The news reports about the National Security Agency snooping on foreign leaders show a White House intent on abusing NSA capabilities for political purposes. As a veteran of the George W. Bush White House, I’m persuaded that had we done this, the Democrats in Congress would have called it a major scandal and held endless hearings designed to attack the administration.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument — and in order to avoid disclosing any classified information — that the United States has the capability to monitor telephone conversations and emails of foreign leaders. There are at least two kinds of communications that we should not monitor.
The first would be communications of our close allies — people like British prime minister David Cameron, German chancellor Angela Merkel, and top leaders of countries such as Japan, Australia, Canada, France, and Israel. To snoop on them is a betrayal of trust, of the assumption that we are dealing with each other directly as close allies. Because they are close allies, if we want to know what they are thinking and doing, we should ask them — not spy on them as a matter of course.
The second category would be communications that logically and in practice intrude on members of Congress and other Americans who are going about entirely legitimate political activity. To aim at and to capture such communications is an abuse of executive power against Congress, and an abuse of citizens’ rights to engage in political activity in opposition to the administration in office.
The Obama administration will no doubt argue that it did not order any such spying. The Wall Street Journal article notes that officials were careful not to leave a record of such taskings of NSA. But being a clever bureaucrat is not a defense: Officials in the White House knew perfectly well what was going on, and silence here was clearly consent to continue these practices.
A story from the Reagan years suggests what ought to be the American attitude. In the 1980s, when I was assistant secretary of state for Latin America, a CIA officer approached me with a proposal. They had the ability to bug the office of a Latin American leader. They wanted to do it. Did I authorize them to go forward? I replied that this was above my pay grade and I’d have to ask Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and I did so. Shultz refused to authorize the bug. The leader in question was democratically elected and a friend of the United States — just like those targeted recently by NSA, according to the Journal. Shultz said such a person had the right to assume he’d be treated better by his friends in Washington than this. Unless there was something vital to our national security — not convenience, not politics — we should be spying on enemies, not friends.
The recent cases are even worse, because they involve our domestic politics. The Journal says NSA and the White House spied on Israeli efforts to lobby against the president’s Iran deal. If that’s okay, what about spying on Japanese or Australian or South Korean embassy contacts urging Congress to pass TPP, or German or French embassy efforts to see what Congress will do on refugee policy? How about foreign-embassy contacts with various presidential campaigns? Where does it stop? What’s the limiting principle here — that NSA can do whatever the White House wants if it handles the material carefully?
Sure, there can be exceptions and moments when the rules must be suspended briefly for national-security reasons. But the pattern of capturing allies’ internal communications, the communications of senators and congressmen and women, and the speech and emails of Americans engaged in politics is what we see in the new revelations about Obama-era spying. The administration faced a battle in Congress, and it spied on the other side. That’s the kind of conduct we see in third-world countries where control of the spy agency is one of the ways an incumbent regime holds on to power and defeats its political opponents. It ought to be a major scandal when such practices reach the United States.