Outside the Purple Bubble – Week of Oct. 30

Information surfaces about American international spying on allied states 

As of Monday, President Obama is preparing to order the National Security Agency (NSA) to cease eavesdropping on leaders of American allies, according to administration and congressional officials. The announced action responds to an emerging diplomatic crisis regarding reports that the NSA targeted the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for years. These plans grow out of a larger internal review of American intelligence-gathering methods prompted by the leak of confidential NSA documents executed by a former contractor, Edward J. Snowden.

The NSA stated Obama was not informed of its reported monitoring of Merkel. The surveillance started in 2002 and lasted until sometime last summer after Snowden’s theft of NSA data was discovered. According to current and former administration officials, the NSA’s documentation of Merkel’s surveillance authorized the agency’s operatives to collect data about both outgoing and ingoing calls. For ingoing calls, operatives were directed to listen in on Merkel’s conversations; for outgoing calls, they were allowed to collect information about the numbers Merkel dialed. It remains unclear whether excerpts from Merkel’s private conversations surfaced in intelligence reports circulated in Washington, D.C., or shared within the White House. Officials said they did not recognize information gleaned from the intercept of Merkel’s conversations, but also said it was likely that some conversations had been recorded due to the length of the NSA’s surveillance. The Obama Administration declined to confirm that Merkel’s phone was deliberately targeted in both public comments and private exchanges with German officials. However, the administration has clarified that Merkel is not currently the subject of NSA action, and that she will not be in the future.

These allegations formalize concerns that the United States bugged diplomatic interactions of Germany and other allies.  European outrage over the affair accounts for the alleged misconduct but also for the American response to the situation. Yesterday, Head of the NSA General Keith B. Alexander refuted recent reports that the U.S. had been gathering the phone records of millions of Europeans. He argued that allied spy services had assembled the records and turned them over to the U.S. He also said that the data were primarily collected outside Europe. According to top officials, this type of intelligence is crucial because it provides American leaders with an idea of how other countries may act against them. As long as other countries – including allies – spy on the U.S., officials said, this type of spying will be an essential function of intelligence collection.