WASHINGTON — It is a lose-lose situation for President Obama.
The president looks bad either way: Either he approved of spying on friendly countries or he did not know what his spy agency was doing.
Or, as Rush Limbaugh put it Monday, “If Obama didn’t know the NSA was spying on (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel, why not?”
“Do you realize we’re being led and governed by genuinely stupid people, folks? If everything we’re being asked to believe today is really true, then we’re being governed by sheer idiocy no matter where we turn,” he added.
The National Security Agency spy scandal has exploded onto the international scene, and the administration is scrambling to contain it even as a high-level delegation from Germany heads for Washington to demand answers.
Reporter Bob Woodward, who became famous breaking the Whitewater scandal, put a Nixonian spin on the clandestine machinations of the Obama administration, telling CBS News a “secret government” in the Obama administration is behind the NSA’s wiretapping of world leaders.
“They need to review this secret world and its power in their government because you run into this rat’s nest of concealment and lies time and time again, then and now,” Woodward said Sunday on “Face the Nation.”
On that same program, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, strongly implied the president did know the NSA has been eavesdropping on the phone calls of Chancellor Merkel.
“Remember, the NSA works for the president,” he said. “Through his national security advisers he knew or should have known.”
Limbaugh was even less convinced of the president’s innocence, saying, “Oh, Obama didn’t know the NSA was spying? He doesn’t know jack, folks. He doesn’t know anything, and he’s really opposed to it when he finds out. My only question is: Does Obama know that he is president? Has somebody at least told him that?”
Policy analyst and University of Michigan professor Juan Cole even wonders if the president hasn’t been targeted by the NSA.
“Ever since the Snowden revelations of the massive, world-girdling extent of NSA electronic surveillance surfaced, I have been wondering two things: Did they tell Obama about it when they took office in 2009? And, do they have something on Obama?”
In the last few days, a series of leaks have caused more of the NSA’s most closely kept secrets to unravel.
After it became known the U.S. was spying on close allies such as Germany, France, Spain and Brazil, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that the surveillance of Merkel’s phone began as long ago as 2002, three years before her election as chancellor.
The paper also reported that U.S. intelligence operates 80 listening posts worldwide, including 19 in European cities, and targeted Merkel’s phone from 2002 to 2013.
Merkel telephoned Obama Wednesday to express her anger at reports that her phone had been tapped until June.
Over the weekend, the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported Obama personally approved the bugging of Merkel’s phone three years ago, after he was briefed on the operation by NSA Director Keith Alexander in 2010.
The NSA denied that report Sunday.
That same day, the Wall Street Journal reported the wiretapping of about 35 foreign leaders was disclosed to the White House as part of a review of surveillance programs ordered by Obama after NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of the NSA’s massive spying program to the media in May.
The Journal reported someone at the White House ordered a halt to eavesdropping on some, but not all, foreign leaders after learning of it this summer.
Cole speculated we are seeing just a glimpse of what is going on behind behind the scenes, a battle in which the NSA and the White House are trying to pin the blame on each other, and “Obama is furious.”
The professor suspects Obama’s anger is the reason for “the sudden announcements of the retirement of NSA chief Keith Alexander (who apparently should be in jail) and of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (who certainly should be in jail for lying to Congress).”
Cole believes Alexander (“or his circle”) leaked word that Obama personally ordered the phone tap on Merkel. In retaliation, Cole suspects, the White House leaked on Sunday “the fact that the NSA had Merkel’s and 35 other world leaders’ personal phones under surveillance.”
“In attempting to repair Obama’s reputation with his colleagues at the G-20, however, the White House counter-leakers have made an epochal and very serious revelation: The president wasn’t in the know,” concludes Cole, adding, “If so, imagine how furious Obama is behind the scenes.”
The White House is trying to prevent a world-class diplomatic crisis over espionage directed at allies, and deflect its anger directed at America.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said a report on NSA spying is due by the end of the year, but leaders in other countries are demanding immediate changes to U.S. surveillance policies.
Germany, France, Spain, Brazil and Mexico have all complained about the U.S. spying on them.
A German delegation, including top representatives of their own spy agency, is due to arrive in the next few days to meet their counterparts. The Germans will be demanding to know the extent of NSA spying in their country, and the purpose for it.
A week ago, the French government summoned the U.S. ambassador in Paris, urgently demanding an explanation to reports of widespread NSA spying on the phone and Internet communications of French citizens.
The French daily Le Monde published details from Snowden suggesting the spying on the French was on “a massive scale,” including more that 70 million phone calls in a 30-day period last year.
Foreign diplomats are bristling at White House suggestions that its practices are the same as those of “all nations.”
Sources tell the Guardian, that “while the US, Russia, China, Britain and France are well-known to engage in aggressive cyber espionage, including against allies, many other countries do not have anywhere near the same surveillance infrastructure – and concentrate their more limited resources on counter-terrorism and serious crime.”
Spy vs. spy
Legislation to reform the NSA is pending in both houses of Congress this week, but it focuses almost entirely upon the government’s spying on U.S. citizens.
Members of Congress do not appear nearly as upset over the spying revelations as are America’s allies.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R- Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN that mutual surveillance served the “legitimate protection of nation-state interest.”
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House subcommittee on counter-terrorism and intelligence, said “the president should stop apologizing, stop being defensive.”
He added that the NSA had “saved thousands of lives, not just in the United States” but also throughout Europe, and noted Germany was “where the Hamburg plot began, which led to 9/11.”
Outgoing NSA chief Alexander was almost contemptuous, asking “Would I stop doing any of that?” in an interview with a Department of Defense blog, adding, “[N]obody would ever want us to stop protecting this country against terrorists, against adversary states, against cyber (threats.)”
However, the credibility of the U.S. intelligence community has a long way to go to recover from the huge hit it took during a congressional hearing on March 12, when Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked National Intelligence Director Clapper, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
Clapper replied, “No Sir … not wittingly.”
Snowden’s leaks to the media in May proved that Clapper’s statement was not true.
Followe Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth