White House to curb NSA monitoring of some allies' leaders

Dennis Blair, the first director of national intelligence under Obama, noted that “in our intelligence relationship with countries like France and Germany, 90 to 95 percent of our activity is cooperative and sharing, and a small proportion is about gaining intelligence we can’t obtain in other ways.”

He told the Times that he had little patience for the complaints of foreign leaders. “If any foreign leader is talking on a cellphone or communicating on unclassified email, what the U.S. might learn is the least of their problems.”

Yesterday’s indication by the White House that it moving toward banning the NSA from eavesdropping on some foreign leaders is a historic change in the practices of an agency which has enjoyed unlimited and unfettered – and, it now appears, unsupervised – freedom of action outside the borders of the United States.  

The move is similar to, if more complicated than, the limits imposed on the CIA in the mid-1970s. At that time, revelations about the CIA involvement in the killing or attempted killing of foreign leaders, and the agency’s assistance to opposition forces who staged coups in various countries, led Congress to demand that the agency be reined in, a move with which the Ford and Carter administrations concurred.

Security experts note, though, that prohibiting the NSA from eavesdropping on some foreign leaders would be more complicated and potentially more damaging to U.S. interests than the prohibitions imposed on the CIA more than three decades ago.

First, it is not clear how the United States would define who is an “ally,” the leader of which should not be a subject of NSA data collection. The Times notes, for example, that it may be an easier call to determine that the NSA should not eavesdrop on Angela Merkel’s communications, but how about Egypt’s military leaders? Or Saudi Arabia’s leaders, now that the Saudis have said they would begin to follow more assertive regional policies, policies which would, inevitably, lead to conflicts with the United States.

Second, the United States may be in for bitter, and costly, surprises if it remained uninformed about the intentions and plans of even close allies. Thus, Amir Oren, the military analyst of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote in his column yesterday that he hoped and prayed the NSA was listening in on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s communication. Oren argues that such monitoring would not only alert the United States to any move by Netanyahu, such as a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran, which would, inevitably, threaten U.S. interests in the region; such monitoring, Oren says, and the fact that Netanyahu is aware of it, would serve as an extra layer of deterrence against such an uncoordinated attack.