Was the White House aware of the NSA surveillance on US allies, or was it left in the dark? That question has reared its head following admissions from Washington that the NSA tapped into the phone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other foreign leaders.
The White House and State Department did approve the phone taps, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said, according to the Los Angeles Times. These officials also say that members of the National Security Agency and other US intelligence agencies are now upset that President Obama appears to be distancing himself from the revelations.
The process works as follows, according to two former senior intelligence officials cited by the LA Times:
When the US eavesdrops on a foreign leader, the US ambassador and the White House's National Security Council staffer who deal with that leader's country receive regular reports. Even if Obama himself was not briefed on the specific cell phone surveillance, "the National Security Council and senior people across the intelligence community knew exactly what was going on, and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous," one of the officials told the Times.
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On Sunday, Germany newspaper Bild am Sonntag published a report saying that Obama knew about the eavesdropping on Chancellor Merkel as far back as 2010, according to Reuters. After reportedly learning about the spying from NSA head General Keith Alexander, Obama "didn't stop the operation back then but let it continue," according to a source quoted by the newspaper.
Those reports contradict others, which claim that Obama had no knowledge of the spying program on 35 world leaders until the White House conducted a review this past summer. One senior U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal that these types of surveillance decisions are made at the NSA and do not require the president's approval.
The NSA itself has denied any reports that General Alexander informed the president of the spying on Merkel in 2010.
"Gen Alexander did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel," NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said in a statement sent to CNET.
Whether or not the White House was aware of the phone taps, it's now been forced to respond to mounting criticism about the program. California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who in the past has supported the NSA's surveillance, has called for an end to the spying on allies.
"Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or e-mails of friendly presidents and prime ministers," Feinstein said in a statement on Monday. "The president should be required to approve any collection of this sort."
US officials told the Journal that the eavesdropping on Merkel and other world leaders has stopped but has yet to be cut off completely for some. Obama has authorized both internal and external reviews of the NSA's activities, which will likely suggest that some reforms are in order for the agency.