An amazing footnote to this week’s diplomatic trainwreck. Feinstein isn’t any random Democrat, remember; she’s the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She’s also a loud-and-proud defender of data-mining digital communications in the U.S. to help identify terrorists abroad. As recently as nine days ago, after months of Snowden-related depth charges detonating under the NSA’s hull, she still went ahead and published an op-ed in a major paper dismissing objections to the agency’s call-records program. If she’s okay with that, surely she’s okay with the NSA doing what it’s designed to do by harvesting intel from foreign actors — especially influential foreign actors who shape events that might affect America’s national security, right?
No. That’s where she draws the line.
“With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies—including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany—let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed.
“Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers. The president should be required to approve any collection of this sort.
“It is my understanding that President Obama was not aware Chancellor Merkel’s communications were being collected since 2002. That is a big problem.
“The White House has informed me that collection on our allies will not continue, which I support. But as far as I’m concerned, Congress needs to know exactly what our intelligence community is doing. To that end, the committee will initiate a major review into all intelligence collection programs.”
Per various unnamed intel officials who spoke to the LA Times, someone in the White House was aware. Others told WaPo that Obama first learned of the practice this summer; hard to imagine how that’s true, given that some intel from some head of state somewhere must have made its way up the chain to him over the past four years, but the same officials also say that he wasn’t angry when they told him. Why should he be? This is their job. And they’d still be doing it, doubtless with O’s blessing, if not for Snowden’s exposure. No C-in-C would voluntarily blind himself to information that might give him a strategic advantage militarily or economically.
The irony of Feinstein’s statement is that it inadvertently seems to confirm a core critique of the U.S. intelligence establishment by Snowden supporters while also inadvertently helping them achieve one of their chief strategic goals. It’s one thing to argue that the NSA should have a relatively free hand globally to gather information that might save American lives, but that’s not what Feinstein’s doing — at least not anymore. Affecting theatrical outrage that we’d spy on Angela Merkel while defending data-mining of U.S. citizens sure makes it look to the average person that the real target of NSA surveillance is Americans. (Even worse is Feinstein generating that outrage only upon learning that a fellow member of the international elite had been tapped.) Beyond that, like I said last week, I think some significant part of Snowden’s supporters are less interested in defending Americans’ civil liberties from domestic surveillance than in damaging the United States internationally by revealing foreign spy ops that will cause rifts with allies. (Some NSA defenders on Twitter see the Snowden/Greenwald project as more a modern version of “Active Measures” than a sincere libertarian resistance.) Their goal, presumably, is to reduce American power abroad as those relationships fray and to reduce the NSA’s reach internationally by forcing the agency to pull back in embarrassment. You would think a big NSA fan like Feinstein would want to resistt that effort, but no, she’s now loudly calling for Obama to end this practice. And it looks she’ll get her way. The NSA’s going to pull back internationally, at least a little.
Exit question via Greg Pollowitz: When Feinstein says we should stop spying on “friendly presidents and prime ministers,” who does she mean? There are a few clear-cut examples — the UK, Canada, Israel — but lots and lots of examples that aren’t clear cut. If Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, suddenly discovers next month that his phone’s being tapped, what conclusion should he draw from that about whether America sees him as a friend or not? We’re going to need a firmer standard than friendship here.
Update: “We’re really screwed now,” said one NSA official to The Cable about Feinstein’s switch. Did she know about the surveillance of foreign leaders all along?
A former intelligence agency liaison to Congress said Feinstein’s sudden outrage over spying on foreign leaders raised questions about how well informed she was about NSA programs and whether she’d been fully briefed by her staff. “The first question I’d ask is, what have you been doing for oversight? Second, if you’ve been reviewing this all along what has changed your mind?”
The former official said the intelligence committees receive lengthy and detailed descriptions every year about all NSA programs, including surveillance. “They’re not small books. They’re about the size of those old family photo albums that were several inches thick. They’re hundreds of pages long.”
A senior congressional aide said, “It’s an absolute joke to think she hasn’t been reading the signals intelligence intercepts as Chairman of Senate Intelligence for years.”