The NSA shouldn't spy on world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Michael Sohn / AP)
A miffed Angela Merkel rang up President Barack Obama with a sticky question: Has the U.S. National Security Agency really been eavesdropping on her cellphone calls? And if so, why?
The German chancellor, whose cellphone addiction reportedly rivals that of a teenager, was aghast to learn that U.S. agents may have been listening in to hours and hours of her personal phone conversations.
She got that idea, according to German news magazine Der Spiegel, from information provided by fugitive leaker Edward Snowden. He may be a whistle-blower or he may be a traitor, but Snowden has a good track record for accuracy.
According to White House press secretary Jay Carney, Obama assured Merkel that the NSA “is not monitoring and will not monitor” her cell chats. Notice he didn’t say “had not been monitoring.”
When asked about that omission, Carney could not say whether the NSA had tapped into Merkel’s calls in the past.
That question needs an answer. The NSA’s massive surveillance net is doing damage to U.S. relations with its key allies, who need assurances that we are not spying on our friends.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff postponed a visit to Washington that was supposed to begin this week after allegations that the NSA listened in on conversation with her aides. France protested this week after it was revealed the U.S. may have monitored the phone calls of its diplomatic corps. Obama came into office pledging to rebuild international relationships. Violating the privacy of our allies is not the way to do it.
The president must reign in the NSA both overseas and at home. This level of worldwide privacy intrusion is not a fair trade-off for the small measure of extra security it may provide.
We already know that the NSA has tracked virtually every cell phone call and electronic message made or sent in the United States. And although the Obama administration has assured that there are firm guidelines in place to make sure the content of those conversations isn’t examined improperly, its own audit reveals 2,776 “compliance incidents” in a single year.
In addition, while the president has promised the NSA isn’t spying on Americans, the New York Times reported earlier this year that the agency considers it within its authority to target the conversations of foreigners, both by tapping their cell phones and email and those of any American who communicates with them.
That’s potentially a broad swath. How the presidents and diplomats of friendly foreign nations fit onto the NSA list of appropriate targets is unclear. But Obama owes our allies an honest answer to the question of whether they’ve been subject to NSA eavesdropping. If they have done anything improper, he should apologize.
More importantly, he should put more stringent limits on the scope of NSA surveillance, both in this country and abroad.