Buffeted by diplomatic blowback, President Barack Obama now says he may order America’s spies to stop tapping the phones of our allies' leaders.
Sen. Diane Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Monday that’s what White House officials told her. But as usual with espionage, there’s enough wiggle room in that declaration for a Miley Cyrus twerk-fest.
The administration quickly walked back Feinstein’s assertion, saying it reserves the right to continue spying in friendly countries if it involves criminal activity, potential terrorism or unconventional weapons. That sounds reasonable.
But given how the much more restrictive laws controlling domestic spying have been contorted since 9-11 to justify collecting and storing the phone records of essentially every single American, that exception sounds like a green light to keep right on tapping foreign leaders.
After all, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel went ballistic last week upon learning the United States had tapped her personal phones, the official White House line was Obama didn’t know anything about it, the U.S. wasn’t doing it at that moment and wouldn’t in the future.
There’s a whole lot of wiggling going on.
If Obama really didn’t know the National Security Agency was listening in on the calls of friendly foreign leaders, then he was dangerously out of the loop and the NSA has gone rogue. If that’s true it’s a huge problem for anyone who values personal privacy.
If Obama did know, and just doesn’t want to admit that to our aggrieved allies, then it’s an official lie. So what are we to think when the same administration insists the NSA respects the privacy of American citizens?
Maybe Obama was intentionally kept officially uninformed about what he knew was happening in order to give him plausible deniability if it ever came to light.
There’s little comfort in any of those scenarios. Obama needs to rein in the NSA’s sleuthing. It’s off the hook.