We’re supposed to believe President Obama had no idea the NSA was spying on Angela Merkel’s cell phone, but the Liar-in-chief was effectively refuted by his own underlings when NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines huffily told the Wall Street Journal:
"The agency’s activities stem from the National Intelligence Priorities Framework, which guides prioritization for the operation, planning and programming of U.S. intelligence analysis and collection."
The NIPF is essentially a list of intelligence targets that sets the general parameters of US covert surveillance activities in various countries, and is personally approved by the President. It’s therefore well nigh impossible Obama didn’t know about the NSA’s surveillance of Merkel, not to mention all the other world leaders we’ve been keeping tabs on. It may very well be that spying on Merkel began in 2002, before she was elected, but the German paper Bild am Sonntag – citing a “U.S. intelligence worker involved in the NSA operation against Merkel" – is reporting the President personally approved the surveillance in 2010, when he was informed of it by NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander.
It’s fun to watch the consternation in Obama-land as the blowback from the Snowden revelations lands on Washington’s doorstep in the form of angry phone calls from world leaders. Of course, most of them were to some extent complicit when the NSA wanted to spy on their countrymen: in Germany, the intelligence services cooperated with the Americans, as the Brits certainly did, along with the French. It’s just that they thought they were personally exempt.
Their outrage is echoed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, once the Senate’s biggest champion of the Surveillance State, who is now on the warpath because of the Merkel eavesdropping scandal. After announcing she is "totally opposed" to NSA spying on our European allies, she declared her intention to conduct a comprehensive formal review of US intelligence-gathering programs.
While many commentators remarked that if the NSA has even lost Feinstein they’re screwed, the oddity of her unexpectedly harsh reaction was pointed out by Spencer Ackerman and Dan Roberts writing in the UK Guardian: "Her position," they noted, "left many longtime intelligence observers puzzled. NSA spying on foreign leaders is far more traditional than its domestic bulk collection, which Feinstein has not criticized. Regardless of Feinstein’s motivations, intelligence veterans seemed to understand that the political momentum is not on their side."
Yes, but what is her motivation, anyway? It seems to me worthwhile pursuing the subject, since, if the US intelligence apparatus has any legitimacy at all, it’s one legitimate function is to haul in intelligence of this very sort. Surely knowing what’s on the mind of a leader we must deal with regularly is almost a prerequisite for a successful relationship, one that’s in the national interest to maintain. In this realpolitik sense, then, it is routine – or "traditional," as Ackerman and Roberts put it – and arguably justifiable.
However, you don’t have to be a mind-reader to understand what enrages Feinstein. Merkel and the other world leaders we’ve been caught eavesdropping on are all members of a transnational political elite of which Feinstein is a leading figure. The political class – in this country and around the world – reserves to itself certain perks and privileges, one of which is the absolute sanctity of their esteemed persons: for example, when they commit a crime, as Glenn Greenwald showed so exhaustively in his book on the subject, they very rarely go to jail. Even if they’re convicted of a crime in a court of law they nearly always manage to get off with a slap on the wrist – that is, if they don’t elude punishment altogether.
These worthies like to think they enjoy a similar immunity when it comes to living under the watchful eye of the all-seeing Surveillance State, and here we come to the real source of Feinstein’s fury. She’s all for the NSA rifling around in our online lives but I’ll bet she’s wondering in the back of her mind if they’re eavesdropping on her – and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. How many of our Washington power brokers are wondering the same thing? Indeed, NSA whistleblower Russell Tice claims Obama was himself the subject of the NSA’s snooping, and of all those programs we are being assured have been discontinued this is the only one we can be sure is no longer operational.
In the Surveillance State we are now citizens of, the first task of our political class is to ensure their exemption from its All-Seeing Eye. This is the number one item on their "reform" agenda when it comes to the NSA, which looks like it will soon be getting new leadership – probably civilian leadership, this time, so as to soften its public image as a fortress guarded by paramilitary spooks.
I expect the President will soon dump Gen. Alexander, hoping to at least partially mollify those calling for DNI James "Least Untruthful" Clapper’s head. Perhaps he’ll appoint Cass Sunstein, a Washington egghead-technocrat type who sits on the NSA "reform" advisory board, to take the General’s place. Sunstein, currently a Harvard law professor, previously served in the Obama administration as a top regulator, and is married to UN Ambassador and let’s-bomb-Syria advocate Samantha Power. Sunstein has proposed the US government engage in the "cognitive infiltration" of subversive elements online, including "conspiracy theorists" and Tea Party "extremists" whose dissident networks supposedly pose a grave risk to "democracy" as practiced by the Sunsteins of this world. Could a more perfect Chief Sneak in the age of Obama be imagined?
Surveillance is for the peons: the political class will demand – and get – an exemption. That’s their idea of "reform."
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).