Will President Barack Obama’s ongoing “review” of American spying programs lead to a blanket ban on surveillance targeting allied leaders? Not likely.
At first blush, the odds might seem good that the president would embrace sweeping new restrictions in response to the global uproar over the National Security Agency actions.
On Monday, Obama told Fusion TV that he hoped “to make sure that what they're able to do doesn't necessarily mean what they should be doing.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., declared herself “totally opposed” to National Security Agency spying on leaders of U.S. allies, except in times of war or emergency and with a presidential order.
And National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said officials were “examining whether we have the appropriate posture when it comes to heads of state, how we coordinate with our closest allies and partners, and what further guiding principles or constraints might be appropriate for our efforts.”
By Tuesday, Republican House Speaker John Boehner lined up largely behind the review.
“There ought to be review, and it ought to be thorough. We've got obligations to the American people to keep them safe. We've got obligations to our allies around the world,” Boehner told reporters. “But having said that, we've got to find the right balance here. And clearly, we're imbalanced.”
The president, the speaker, the Senate — that’s unusual unity. So why will that rare outbreak of agreement (probably) not result in any major changes when it comes to America spying on its friends? Because the nation’s spymasters show no sign of wanting to. And because it depends on what the meaning of “friends” is.
There’s a list of countries that qualify for special “major non-NATO ally” status — a standing that makes it easier for them to receive American military aid and confers a certain symbolic closeness upon the bilateral relationship.
Who’s on it? Australia, Egypt, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Jordan, New Zealand, Argentina, Bahrain, the Philippines, Thailand, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Sure, Obama has sometimes bent the definition: He famously described Egypt in a 2012 interview with Telemundo as “not an ally, not an enemy,” which left the State Department flailing to explain what the relationship was.
And Hayden’s statement about heads of state technically would not cover leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who are technically heads of government. (U.S. officials say the review covers both).
But can you imagine Obama — or any president — categorically ruling out spying on Pakistan, its people or its leaders? Or Afghanistan? Or even Mexico? Egypt?
Two of the country’s top spy chiefs don't seem able to imagine that.
“That's a hardy perennial,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. “As long as I've been in the intelligence business, 50 years, leadership intentions in whatever form that's expressed is kind of a basic tenet of what we are to collect and analyze.”
Have America’s allies targeted America’s leaders for spying?
“Absolutely,” Clapper said, before declaring that the chorus of European outrage “reminds me a lot of the classic movie ‘Casablanca.’ My God, there's gambling going on here? You know, it's the same kind of thing.” (Clapper: Not the guy you want on your movie quotes trivia team).
The White House has said that there are several reviews of intelligence gathering, and suggested that some spying on foreign leaders already has been curtailed. When it comes to Merkel, White House press secretary Jay Carney repeated Tuesday, “the United States is not and will not gather information on her communications.” (OK, but what about this? )
Career intelligence officials say it’s unlikely that Obama knew about the spying on Merkel. First, because his daily “presidential daily brief” on national security is generally fairly thin on sourcing. Second, because spying on Merkel probably generated few dynamite disclosures. Third, because Germany is not a closed and hostile regime like North Korea or a hostile and complex one like Iran. The president would be less likely to challenge his team to explain where a given piece information came from.
But if Obama could publicly announce an end to spying on Merkel, could he do so for other world leaders? Though careful to deny reported plans for a blanket halt to spying on allied leaders, U.S. officials have indicated that the administration is weighing the strategic value of intelligence obtained from various methods versus the potential for diplomatic tensions that could damage cooperation on key dossiers.
Representative Adam Schiff, D-Calif., pressed Clapper on that very problem at Tuesday’s hearing.
“Well, sir, there are many things we do in intelligence that, if revealed, might have the potential for all kinds of blowback,” Clapper replied.
But, Clapper noted, “the conduct of intelligence is premised on the notion that we can do it secretly, and we don't count on it being revealed in the newspaper.”