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It's been a chaotic few days in the nation's capital, ever since the US government was caught tapping the phone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and spying on 35 other world leaders, including those from countries we're supposed to be friends with. The revelations about the NSA's dragnet domestic surveillance were troubling enough, but the discovery that the US is gathering intelligence on foreign, friendly leaders has taken the spying scandal into new waters. Now it's not just a privacy debate; it's a diplomatic problem.
The new insight into the scope of the intelligence gathering is straining America's relationships with its allies, landing the country once again on thin ice with the rest of the world. Germany, France, Italy, Mexico and others have publicly blasted the US for snooping on them. Brazil and Germany want to build their own internet without America.
If the government isn't able to assuage concerns about its overreaching intelligence programs, the resulting international tension could, ironically enough, wind up having national security consequences. "Alienating key leaders—and broad public opinion—in friendly countries is a dumb, counterproductive way to fight terrorism," Eugene Robinson bluntly put it in an editorial in the Washington Post.
All this mounting tension and international calls for accountability has set off something of a witch hunt in Washington for where to point the blame. There have been conflicting reports on whether or not President Obama knew about the program to spy on US allies—which started back in 2002, before either Merkel or Obama was a head of their respective states. Here's a quick recap of the he said/she said:
First, the Post reported that the president had no knowledge of the "heads of state" program until this summer, when he was briefed following Edward Snowden's bombshell leaks about NSA surveillance. Then Senator Dianne Feinstein echoed that in a statement yesterday, claiming the president told her he was unaware of the activity and what's more planned to put a stop to it.
On the other side of the coin, the German tabloid Bild reported that Obama was not only briefed about the operation to tap Merkel's phone by NSA Director Keith Alexander, he OK’d it. And US intelligence officials told the LA Times that the intelligence community is frustrated with the president for signing off on the phone-tap program only to deny any knowledge of it later.
For his part, Alexander responded that the president was not informed about the program to snoop on friendly foreign leaders because (to paraphrase) the commander-in-chief needn't sweat the small stuff, and our pals Germany and France didn't pose an immediate threat.
What's interesting in all this isn't so much whether and when Obama knew the US had been spying on its friends for more than a decade—though that's a pretty big deal. It's the troubling implications of if Obama didn't know that's raising eyebrows. Did the NSA go ahead and hack into the phone calls and emails of America's allies without bothering to mention it to the president of America?
That question comes amid mounting concern in Washington that the NSA's powers have bloated so considerably under Alexander's eight-year reign that the NSA's reach is getting out of control. Is the spy agency is so powerful now it's making calls with serious diplomatic consequences all on its own? Is anyone acting as a check on that power? As a New Yorker headline read yesterday, "Who watches the watchers?"
In an interview with ABC this week, the president admitted it was high time to reign in the US intelligence operations. "We've seen over the last several years is their capacities continue to develop and expand," he said. “That's why I'm initiating now a review to make sure that what they're able to do, doesn't necessarily mean what they should be doing.” As more documents continue to be leaked, giving the world insight into the startling scope of the NSA's apparently unchecked powers, the lack of oversight is the key takeaway here. Someone should be watching the watchers.
By Meghan Neal
((unfortunately, this is so true. the NSA and even our government itself is becoming out of control. can it be stopped? even by the president? sure, they can conduct reviews of the of the policies and procedures. they can say it will be stopped? but how will anyone ever know it has truly been stopped? it's very hard to put a runaway lion back into it's cage.--alexis))