The Cable

'We're Really Screwed Now': NSA's Best Friend Just Shivved The Spies

One of the National Security Agency's biggest defenders in Congress is suddenly at odds with the agency and calling for a top-to-bottom review of U.S. spy programs. And her long-time friends and allies are completely mystified by the switch.

"We're really screwed now," one NSA official told The Cable. "You know things are bad when the few friends you've got disappear without a trace in the dead of night and leave no forwarding address."

In a pointed statement issued today, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein said she was "totally opposed" to gathering intelligence on foreign leaders and said it was "a big problem" if President Obama didn't know the NSA was monitoring the phone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She said the United States should only be spying on foreign leaders with hostile countries, or in an emergency, and even then the president should personally approve the surveillance. 

It was not clear what precipitated Feinstein's condemnation of the NSA. It marks a significant reversal for a lawmaker who not only defended agency surveillance programs -- but is about to introduce a bill expected to protect some of its most controversial activities.

Perhaps most significant is her announcement that the intelligence committee "will initiate a review into all intelligence collection programs." Feinstein did not say the review would be limited only to the NSA. If the review also touched on other intelligence agencies under the committee's jurisdiction, it could be one of the most far-reaching reviews in recent memory, encompassing secret programs of the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, agencies that run imagery and spy satellites, as well as components of the FBI.

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."

The former official added that the "bottom line question is where was the Senate Intelligence Committee when it came to their oversight of these programs? And what were they being told by the NSA, because if they didn't know about this surveillance, that would imply they were being lied to."

A spokesperson for Feinstein did not respond to a request for more details in time for publication. And a spokesperson for Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the intelligence committee's vice chairman, said the senator had no comment at this time.

In a tacit acknowledgement of how supportive Feinstein has been of the administration's surveillance practices, the White House issued a lengthy statement about her Monday remarks.

"We consult regularly with Chairman Feinstein as a part of our ongoing engagement with the Congress on national security matters," said National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden. "We appreciate her continued leadership on these issues as Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.  I'm not going to go into the details of those private discussions, nor am I going to comment on assertions made in the Senator's statement today about U.S. foreign intelligence activities." The statement went on to note the administration's current review of surveillance practices worldwide.

The surprise change of tone comes during a crucial week on Capitol Hill as lawmakers on opposing sides of the surveillance debate look to introduce rival bills related to the NSA.

Striking first blood, opponents of expansive NSA surveillance are expected to introduce the "USA Freedom Act" on Tuesday, which would limit the bulk data collection of records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, install an "office of the special advocate" to appeal FISA court decisions, and give subpoena powers on privacy matters to the Privacy and Civil LIberties Oversight Board. Sponsored by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI), the bill is backed by a strong bipartisan bench of some 60 lawmakers, including Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Mike Quigley (D-IL), and Justin Amash (R-MI) and Sheila Jackson (D-TX).

A draft of the bill was provided to The Cable by a congressional aide and can be viewed in full here.

Unlike many House bills, Freedom Act has some bipartisan support in the Senate in the form of Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, who will be introducing a similar bill at the same time.

On the opposing side is Feinstein, who is looking to codify the NSA's controversial phone records program in her bill set for markup this week. According to published reports, the bill would give the agency the authority to vacuum metadata of all U.S. phone calls but not their content, meaning duration, numbers, and time of phone calls are fair game. A spokesperson for Feinstein said that the senator plans to move forward with the bill even in light of today's rhetorical about-face.

While the Feinstein bill could gain support in the Senate, a Congressional aide familiar with the politics in the House say it's likely dead on arrival in the lower chamber. If it went down, however, pro-surveillance lawmakers would still likely put up a fight.

"The fact is, the NSA has done more to save German lives than the German army since World War II," Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said on CNN.

Still, others often in favor of government surveillance have carved out surprising positions. Republican hawk John McCain, for instance, is now calling for a special select committee to investigate U.S. spying. "We have always eavesdropped on people around the world. But the advance of technology has given us enormous capabilities, and I think you might make an argument that some of this capability has been very offensive both to us and to our allies," McCain said.

Over at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Monday refused to comment on the NSA's surveillance of world leaders, dismissing questions about what he may or may not have known about intelligence collection. "We have great respect for our partners, our allies, who cooperate with us and we cooperate with them to try to keep the world safe," said Hagel, standing beside New Zealand Minister of Defense Jonathan Coleman during a Pentagon press briefing. "Intelligence is a key part of that. And I think this issue will continue to be explored, as -- as it is now, but that's all I have to say."

Coleman responded to the same question: "New Zealand's not worried at all about this," he said. "We don't believe it would be occurring, and look, quite frankly there'd be nothing that anyone could hear in our private conversations that we wouldn't be prep[ared to share publicly." Coleman then cited a political cartoon in a newspaper in Wellington. It showed an analyst listening to the communiques from New Zealand with a big stream of "ZZZs" next to it. "I don't think New Zealand's got anything to worry about, and we have high trust in our relationships with the U.S."

With additional reporting by Matthew Aid and Gordon Lubold

The Cable

U.S. Official Blames Shutdown for Failure to Explain NSA Spying

Ever since the first disclosures of global surveillance by the National Security Agency this past June, the Obama administration has maintained a consistent public response: The intelligence gathering programs are effective, legal, and meet with the approval of President Obama. In remarks in August, Obama said, "America is not interested in spying on ordinary people. Our intelligence is focused, above all, on finding the information that's necessary to protect our people, and -- in many cases -- protect our allies."

But now come revelations that the United States has also been spying on those same allies. Questions about how far that surveillance went, and what the White House knew about it, have caught officials off-guard and tied their public response in knots. The NSA is insisting that all of its spying operations are done with the White House's blessing -- while Obama administration officials say that the President was unaware of some of the NSA's most politically-explosive missions. No wonder there's a growing sense at the upper levels of the administration that the NSA has gone too far, and needs to be reined in.

The latest trip-up came Monday, during a scheduled hearing of the Organization of American States (OAS), a long-standing continental organization that includes 35 independent states of the Americas. U.S. diplomats were scheduled to explain NSA practices at the hearing for the first time on the international stage. But Deputy U.S. Permanent Representative to the OAS Lawrence Gumbiner could not offer a response, citing the recent U.S. government shutdown.

"With the government closed and most of its employees furloughed, we lost the time essential for us to engage our inter-agency colleagues and prepare for this hearing," said Gumbiner. The inability to respond to any of the complaints cited about mass surveillance of individuals living outside the United States, a complaint of the hearing's petitioners, clearly frustrated Rodrigo Escobar Gil, rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty of the OAS's Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

"The arguments of the state have been taken into account but there's no causes beyond the control of the state like an earthquake or natural disaster or something like that, that would have made it impossible to respond," Gil said. "The fact of the matter is that the domestic matters of the state are not justification for not providing a response to international bodies. This is an important opportunity."

It's especially important because news reports of NSA spying on foreign governments and their leaders have piled up last week, to include operations aimed at German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone, the emails of former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and the communications of up to 35 world leaders, as well as large-scale public surveillance directed at Brazil, France, Italy, and, as revealed in a new report Monday, Spain. Merkel, who has been criticized in Germany for not reacting more forcefully to previous revelations of NSA spying, phoned President Obama last week to express her disappointment that a trusted ally had intercepted her calls. Two German media outlets, citing sources in Merkel's office, reported that Obama told the German leader he didn't know about the spying, and that if he had known, he would have put a stop to it.

But U.S. officials now say the White House learned about the surveillance this summer, when it was discovered as part of an internal review of NSA programs that the president ordered following revelations of global surveillance by the ex-contractor Edward Snowden. It's not clear whether Obama was personally told about the spying before he spoke to Merkel, or what he was told about operations directed against other leaders.

The Obama administration now finds itself in the awkward position of defending what it calls routine intelligence gathering of the sort that all governments do -- while simultaneously trying to distance itself from operations that may have become so routine the president or his national security team didn't notice them.

When The Cable asked a White House spokesperson what the president knew, and when, she said she would not discuss "internal deliberations and intelligence matters." White House officials have sought to quell foreign outrage by stressing that the intelligence the NSA gathers is no different than what other nations collect about their adversaries and allies alike. But U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday that the spying operations on Merkel and some other world leaders were stopped after they were discovered during the internal review this summer, months before they were ever disclosed publicly.

That suggests at least some calculation by the White House that the programs were not worth keeping -- perhaps because they weren't productive, or because they were politically risky. One NSA document released last week by the Guardian states that monitoring some foreign leaders' communications didn't produce much useful intelligence. Another, disclosed by Der Spiegel, advises NSA surveillance operators to keep their work discreet because disclosure "would cause serious harm to relations between the United States and a foreign government." The internal review would have discovered the spying on foreign leaders at a politically sensitive time, when the White House was responding to reports of large-scale intelligence operations inside the United States.

Officials are still combing through the NSA's programs to determine what they have collected and which programs to keep. The State Department, one of the spy agency's most important consumers, is reviewing surveillance "with respect to our foreign partners," department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last week. "We want to ensure we're collecting information because we need it and not just because we can."

The surveillance against Merkel may have begun as early as 2002. Former intelligence officials told The Cable that it's not unusual for the NSA to undertake surveillance without informing the president of every target. (But the fact that foreign leaders' communications were being monitored should have been known or presumed by the president's national security advisers, the former official added.) The NSA, for its part, insists that all its operations are guided from intelligence priorities and policies set at the top, to include the president and his national security team.

"NSA is not a free agent," said NSA spokesperson Vanee Vines. "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." The framework is approved by the top leaders of the government, but it leaves the question of how best to gather intelligence to the individual agencies.

On Sunday, a story in a German newspaper reported that President Obama had been personally briefed on the Merkel operation in 2010 by Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA. The article cited a high-ranking NSA official as saying that Obama allowed the surveillance to continue because he wanted more information about Merkel's role in managing the financial crisis in Europe.

When The Cable asked the NSA spokesperson to respond to the German article on Sunday morning, she declined and referred all queries to the White House. A White House spokesperson also declined to comment. By Sunday afternoon, however, the NSA issued a statement calling the German article false -- but only in the most narrow sense.

"[General] Alexander did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel. News reports claiming otherwise are not true," the statement read.

That left open the question of what other NSA officials may have told other officials in the White House about the operation. By Sunday evening, U.S. officials were reporting that the Merkel operation was halted after the White House learned of it this summer.

Tensions between the White House and the NSA have mounted ever since Snowden gave a cache of documents about NSA surveillance to journalists. Agency veterans have said that Alexander, the NSA director, and his top lieutenants have felt hung out to dry in the scandal, and are irked that very few administration officials have mounted a public defense of the agency and what its leaders believe they were ordered to do.

For his part, Alexander has made several strong public defenses of the NSA. Recently, he accused journalists of sensationalizing the surveillance stories and "selling" access to spy documents.

Alexander will step down from his post next year. His rumored successor, Adm. Michael Rogers, is a career spy with expertise in surveillance and cyber security. But his political resume is thin, and he would be stepping into the NSA job at a rare moment, when its normally secretive operations are tearing at the fabric of U.S. foreign policy.