Civil Liberties

Does President Obama Know What In Hell the NSA Is Up To?


President Obama
White House

At a gathering of political leaders of the world's larger economies focused on giving them all an opportunity to glare and growl at each other about appropriate responses or non-responses to Syria's civil war, President Obama was asked a question a bit…off-topic. Specifically, Agence France Presse's Tangi Quéméner asked him about a relatively minor side issue in the slow drip of revelations about National Security Agency surveillance of as much of the planet's conversations as possible: allegations that the NSA spied on the presidents of Brazil and Mexico. Obama's answer was…interesting.

The exchange during a press conference at the G20 conference in St. Petersburg, Russia went like this:

I will take the last question.  Tangi—AFP.

Q:  Thank you, Mr. President.  Yesterday night you had two unscheduled bilateral meetings with your Brazilian and Mexican counterparts after they voiced very strong concerns about being allegedly targeted by the NSA.  What was your message to them?  And do the revelations—the constant stream of revelations over this summer make it harder for you to build confidence with your partners in international forums such as this one?

Now, just more specifically, then, on Brazil and Mexico.  I said that I would look into the allegations.  I mean, part of the problem here is we get these through the press and then I've got to go back and find out what's going on with respect to these particular allegations—I don't subscribe to all these newspapers, although I think the NSA does—now at least.  (Laughter.)

And then, what I assured President Rousseff and President Peña Nieto is, is that they should take—that I take these allegations very seriously.  I understand their concerns; I understand the concerns of the Mexican and Brazilian people, and that we will work with their teams to resolve what is a source of tension.

"Part of the problem here is we get these through the press and then I've got to go back and find out what's going on"? Really? So this surveillance stuff is all news to the second-term president of the United States?

So, what do you say? Is President Obama finding out about the NSA's interesting activities along with the rest of us? Is he bullshitting the press corps and the public? A bit of both?