Did Obama Know about NSA Monitoring of Foreign Leaders or Not?

by Patrick Brennan

The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that President Obama wasn’t aware that the National Security Agency was tapping the communications of foreign leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, and ordered a halt to the operations when he found out, contradicting a report on the same day by the German paper Bild am Sonntag, which cited an NSA official claiming that the president did know about it, and had in fact requested monitoring of Merkel. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, claimed yesterday in a statement that the president didn’t know about the operation, in addition to demanding that such operations not be carried out in the future.

Then, Monday night, the Los Angeles Times published a story that seemed to split the difference: An intelligence official told the paper that senior White House officials — but maybe not President Obama himself — had okayed the operation and had to have known about it. Here’s the key bit:

Precisely how the surveillance is conducted is unclear. But if a foreign leader is targeted for eavesdropping, the relevant U.S. ambassador and the National Security Council staffer at the White House who deals with the country are given regular reports, said two former senior intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing classified information.

Obama may not have been specifically briefed on NSA operations targeting a foreign leader’s cellphone or email communications, one of the officials said. “But certainly the National Security Council and senior people across the intelligence community knew exactly what was going on, and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous.”

If U.S. spying on key foreign leaders was news to the White House, current and former officials said, then White House officials have not been reading their briefing books.

Senator Feinstein — with the acquiescence of the president — is now calling for a sweeping review of the NSA, its methods, and powers. Thus stories like the one in the L.A. Times (note the sourcing) have been seen as a defensive maneuver by the intelligence community, which obviously doesn’t like seeing its work disowned by the White House that may have relied on it for years, and is worried about the continuing, intensifying political backlash from the Snowden disclosures.