Deniability And Accountability

The latest surprising American surveillance story has to do with the amount of spying the National Security Agency is doing overseas — and who is the target of the spying.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of a number of foreign leaders whose phones were wiretapped by the NSA.

The NSA now says that President Obama wasn’t aware of the wiretapping of Merkel’s phone or those of other foreign leaders and stopped the practice this past summer when NSA surveillance programs were reviewed after Edward Snowden’s leaks.  The NSA says the President doesn’t sign off on such programs — basically because there are so many spying programs the NSA doesn’t even advise the President of all of them.

There are reports to the contrary, which assert that President Obama in fact was aware of the wiretapping programs and didn’t stop them.  But let’s assume for the moment that the denials of President Obama’s knowledge of the programs are true.  Doesn’t that tell us something even more damning about our spy programs?  It’s fair to assume that foreign leaders would be upset about America tapping their phones if they ever learned of the practice — to the point where it might imperil our relationships with our allies.  Given that risk, wouldn’t it be prudent to get clearance for such programs at the very highest levels?  If President Obama wasn’t regularly advised of such programs and making the decisions about whether to continue them, who was?

We’ve got a surveillance community in this country that has an insatiable appetite for more information and that appears to be accountable to no one.  Congress and the President need to address this issue and bring our intelligence community back under meaningful civilian control.  Otherwise, we are going to be in for more leaks, more embarrassment, more difficult conversations with angry foreign leaders, and more credibility problems for the American government.