Is there any doubt the United States is being spied upon by foreign governments, even those considered our friends?
We certainly don’t have any illusions about the behavior of America’s allies and of its enemies, which is why the cries of foul from foreign leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the wake of media reports about U.S. spying aren’t persuasive.
That said, President Barack Obama has an obligation to the American people to provide an explanation for why it was necessary to tap the telephones of 35 world leaders. It isn’t enough to say that everybody does it. That may well be the case, but everybody didn’t get outed by the documents leaked to the news media by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden; the United States did.
On Tuesday, senior U.S. intelligence officials defended the surveillance program by asserting that European allies assist the agency — even as they spy on U.S. officials. But they also made it clear that the White House knew about the tapping of foreign leaders’ telephones.
The officials, who testified before the House Intelligence Committee, denied that telephone data of millions of Europeans was swept up in the NSA surveillance program. President Obama, under pressure from European leaders and others to explain why the U.S. would risk alienating its friends by spying on them, is expected to order a ban on monitoring allied leaders’ communications as part of an administration review.
The aim is to balance U.S. intelligence-gathering programs with privacy and civil liberties protections.
NSA officials, including Director James Clapper, defended the operations as legal and authorized, noting that the requirements for intelligence collections and analyses are set in an annual National Intelligence Priorities Framework.
As for targeting foreign leaders, the director said it helps U.S. officials understand policies and perspectives that impact the United States. The communications of a foreign leader provide the most revealing information.
Let’s be clear: the revelations about the federal government gathering about a billion U.S. phone records a day and tracking the use of U.S. based servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism is deeply troubling.
As we said in an editorial in June, the president should disabuse himself of the belief that the NSA’s spying programs are “transparent.”
When a secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorizes the programs, the issue of transparency goes out the window.
The actions of the NSA that have come to light are troubling on many fronts. The invasion of privacy, the spying on American citizens without just cause, the lack of a security system to prevent easy access to the information all point to a legally questionable approach to the war on terrorism.
That said, there are many people around the world whose goal is to do America harm. We cannot let our guard down.
The National Security Agency is an important player in the war on global terrorism. A balance must be found between its role as an intelligence gathering organization and the constitutional protections afforded American citizens.