The latest hot controversy launched by Citizen Snowden’s revelations involves the National Security Agency’s listening to the personal cellphone of Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany. Embarrassment all around and the White House now says it is “reviewing” what other foreign leaders the NSA may be eavesdroping on.
But here Is a more explosive question that needs an answer: Is the NSA eavesdropping on Barack Obama?
Officially, this will be promptly denied, of course. But can we believe opaque denials from the same intelligence officials who have previously lied to the press and misled Congress about the unlimited range of NSA snooping? More to the point, can Barack Obama believe them?
This question will doubtless be dismissed as a paranoid conspiracy theory. Surely, officials of this super-secret government agency would not use its vast technological capabilities to spy on their own boss, our president. But why not? Information is power. Bureaucracies typically use their information power to protect themselves or weaken their political rivals. As investigators dig into the secret world of NSA power, I expect they will sooner or later have to examine this possibility.
As it happens, there is a scandalous precedent for this kind of abuse, and his name is J. Edgar Hoover. During the long reign of Hoover as FBI director, the agency was notorious for “keeping a file” on all sorts of political figures and leaking the damaging content to the press. But Washington politicians—senators and even presidents—faced a more dangerous threat. The FBI was most likely keeping files on each of them. A politician would know his own personal transgressions, but so might J. Edgar.
Hoover curried favor in Congress by letting friendly politicians sneak a peek at salacious material agents collected on left-liberal-labor figures. The FBI campaign to ruin the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was perhaps its most notorious effort. Only after King’s death and Hoover’s did the stories surface to confirm the Director’s legendary power over politicians. The mere threat of exposure—even if the accusations were fabricated—was enough to freeze many politicians from acting.
When Congress finally confronted the scandal and reformed the FBI, it enacted limited terms for the FBI director and chose people with exemplary records of public service. That didn’t entirely eliminate politics from the agency’s behavior but it put each new director on notice that his performance would be subsequently examined by his successor.
Among other reforms, the NSA will need similar restraints to restore a modicum of public trust but, above all, to change the poisonous culture that politicians have allowed to flourish in the institution. President Obama should start by dismissing NSA Director Keith Alexander and National Intelligence Director James Clapper, neither of whom seem to grasp that their evasive behavior is deepening suspicion and making the broad public even more distrustful.
If Obama fiddles around with inquiries that do not change much of anying for the spy masters, then the president himself may be incorporated in the suspicions. Some people will ask: what did the NSA or CIA have on Obama?
Robert Scheer thinks President Obama should thank Edward Snowden.