When whistleblower Edward Snowden told us how the NSA was spying on Americans, as far back as 2009, little did we know just how far the spying went. We are now finding out that the NSA also spied on 35 world leaders, as far back as 2006.
The revelations about domestic data-mining have been less of a headache for the White House on balance than the fallout internationally over NSA spying on allies like Angela Merkel, but Snowden couldn’t get away with the latter if he wasn’t also responsible for the former.
And Snowden’s media contacts are slowing releasing information.
A confidential memo reveals that the NSA encourages senior officials in its “customer” departments, such the White House, State and the Pentagon, to share their “Rolodexes” so the agency can add the phone numbers of leading foreign politicians to their surveillance systems…
“In one recent case,” the  memo notes, “a US official provided NSA with 200 phone numbers to 35 world leaders … Despite the fact that the majority is probably available via open source, the PCs [intelligence production centers] have noted 43 previously unknown phone numbers. These numbers plus several others have been tasked.”…
But the memo acknowledges that eavesdropping on the numbers had produced “little reportable intelligence”. In the wake of the Merkel row, the US is facing growing international criticism that any intelligence benefit from spying on friendly governments is far outweighed by the potential diplomatic damage.
We also know that the NSA collects strategic intelligence. It must, because the United States does not have the freedom to act without consequences, and without, in many cases, the aid and acquiescence of allies. Make no mistake: For the NSA, giving the U.S. president valuable information to the exclusion of every other country and leader in the world is not a morally ambiguous goal. It’s the goal. It’s not controversial.
Obama needs to have solid intelligence, a good guesstimate, on what other countries are going to do and how they will respond to whatever he decides to do.
If anything, the White House and the NSA are in the same position here as they are in handling counterterrorism, where political incentives force the feds to err on the side of aggressiveness lest they be seen in the aftermath of a major intelligence failure as not having done everything they could to prevent it.
But where do we draw the line? Do these other world leaders have cause to demand answers from Obama, as to what information was harvested from all the eavesdropping?
Remember, Obama has already ticked off the President of Brazil, and now German Chancellor Angela Merkel.