President Obama reportedly apologized to German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she called last week to complain about the NSA listening in on her phone calls, and if he didn’t mean it, he’s doing a pretty good job of looking sincere. While the Obama administration had been fairly tight-lipped about the latest Edward Snowden leak, on Sunday the NSA issued a statement pushing back against at new report that Obama was briefed in 2010 about the agency spying on Merkel (though notably, they didn’t deny reports that the U.S. was targeting her as far back as 2002, years before she became chancellor). Officials also backed up Obama’s claim that he would have stopped the spying on Merkel had he known about it, saying the president only learned that the NSA was spying on as many as 35 world leaders after ordering an internal review this summer.
Fleshing out the administration’s somewhat hard to swallow claim that the United States “is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel,” officials tell The Wall Street Journal that the White House ended programs keeping tabs on Merkel and some other world leaders after they were uncovered in a review prompted by the NSA spying scandal. (Though the U.S. will continue spying on certain leaders because the programs are producing useful information).
While it’s good to know Obama was ostensibly telling Merkel the truth, the revelation raises another issue: Why was the president unaware of spying operations being conducted by his administration? Officials have a disturbing explanation. As the Journal writes, “the NSA has so many eavesdropping operations under way that it wouldn’t have been practical to brief him on all of them.” The president approves broader “priorities” for intelligence collection, but the NSA is doing so much spying that it doesn’t have time to fill him in on every little detail. “These decisions are made at NSA,” one official said. “The president doesn’t sign off on this stuff.” So apparently whatever the agency is up to is so huge that eavesdropping on dozens of world leaders falls into the “no big deal” category.