Security

Obama unaware of NSA’s world leader spying campaign; data collected on 60M Spanish phone calls

Above: President Obama on Air Force One

As more details emerge on the extent of international spying by the NSA, what’s most interesting is how little President Obama may have known.

Obama may have gone almost five years in office without hearing about the controversial NSA operation to spy on dozens of world leaders, the Wall Street Journal reports, based on statements from administration officials.

That operation, which was revealed last week in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, involved the NSA spying on at least 35 world leaders, following an effort to get government officials to share their contacts. It was reportedly revealed to President Obama after an internal review of the NSA’s spying efforts, which the administration conducted this summer. Officials say the White House shut down that program after learning about it, along with other surveillance efforts that were previously unknown.

At the same time, administration officials said it continued to spy on some world leaders where the intelligence it gathered was actionable. Some spying campaigns are also scheduled to be shut down, but haven’t been terminated yet.

So how can the President of the United States be unaware of such a massive spying effort? As the administration tells it, the NSA has so many surveillance campaigns in action that it’s not practical to brief the President on each of them. Instead, one U.S. official notes, Obama was briefed on “priorities” for intelligence, while decisions on individual surveillance campaigns were made at the NSA. “The president doesn’t sign off on this stuff,” the official said.

“The agency’s activities stem from the National Intelligence Priorities Framework, which guides prioritization for the operation, planning, and programming of U.S. intelligence analysis and collection,” NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines told the WSJ.

The news raises plenty of questions: Was it smarter for President Obama not to get briefed on specific spying campaigns to remain blameless? Should the administration have begun reviewing surveillance campaigns earlier? As the NSA’s surveillance methods come into focus, it’s definitely smart for Obama to distance himself from it as much as possible.

In other news, Spanish newspaper El Mundo is reporting that the NSA collected data on more than 60 million calls from Spanish citizens. That article was cowritten by Glenn Greenwald, the freelance journalist who worked with Edward Snowden to break the news on the NSA’s spying efforts. It comes just a week after a similar report claimed that the NSA spied on French citizens.

Back to Germany, German news magazine¬†Der Spiegel claims that the United States’ embassy in the heart of Berlin also served as a surveillance hub for the NSA and CIA. Documents reveal that a “Special Collection Service” (SCS) unit at the embassy is focused entirely on covert spying while also enjoying the privileges of typical diplomats. They rely on special equipment installed at the embassy to track cellular, satellite, and wireless network communication.