The people “BELOW” them are there to take the fall when things go pear shaped. Obama claims to be a Christian, his actions show otherwise,. A true leader is actually a servant to those he/she leads. This country has no true leaders at the forefront. I love our country. …. Our government …. Not so much.

Anonymous Coward says:

Of course agencies such as the NSA and CIA try and collect everything possible from persons such as the German Chancellor, just as Germany does the very same thing to us. Why? For any number of reasons, not the least of which is that our ally today is not necessarily our ally tomorrow (recall German and French opposition to the incursion into Iraq in 2003 in part because of business relationships involving countries having interests at odds with those of the US)). Is this a “nice” thing to do? Probably not, but it is important if we are to understand what is actually going on behind the scenes. In fact, I daresay if foreign officials were sitting on the “john” reading, we would probably try and identify what was being read. It does seem kinda silly that these foreign officials are expressing outrage in public when they know they are engaged in virtually the identical conduct.

Brazenly Anonymous says:

Re: Re:

(recall German and French opposition to the incursion into Iraq in 2003 in part because of business relationships involving countries having interests at odds with those of the US)

Recall that many of us consider Iraq a CIA blunder. Recall that the East India Company also had a business relationship with and interests to protect within the British Colonies.

These spying operations are an aggressive act, a shadow war that undermines the self-governance of the target nation as surely as an armed invasion and occupation. The United States must choose whether it values a free world or dominance, it cannot pursue both.

Brazenly Anonymous says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Alliances cannot long be maintained by those who betray their allies, nor are the culprits in such matters likely to find new allies cheaply. International politics is not a game that can be won and a stable defense in such an arena requires that you retain far more power that you are willing to use than that you actually use.

Our government has become overconfident, has used the majority of its available arsenal, spread itself far too thin and we will pay a heavy cost for that.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Now, remember, this is the very same President Obama, who just a couple months ago claimed that every time more Snowden news broke, it would be the first he’d heard about some of these programs, and he’d have to go ask the NSA what they were really doing.”

Sounds like he’s claiming/admitting that the NSA has gone rogue.

Anonymous Coward says:

Follow up questions

the president said that he had known nothing of possible monitoring, otherwise he would have stopped it.

He knows about the monitoring of every cell phone in America. What is he doing to stop that?

NSA admitted that Keith Alexander had never briefed the President about spying on Merkel

They are not saying that no one briefed him about it. Clapper?

Anonymous Coward says:

“How can President Obama seriously allow Keith Alexander and James Clapper to remain in charge when they’ve just made him look like a complete fool, supposedly totally unaware of what his own intelligence apparatus is up to — especially when it concerns programs that, once revealed, can have a serious negative impact on a variety of diplomatic fronts?”

Where is that relentless DOJ investigation/prosecution when we need it?

Mr. Applegate says:

“How can President Obama seriously allow Keith Alexander and James Clapper to remain in charge when they’ve just made him look like a complete fool, supposedly totally unaware of what his own intelligence apparatus is up to — especially when it concerns programs that, once revealed, can have a serious negative impact on a variety of diplomatic fronts? “

That one is easy “Plausible Deniability”. The administration (any of them) gives vague orders, and allow a secret rubber stamp court and a congress that has no desire to do its job be the check and balance. When information comes in you don’t ask “Where did this come from”.

If Obama calls for the heads of Keith Alexander and James Clapper, then he must go down the rabbit hole and loses the ability to say “I didn’t know”. If he gets rid of either of them it will be because congress or the people demanded it and not because the administration wanted to find out what was going on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Sooo, time to recap.

Wall Street has proven to be more powerful than the USG.
Hollywood has proven to be more powerful than the USG.
The NSA is proving to be more powerful than the USG.

How long does this list get? And why is the only group that *should* have power over it not on it? I seem to recall some old doodle about ‘We, the people’.

Mr. Applegate says:

Re: Re:

“Wall Street has proven to be more powerful than the USG.
Hollywood has proven to be more powerful than the USG.
The NSA is proving to be more powerful than the USG.

How long does this list get? And why is the only group that *should* have power over it not on it? I seem to recall some old doodle about ‘We, the people’.”

I don’t believe any of the groups you mentioned are “More powerful than the U.S. Government”.

However, they are all very good at controlling its leaders. Two of them due it through money, and one of them does it through information. That doesn’t make them more powerful any more than handing a gun to a 6 year old makes the 6 year old more powerful. Certainly it makes the 6 year old more dangerous, but not more powerful.

Politicians are puppets, Corporate America are the puppeteers. That goes for both political parties.

Anonymous Coward says:

Notice that everyone but Obama gets blamed?

Have you noticed a pattern here? Everyone gets blamed for everything that goes on around Obama except Obama himself? Hillary even took the fall for Benghazi. Well, she didn’t really take a fall any more than the NSA is taking a fall. They all agree to be blamed apparently with the agreement that Obama won’t fire them so no heads ever roll. Yet people still support him?????

Namel3ss (profile) says:

What a f***ing liar

How stupid does he think we all are? Pretty stupid, apparently.

He didn’t know anything about the IRS targeting political conservatives, he didn’t know anything about the Fast & Furious gun running, he doesn’t know anything about HIS OWN ADMINISTRATION, does he?

Either (a) he’s telling the truth, which means he’s completely incompetent and worthy of the title bystander-in-chief and should be removed from office, or (b) he’s lying and broken the public trust multiple times very publicly, and should be removed from office.

It’s like my friend once told his 9-year-old nephew when he caught him in a lie:

Jack, you shouldn’t lie for 2 reasons: (1) it’s wrong, and (2) you’re just no good at it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Just following the example set...

Bush got away with a lot by being the clueless idiot that didn’t know what was going on. And for the record, I believe Bush WAS a clueless idiot that didn’t know what the hell was going on. Cheney on the other hand was at the helm of it all. But since it worked for Bush, Obama sees playing dumb about these things as a viable strategy for escaping them. There’s really only one problem with that, he’s really not very good at acting dumb. No one is buying that he doesn’t know.

Anonymous Coward says:

Obama has every intention of continuing the spying. He’s shown time and again, you can’t trust what he says. When it comes to the spying, he’s all for it.

Investigative committee to look into the actions of the NSA? His best solution is to put Clapper in charge and then attempt to call it meaningful looking into. Of course it was so blatant that the next day he had to claim that Clapper wouldn’t be heading up the committee.

So instead, the committee is now housed in Clapper’s office complex. It has to report to Clapper and my understanding is it’s mission has been changed not to actually investigate any wrong doing. Not to mention it is loaded with impartial observers, all with past histories tying strongly to the NSA.

Past actions are already speaking loudly about how much Obama didn’t know or pretends he didn’t know.

As usual the whole thing stinks of misdirection, lying, and cover up. The same diet that has been fed the public since day one.

Anonymous Coward says:

so the head of the nation, the guy who turns one of the keys that could launch a nuclear weapon and ultimately start a nuclear war which could easily result in the almost certain annihilation of Man and the planet Earth, isn’t of high enough position or doesn’t have a high enough security clearance to know whether what one of the nation’s security agencies, of which he is, again, the head guy, is doing?

are you fucking kiddin’ me?

i think the first thing i would want to know, therefore, is who the fuck is running the country? who has the authority to do this and who has decided the President doesn’t need to know??

Steve R. (user link) says:

In a Related Story

Evidently, after years of stonewalling, the Obama administration finally acknowledged today that not everyone would be able to keep their health insurance policy.
http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/oct/28/everyone-wont-keep-health-care-plan-obamacare/

Perhaps, more related to this NSA story is the report by NBC news that “Obama administration has known that for at least three years.” That people would be losing their health insurance policies, yet failed to disclose.
http://investigations.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/10/28/21213547-obama-admin-knew-millions-could-not-keep-their-health-insurance?lite

GEMont (profile) says:

“The fact that President Obama hasn’t yet fired Alexander in particular is fairly incredible, given this latest revelation.”

First, Obama is an employee. He does what he is told and knows only enough to do what he is told. Obama cannot fire any of the NSA operatives, chiefs or spokespeople, as they are also just employees like him. Permission from the bosses would need to be secured first and Obama’s bosses are simply ecstatic over the awesome job their employees are doing.

All one has to do is momentarily perceive the Fed as a corporate board of directors taking its orders from the men and women of real power and wealth who currently own the USA and all of these “odd occurrences” suddenly make complete sense, like the absolute lack of any disciplinary measures – or should I say the absolute lack of even the discussion of possible disciplinary measures – against anyone at the NSA.

Its pretty obvious, even for those without common sense, that if nobody is being disciplined for any of the dispicable actions of the Federal Security Industry, then everyone is doing their jobs exactly as they have been ordered to do.

Get used to it America. You have been invaded, conquered and occupied and now live under the rule of a foreign power – corporate wealth.

GEMont (profile) says:

The Joys of Ususry

To Hanii Puppy,

“Like reforming the currency system that currently demands the US government borrow a dollar from the federal reserve for every dollar minted,”

I believe that’s $1.07 borrowed for every dollar printed actually. That’s $1,070,000 to print $1,000,000.

The laws were changed to allow this top level “cream” usury charge.

That’s where the “deficit” really comes from.

Usury; once established in society as “business-as-usual”, knows no limits, and eventually, the lion’s share of actual cash is stashed in banks as soon as its printed, so it can earn interest for the rich, which in turn removes cash from circulation and forces the Fed to have more printed.

A truly beautiful scam.

GEMont (profile) says:

slipping the trick

To: horse with no name

“…there is just no way that the President can be completely aware of all of the activities of every government department and worker at all times.”

You must be using Alexander’s public response instruction booklet above.

Nobody has ever even mentioned the idea that the President should, or can, be aware of every government worker at all times.

By slipping that little tid-bit in at the end there, you play the same game the NSA plays in every public statement it makes.

All you’ve done is label yourself as a shill, paid or voluntary, it matters not. Thank you.

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