Spying on the President

The latest outrage from the NSA.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel celebrated the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Berlin in 2008, she could not have imagined that she was blessing the workplace for the largest and most effective gaggle of American spies anywhere outside of the U.S.

It seems straight out of a grade-B movie, but it has been happening for the past eleven years: The NSA has been using Merkel to spy on the president of the United States. We now know that the NSA has been listening to and recording Merkel's cellphone calls since 2002. In 2008, when the new embassy opened, the NSA began using more sophisticated techniques that included not only listening, but also following her. Merkel uses her cellphone more frequently than her landline, and she uses it to communicate with her husband and family members, the leadership of her political party, and her colleagues and officials in the German government.

She also uses her cellphone to speak with foreign leaders, among whom have been President George W. Bush and President Obama. Thus, the NSA -- which Bush and Obama have unlawfully and unconstitutionally authorized to obtain and retain digital copies of all telephone conversations, texts and emails of everyone in the U.S., as well as those of hundreds of millions of persons in Europe and Latin America -- has been listening to the telephone calls of both American presidents whenever they have spoken with the chancellor.

One could understand the NSA's propensity to listen to the conversations of those foreign leaders who wish us ill. And one would expect that it would do so. But the urge to listen to the leadership of our allies serves no discernible intelligence-gathering purpose. Rather, it fuels distrust between our nations and in the case of Merkel exacerbates memories of the all-seeing and all-hearing Stasi, which was the East German version of the KGB that ruled that police state from the end of World War II until it collapsed in 1989. Merkel was raised in East Germany, and she has a personal revulsion at the concept of omnipresent state surveillance.

Obama apparently has no such revulsion. One would think he's not happy that his own spies have been listening to him. One would expect that he would have known of this. Not from me, says Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA, who disputed claims in the media that he told Obama of the NSA spying network in Germany last summer. Either the president knew of this and has denied it, or he is invincibly ignorant of the forces he has unleashed on us and on himself.

When Susan Rice, Obama's national security advisor, was confronted with all of this by her German counterpart, she first told him the White House would deny it. Then she called him to say that the White House could not deny it, but the president would deny that he personally knew of it.

How did we get here? What are the consequences of a president spying on himself? What does this mean for the rest of us?

Neither Bush nor Obama has had a strong fidelity to the Constitution. They share the views of another odd couple of presidents from opposing political parties, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, in that the Constitution is not the supreme law of the land as it proclaims to be, but rather a guideline that unleashes the president to do all that it does not expressly forbid him to do. In the progressive era 100 years ago, that presidential attitude brought us the Federal Reserve, the federal income tax, Prohibition, World War I, prosecutions for speech critical of the government and the beginnings of official modern government racial segregation.

That same attitude in our era has brought us the Patriot Act, which allows federal agents to write their own search warrants, government borrowing that knows no end -- including the $2 trillion Bush borrowed for the war in Iraq, a country which is now less stable than before Bush invaded, and the $7 trillion Obama borrowed to redistribute -- and an NSA that monitors all Americans all the time. In the case of the NSA spying, this came about by the secret orders of Bush and Obama, animated by that perverse TR/Wilsonian view of the Constitution and not by a congressional vote after a great national debate.

Just as people change when they know they are being watched, the government changes when it knows no one can watch it. Just as we can never be ourselves when we fear that we may need to justify our most intimate thoughts to an all-knowing government, so, too, the government knows that when we cannot see what it is doing, it can do whatever it wants. And it is in the nature of government to expand, not shrink. Thomas Jefferson correctly predicted that 175 years ago.

But spying on yourself is truly asinine and perhaps criminal. You see, the president can officially declassify any secrets he wants, but he cannot -- without official declassification -- simply reveal them to NSA agents. One can only imagine what NSA agents learned from listening to Bush and Obama as they spoke to Merkel and 34 other friendly foreign leaders, as yet unidentified publicly.

Now we know how pervasive this NSA spying is: It not only reaches the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, the CIA, the local police and the cellphones and homes of all Americans; it reaches the Oval Office itself. Yet when the president denies that he knows of this, that denial leads to more questions.

The president claims he can start secret foreign wars using the CIA, secretly kill Americans using drones, and now secretly spy on anyone anywhere using the NSA. Is the president an unwitting dupe to a secret rats' nest of uncontrolled government spies and killers? Or is he a megalomaniacal, totalitarian secret micromanager who lies regularly, consistently and systematically about the role of government in our lives?

Which is worse?

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  • Ted S.||

    But but but BOOOOOOOOOOSH!!!111!!!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...she could not have imagined that she was blessing the workplace for the largest and most effective gaggle of American spies anywhere outside of the U.S.

    She would be a fool not to know it. I doubt there is a U.S. embassy that isn't staffed with spooks. I do wonder if she's actually supposed to believe Obama didn't know about the surveillance, though.

    Anyway, we all know who is really to blame for the scandal. No, not George W. Bush. Edward Snowden is the cause. And he must be held accountable.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Snowden releasing what the NSA does with regard to foreign governments is not helping his case for not being a traitor.

  • Brian D||

    It also not helping the government's case for not violating the law.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort."

    Or in other words, Mickey Rat is an idiot.

  • sarcasmic||

    Who isn't an enemy of the federal government? Seriously. Everyone except government employees are suspected terrorists until they prove otherwise, and even then are still to be viewed with suspicion. Everyone.

  • db||

    This government has succumbed to paranoia. Digging it back put of that pit will be a decades-long effort, and, like the efforts of any who try to save a loved one from a serious mental disease, unlikely to be successful.

  • Doctor Whom||

    That was written like 100 years ago in Anglo-Saxon, and besides, it isn't a suicide pact.

  • Sevo||

    Mickey Rat|10.31.13 @ 7:28AM|#
    "Snowden releasing what the NSA does with regard to foreign governments is not helping his case for not being a traitor."

    He's looking more like a hero every day.

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    If you dropped the "U.S." from the first line it would be more correct. All embassies, no matter who they belong to or where they are, are spy platforms.

    Why the judge is acting all surprised about all of this is a bit odd too.

  • SomeGuy||

    if you honestly think snowden is a traitor and needs to be held accountable than you are a bigger fool than dunphy....seriously i am shocked to hear that come from you.

  • Mickey Rat||

    "But the urge to listen to the leadership of our allies serves no discernible intelligence-gathering purpose."

    Germany's interests always line up perfectly with US interests, in all things, at all times? It is always useful to know what other leaders are really thinking, even ostensible allies. Methods may be questioned, but reading the mail of foreign governments, all foreign governments is the NSA's scope of work. The idea that allies should be exempt is pollyannish and naïve.

  • Brian D||

    But we would be outraged to find out that the White House phone line is being tapped by the Germans. OUTRAGED, I SAY!

  • Rich||

    And you would be WRONG. Why, exactly, do you think the White House constantly lies and spouts nonsense?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    One reason the Europeans are so outraged is that in many of their countries "secrecy of correspondence" is a right enshrined in their constitutions.

    Secondly, a certain element of secrecy is needed for the engine of diplomacy to run smoothly. If that trust isn't there, then there is no reason to ally.

    Now some may argue that the US should "ally" with anyone, but that's a discussion for another time.

  • DJF||

    Actually they have the usual European cop out when it comes to rights.

    Here is the German version. The first sentence sounds great then the second undercuts it

    ""(1) The privacy of correspondence, posts and telecommunications
    shall be inviolable.
    (2) Restrictions may be ordered only pursuant to a law. If the
    restriction serves to protect the free democratic basic order
    or the existence or security of the Federation or of a Land,
    the law may provide that the person affected shall not be
    informed of the restriction and that recourse to the courts
    shall be replaced by a review of the case by agencies and
    auxiliary agencies appointed by the legislature.
    I."""

  • wareagle||

    ah, the FYTW clause. So every govt has it.

  • DJF||

    Yep. You have all these rights unless we don't want you to have them.

  • Arn0||

    Actually what the NSA did was against both international and domestic law, even when the targets weren't allies.

    The Vienna convention specifically protect diplomatic communication from spying. This convention, legally ratified by the US government, is the law of the land in the USA.

    Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations :
    "Article 27 :
    1.The receiving State shall permit and protect free communication on the part of the mission for all official purposes. In communicating with the Government and the other missions and consulates of the sending State, wherever situated) the mission may employ all appropriate means,including diplomatic couriers and messages in code or cipher* Нот/ever,the mission may install and use a wireless transmitter only with the consent of the receiving State.
    2. The official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable. Official correspondence means all correspondence relating to the mission and its functions.
    [...]
    Article 30 :
    [...]
    2.[The diplomatic agent] papers, correspondence and, except as provided in paragraph 3 of Article 31, his property, shall likewise enjoy inviolability."

    US Constitution :
    "[...]Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding."

    It's crystal clear.

  • Sevo||

    So is the 4th Amendment, but Obo and crowd don't care.

  • Rich||

    One could understand the NSA's propensity to listen to the conversations of those foreign leaders who wish us ill.

    You're almost there, Judge. Now, just make the leap to "*Everyone* is a potential terrorist".

  • Rich||

    Just as people change when they know they are being watched, the government changes when it knows no one can watch it.

    "Dance like nobody's watching!"

  • wareagle||

    Is the president an unwitting dupe to a secret rats' nest of uncontrolled government spies and killers? Or is he a megalomaniacal, totalitarian secret micromanager who lies regularly, consistently and systematically about the role of government in our lives?

    well, yes. And fuck you, that's why.

  • Almanian!||

    You know another German leader whose plans the US wanted to monitor...

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    Baader and Meinhof?

  • Rich||

    David Hasselhoff?

  • Brian D||

    Col. Klink?

  • Ted S.||

    Jürgen Klinsmann?

  • Anomalous||

    Franz Schubert? Oh sorry, I thought you meant lieder.

  • Ndogg||

    Hans Gruber?

  • DenverJay||

  • Almanian!||

    But mostly - WHY ARE YOU RUNNING THIS CRAP! We need - we DEMAND - articles on Obamacare suckitude, and Lou Reed's death. That's all the news that's fit to print.

    Now get to it - chop, chop!

  • sarcasmic||

    Lou Reed is dead? Holy shit!

  • db||

    The ocean finally came.

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    That same attitude in our era has brought us the Patriot Act, which allows federal agents to write their own search warrants,

    COINTELPRO allowed agents to write their own warrants too, for a while they got to skip the warrant and write their own wiretap orders. How is this new again, other than in name?

  • Gordilocks||

    But COINTELPRO was used for spying on hippies, not terrorists. Remember, two different classes of American citizens.

  • SugarFree||

    I don't get the "[shrug] We've been doing this forever!" argument. We have not been scooping up this much information until just a few years ago, and it was always wrong. It's just another "But, but BOOOSH!" red herring.

    The real reason the NSA needs to be burned down and rebuilt with strong oversight is that they were incompetent enough to let Snowden get a hold of all of this stuff in the first place.

  • Gordilocks||

    No, just burn it down. Rebuilding it would only encourage them. .

  • 4thaugust1932||

    American economy will continue to slide till https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triffin_dilemma is resolved.

  • Loki||

    Either the president knew of this and has denied it, or he is invincibly ignorant of the forces he has unleashed on us and on himself.

    ...or he just doesn't give a shit.

    Is the president an unwitting dupe to a secret rats' nest of uncontrolled government spies and killers? Or is he a megalomaniacal, totalitarian secret micromanager who lies regularly, consistently and systematically about the role of government in our lives?

    Which is worse?

    Does it matter? The end result is the same either way.

  • Will Nonya||

    "Is the president an unwitting dupe to a secret rats' nest of uncontrolled government spies and killers? Or is he a megalomaniacal, totalitarian secret micromanager who lies regularly, consistently and systematically about the role of government in our lives?"

    The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle.

    Unfortunately he does seem to have a severe case of "Doing right ain't got no end"

  • DenverJay||

    I'm guessing most of it was FYTW but he didn't realize his own conversations would also be swept up.

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