America’s top intelligence official acknowledged Tuesday that President Obama and other senior White House officials were well aware of U.S. surveillance activities targeting leaders of friendly foreign nations — a stark contradiction of the administration’s insinuation in recent days that the president was unaware of such spying.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper described the targeting of foreign leaders, including American allies, as a “fundamental” aspect of intelligence gathering, and said neither the CIA nor the National Security Agency can tap into a given leader’s private communications without White House oversight.
His testimony, made during a series of tacit exchanges Tuesday with members of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, came as all sides in Congress have begun seriously examining legislative proposals that would rein in the legal framework surrounding the NSA’s snooping programs.
Two lawmakers introduced a bill Tuesday that would end the agency’s legal ability to collect and store massive amounts of private, albeit basic, telephone metadata, while a separate Senate proposal would allow the data gathering to continue under new oversight requirements.
Despite his broad characterizations about the program and the White House’s knowledge of it, Mr. Clapper sought also to defend Mr. Obama during the intelligence hearing, saying that while the president is briefed “quite frequently” on the scope of surveillance operations, it would be “unrealistic” to think his staff regularly goes over specific details, such as explicitly how or when the intelligence is being gleaned.
Testifying alongside Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the NSA, Mr. Clapper painted a picture in which recent revelations about American spying are obvious.
Both men said foreign leaders are disingenuous when expressing outrage over the snooping because America’s own allies have conducted similar spying operations against the U.S.
“Some of this reminds me a lot of the classic movie ‘Casablanca’: ‘My God, there’s gambling going on here?’” Mr. Clapper quipped at one point.
The remarks also added fresh context to the questions surging with Watergate-era flair through Washington in recent days, over exactly what the president knew about NSA efforts to tap into the private communications of some of America’s closest allies, including the cellphones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Mrs. Merkel, along with leaders from Mexico, France, Sweden, Spain and Italy have seethed publicly at international news reports drawn from documents leaked by Edward Snowden — the former NSA contractor now hiding in Russia — that reveal aspects of the American snooping program, including one mission that involved hacking into Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s emails in 2010.
The White House this week has dodged questions about one specific report that claimed Mr. Obama learned of the NSA program’s scope only a few months ago.
The story, published Monday by The Wall Street Journal, cited unidentified officials as saying Mr. Obama had moved to swiftly end the program upon learning that the U.S. was tapping Mrs. Merkel’s phones.
Speaking only the condition of anonymity with reporters, U.S. officials have said that during a personal telephone call with Mrs. Merkel last week, Mr. Obama, who sought to allay the German leader’s frustration about the NSA program, denied having known about it.
Hitting a nerve
While Mr. Clapper and Gen. Alexander asserted Tuesday that the surge of international news reports about the NSA program have been inaccurate, neither was willing to disclose much about what the highly classified program entails.
With the committee hearing open to the public, lawmakers were also reluctant to use anything other than vague language about NSA operations.
During the nearly four-hour session, not one Republican or Democrat asked the specific question of whether Mr. Clapper or Gen. Alexander believes that Mr. Obama knew all along that Mrs. Merkel’s cellphones were being tapped.
During one exchange, Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and committee chairman, asked whether it “would be fair to say that the White House should know what those collection priorities are,” Mr. Clapper responded: “They can and do.”
“But I have to say that that does not necessarily extend down to the level of detail,” Mr. Clapper added quickly. “We don’t necessarily review with the White House what the forthcoming collection deck is. That is done at levels below the White House or the national security staff.”
A day earlier, Senate intelligence committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, in calling for a “total review of all intelligence programs,” said neither she nor the president knew about eavesdropping on the German chancellor.
American intelligence officials have been monitoring world leaders’ conversations and activities for decades, ranging from open-source data and human intelligence from attendees at events to the monitoring of phone calls, according to U.S. officials who have spoken on background with The Washington Times.
Every president in modern history has been aware of the activities and been the beneficiary of information placed into the president’s daily briefings or special topic briefings, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Although those briefings don’t always specify the exact nature of how information was obtained, presidents have known about NSA eavesdropping on allies for many years.
Mr. Obama, for instance, specifically received briefings since being in office about information learned by U.S. intelligence about Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Pakistan’s prime minister, Russian President Vladimir Putin and United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, the officials said.
Officials said intelligence agencies have been bracing for more Snowden-related revelations about espionage involving foreign friendlies.
But during one of the more enlightening exchanges of Tuesday’s hearing, Gen. Alexander told lawmakers he had no doubt that U.S. allies are also spying on Washington.
The testimony came after Rep. Rogers asked, “In your experience as director of the National Security Agency, have the allies of the United States ever, during the course of that time, engaged in anything that you would qualify as an espionage act targeted at the United States of America?”
“Yes, they have,” Gen. Alexander responded, to which Mr. Rogers asked, “And that would be consistent with most of our allies? Well, let’s just pick a place — the European Union?”
“Yes, it would,” Gen. Alexander said.