Whether President Barack Obama knew about eavesdropping on American allies’ leaders is irrelevant. It took place, and someone outside the dark eminences at the National Security Agency should have known. The scope of the NSA’s electronic prying is enough to scare the pants off anyone who still believes Big Brother isn’t real.
The activities disclosed by Edward Snowden — the former NSA contract employee who’s regarded alternately as traitor or patriotic whistle-blower — just keep coming and get more outrageous, to the detriment of the nation’s global image. Among the latest reports is that the president wasn’t informed of electronic snooping on the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He could have stopped it with a phone call.
If this chief executive was deprived of the details of a policy that any third-rate press agent would have seen as a major blunder, then the entire top of the super-secret intelligence agency should be replaced. James Clapper, director of national intelligence, testified that the White House’s National Security Council was kept abreast. But he could not certify that Obama was.
Well, put that plausible deniability in your pipe and smoke it.
Meanwhile, the lawmakers trusted to protect our civil liberties from intrusions by agencies charged with protecting us from the terrorists either have been deprived of the information need for such oversight or have been negligent. Either way, the big spy-in-the-sky outfit — so hush-hush that those who work for it can’t say they do — has been sticking its beams into most of the known world, all in the name of freedom.
Should our allies be offended? You better believe it, even though some may be eavesdropping on us. But they have to line up behind the millions of Americans who’ve had their privacy invaded because they were convinced that these highly questionable fishing expeditions were necessary to prevent another 9-11. We have been assured that plenty of safeguards were in place, that the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court had to approve all such appeals for permission.
It turns out, however, that the court rarely questions whether there is probable cause for this eavesdropping and massive data collection. Since there is no one arguing for the other side, the diligent judges just have to take the word of those seeking permission.
Congress is trying to hash out what to do next, how to adjust to a terror-plagued world without losing our souls. It’s time for all those overly stuffed shirts who hang out on Capitol Hill to get off their fat duffs and worry about something other than the Affordable Care Act. Then there’s the Patriot Act, which in some instances has been anything but. It wasn’t as if lawmakers weren’t warned before its 2001 passage. A wise friend once told me every piece of legislation should be considered in the light of the worst thing that could happen under it. That way, certain things could be headed off. Hello, Patriot Act.
Merkel, who grew up in the totalitarian nightmare of the former East Germany, is plenty ticked off about intrusions into her personal business. She isn’t alone. There is a lot of legitimate howling among countries the United States calls its buddies and counts on for commerce.
The problem here is oversight or the lack of it, and that needs addressing posthaste from the House speaker’s office to the Oval Office. If Obama didn’t know about the spying, he sure should have. Too many times, we have seen him fail to connect with things vitally important to the liberties we thought we possessed.
Pay attention, Mr. President. Do we need a viable intelligence apparatus? In this very dangerous world, certainly we do. But, to paraphrase the ancient Greek, we also need someone to guard against the guardians.
Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.