The dispute over American surveillance of foreign leaders took a sharp inward turn yesterday, as key figures in the Obama administration pointed fingers at each other over the NSA’s activities. Secretary of State John Kerry got the ball rolling by telling a UK audience that the NSA had gone “too far” and that the White House would rein in its intelligence agencies in the future:
“The president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there,” Kerry said.
“In some cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.”
He was quick to defend the US intelligence services for their efforts, however, arguing their motivation was clear.
“We have actually prevented airplanes from going down, buildings from being blown up, and people from being assassinated because we’ve been able to learn ahead of time of the plans,” Kerry added.
“I assure you, innocent people are not being abused in this process, but there’s an effort to try to gather information. And yes, in some cases, it has reached too far inappropriately.”
He said president Barack Obama was conducting a “thorough review” which would ensure that the “sense of abuse” would not continue in the future.
NSA chief Keith Alexander responded with an immediate rebuke, claiming that the NSA didn’t just decide to target foreign leaders on its own. Instead, Alexander made clear that he and his agency had been specifically tasked to do so — by the Obama administration:
The director of the National Security Agency has blamed US diplomats for requests to place foreign leaders under surveillance, in a surprising intervention that risks a confrontation with the State Department.
General Keith Alexander made the remarks during a pointed exchange with a former US ambassador to Romania, lending more evidence to suggestions of a rift over surveillance between the intelligence community and Barack Obama’s administration. …
Alexander replied: “That is a great question, in fact as an ambassador you have part of the answer. Because we the intelligence agencies don’t come up with the requirements. The policymakers come up with the requirements.”
He went on: “One of those groups would have been, let me think, hold on, oh: ambassadors.”
Alexander said the NSA collected information when it was asked by policy officials to discover the “leadership intentions” of foreign countries. “If you want to know leadership intentions, these are the issues,” the NSA director said.
The State Department declined to respond to Alexander’s assertion:
At today’s State Department briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki deflected questions on whether the State Department bears responsibility for the wiretaps.
“We’re all working together, the White House, the State Department, any department that has any connection with foreign governments,” Psaki said, when pressed on whether the department accepts Alexander’s assertions.
This was the most public response yet to the White House’s claim to know nothing about espionage on foreign leaders. Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times got an earful from the intelligence community pushing back on Barack Obama’s supposed ignorance of the program. “Certainly the National Security Council and senior people across the intelligence community knew exactly what was going on,” one source said, “and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous.” The only way Obama could have failed to know about the program, other sources told the LA Times, was if he didn’t bother to ever read his briefing books.
This shot from Alexander is different. It’s on the record, for one, but also it turns the Obama administration from being a passive recipient of these intel streams into being an active quarterback in their operation. It’s yet another instance in which a threadbare cover story has been blown apart for the White House, this time from within.
By the way, let’s not forget that John Kerry is just a recent arrival. If Alexander was being driven to supply this data by “the policymakers” and “ambassadors,” then perhaps Hillary Clinton has a few questions to answer as well on this point.