Did Lying Keith Just Accuse Obama of Lying?

I noted the other day the reason the non-denial confirmation that NSA wiretapped Angela Merkel raised the stakes for what President obama told the Chancellor in June about the spying. Did he give assurances she hadn’t been tapped?

If he did, anonymous leakers from the NSA’s vicinity suggest, he knowingly lied.

In Germany, Der Spiegel reported that the NSA’s Special Collection Service (SCS) had listed Merkel’s phone number since 2002. The number was still on the list – marked as “GE Chancellor Merkel” – weeks before Obama visited Berlin in June, raising the possibility that the German leader had been under surveillance for more than a decade. In an SCS document cited by the magazine, the agency said it had a “not legally registered spying branch” in the US embassy in Berlin, the exposure of which would lead to “grave damage for the relations of the United States to another government”.

The White House refused to comment on that report – or others that emerged in Germany overnight, raising questions about how much Obama personally knew about the spy operation.


The German tabloid Bild reported that Obama was personally informed about US surveillance against Merkel by the director of the NSA, Keith Alexander, in 2010, and allowed the operation to continue. The newspaper cited “a secret intelligence employee who is familiar with the NSA operation against Merkel”. The Bild article also claimed that intelligence gathered by US spies based in Berlin was not channelled to NSA headquarters in Forte Meade, Maryland, but directly to the White House.

The newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung reported that when Obama spoke to Merkel over the phone on Wednesday, he assured the German leader he had not previously known her phone had been monitored. [my emphasis]

Much of this is obviously coming from Germany’s own national security establishment. But the Bild leak is clearly identified as a US source. The NSA is now denying it (in language that seems desperate to deny that Alexander was Bild’s source).

NSA chief General Keith Alexander “did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel,”

That said, any certainty about what Obama got briefed would move likely come from ODNI, which is likely just as tired of taking the fall for the Snowden leaks.

Nevertheless, someone at NSA and/or associated with the Embassy in Germany is trying to hang this on the President.

Obama’s public line has already been that his Administration will assess whether we should be doing something, whether or not we can. I’m not all that convinced, particularly given the puffery of his Committee to Make You Love the Dragnet, he really means that. But even the hint that some at NSA want to hang this on the President might make him much more critical of what its doing.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

19 replies
  1. Chetnolian says:

    Well there’s a surprise; there are people in the NSA who don’t like/trust/agree with Obama and would wish to harm him! The US Securocracy has captured the castle I fear, and that will be Angela Merkel’s fear also. She grew up understanding what happens to a country which allows this to happen. And when you look at when it all started to go really wrong it’s hard not to feel Darth brought us both the Gedtapo and the STASI all in one go. Well done USA!

  2. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    There’s an interesting paragraph in a recent Guardian story that would explain when and why spying on Germany’s chancellor commenced.

    “The Spiegel report [snip] said it was not clear whether the monitoring of Merkel’s phone included actual telephone conversations or was restricted to call data, but raised the question over whether a surveillance operation, which began three years before she became chancellor, was initially intended to gather intelligence ahead of the Iraq War, which Germany opposed.

    Merkel, then in opposition, was critical of Germany’s anti-war stance. Bild reported that the then-chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, was also the target of surveillance, at the behest of the George Bush administration.”

    see here; http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/27/barack-obama-nsa-angela-merkel-germany

    So it was set up to monitor Schröder due to his anti-Iraq war stance and likely just continued.

    It raises another question though. And some may see this as bordering on paranoid, but was Merkel’s election “assisted” due to her support for the war? Powerful media can have a major effect on election outcomes as we have just witnessed here in Australia with our new Prime Minister virtually elected by Rupert Murdoch’s campaign via his media monopoly. He owns over 3/4 of Australia’s newspapers and the reporting in favor of his candidate was outrageously biased. Did this happen in the lead up to Merkel’s election?

  3. peasantparty says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): I caught that article as well. I also was reminded of the NDAA law via my twitter feed this afternoon. I went to review the link, and low and behold, there was Obama’s signing statement. The statement made me think he was basically coerced or forced in some way.

    Don’t get me wrong. I KNOW Obama is liar, and his administration wants all of us to sit down and STFU, eat our peas, and be content instead of sanctimonious.

  4. lysias says:

    And we’re supposed to believe NSA informed Obama why? Because the NSA says so? Ha ha ha!

    By the way, even if he was informed, aren’t intelligence agencies supposed to provide the president with plausible deniability?

  5. peasantparty says:

    @lysias: Plausible Deniability, yes. (snicker)

    Lysias, I know you were part of these discussions since the beginning so I will say this again just for the sake of those that haven’t seen it.

    HOW stupid and arrogant is the US spy agencies that they think they can create secret laws, secret courts, and a secret government while expecting the WORLD/INTERNATIONAL laws to be removed for them?

    Foreign countries just don’t go for our kind of security. Besides, how is tapping my mother keeping us safe from AQ?

  6. scribe says:

    Yes, he did.

    The Bild report http://www.bild.de/politik/inland/spionage/obama-billigt-lauschangriff-auf-merkel-33140378.bild.html contains a statement from Bild’s source in which the source told Bild that, in 2010, Obama indicated he did not trust Merkel, that later the White House ordered (“bestellt”) a comprehensive (“umfassend”) dossier on Merkel to answer the question posed in a direct quote related by the source: “who is this woman exactly?”

    Und nicht nur das: Später bestellte das Weiße Haus bei der NSA ein umfassendes Dossier über die Kanzlerin. Denn Obama, so der hochrangige NSA-Mann, traute Merkel nicht, wollte alles über die Deutsche wissen: „Wer ist diese Frau genau?“

    That kind of language is the kind of thing which can only come from someone who was there. German papers are very careful about their reporting and sourcing – no First Amendment – and they’re not going to print this kind of thing without being very, very sure.

    FWIW, the printout of the NSA directory (for lack of a better name) on Merkel’s cellphone number (the number was blacked out for publication) received from Snowden made the front page of the FAZ as well as Bild. Go look: http://www.bild.de/politik/inland/nsa/dieses-dokument-beweist-lauschangriff-gegen-kanzlerin-33145226.bild.html

    Additionally, the Bild article indicates (with a lot of certainty) that the information from intercepting Merkel’s phone did not go through NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, but rather directly to the White House. And, apparently after the 2010 meeting where Obama indicated he wanted to know everything about Merkel, the NSA expanded the scope of its intercepts. Initially, they had been intercepting only the phone provided by her CDU political party. They expanded it to every phone – apparently except the hardwired phone in her office – she used. And they did not limit their activities to metadata – they also went after content. According to the source, the NSA also cracked the encryption of the new secure phone she received this summer.

  7. greengiant says:

    One word. Petraeus.
    His honey pot was talking Benghazi and he was toasted.
    Expect the same for this leaker in 1,2,…

  8. scribe says:

    @PJ Evans: What ought to be actionable?

    As it is, in other German press reports, the current justice minister (who will lose her job when the new government is formed) and the interior minister are both making noises about prosecutions and unacceptable violations of German sovereignity. And the head of the parliamentary control panel (that oversees German intel services) is talking about having Snowden as a witness in a (not-yet-happening) investigation on just what happened.

    Contrary to the American press and its “heh-heh, boys will be boys” treatment of this, the Germans are mighty pissed. And we all know what happened the last couple times the Germans got pissed. Don’t know whether it’s to that level yet, but they are decidedly unhappy.

  9. bevin says:

    “…the Germans are mighty pissed. And we all know what happened the last couple times the Germans got pissed. Don’t know whether it’s to that level yet, but they are decidedly unhappy..”
    Next up is a Grand Coalition which will reduce the Opposition in Germany to a very marginal position in the Reichstag.
    My guess is that this matter will be lost, in the short term, in the stampede for office, power and US favour.

  10. orionATL says:

    i have a sense a third party is working here.

    just a sense.

    i am without specific understanding or info.

  11. orionATL says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean):

    rupert murdoch and his hareem of newsmedia are an immensely destructive element in american, british, and apparently australian politics.

    before americans bemoan the coke brothers megalith, they should bemoan the mercenary murdoch monster that is destroying their democracies day-after-day.

    this guy (and the immensely politically destructive institutions he has built) needs to be investigated, exposed, and deprived of his destructive power.

  12. C says:

    There is another interesting point in the Reuters article which claims to be based upon the German reporting. In it they state that Obama found out about the program during a review conducted during the summer of 2010. If true this would mean that the President was not informed about ongoing surveillance of foreign heads of state until two years into his presidency and then found out not from a prepared briefing but a specially ordered review.

    While I’m not sure I buy that version of events entirely it paints a very interesting image of spying agencies that engage in politically disastrous spying and do not bother to inform the Commander in Chief until they are caught at it.

  13. orionATL says:


    “the president was not informed about” – passive voice won’t do here. it’s the prez’s job to WANT to know, to WANT to ask questions, to demand answers.

    to me it points to a, at best, naieve c-in-c,

    at worst, and i think most likely, to a prez who avoids knowing (directly asking about) what could be troublesome for himself to know and then have to deal with.

    this guy’s m.o. is avoidance of conflict, avoidance of knowing, evasion of responsibility, and speaking in platitudes and vague generalities. he should have stayed in the senate where he belonged.

    he needs to bone up on lyndon johnson’s way of presidenting, not tom daschle’s.

  14. C says:

    @orionATL: I partly agree. I think that your assessment of his m/o is spot on. He wants to speak in nice platitudes and be loved by everyone, what politician doesn’t? And he wants to get the unpopular things done without being tarred with them. Avaoiding responsibility is essential to that.

    Yet for all that he also isn’t a manager and that this isn’t the first time things have been decided by others and even actively concealed from him. If you read up on the failure of HAMP and the other financial crisis reporting it seems that he was giving orders to Geither and even Rahm Emanuel that were just ignored or at worst reversed. Programs such as HAMP were hobbled from the start by them contrary to even the stated orders.

    Some of this may be, as you say, nodding winking and shifting blame. Some of it is also a bit of retconning. But he clearly just isn’t into oversight and the folks at the NSA are, it seems, experts at avoiding it.

    Ultimately I suspect that he didn’t ask too hard, they didn’t say too much, and now both sides want the other to take full blame.

  15. C says:

    Really I think you and I are in agreement on his willful ignorance. I think that they played a strong role in enocuraging that much as geither and others have done before. Ultimately I think the basis of that “woe is us why won’t the pres defend us” push by some ex-IC members. Basically they, like Obama, want to avoid responsibility and be liked by everyone.

  16. spongebrain says:

    @lysius, who wrote: “By the way, even if he was informed, aren’t intelligence agencies supposed to provide the president with plausible deniability?”

    Yes, until the president is deemed to no longer be adequately supporting them. Alexander has already hinted at such a motive. Between the lines of all that has been quoted from him since the Snowden disclosures began is not only his sense of persecution by the press, despite it largely supporting him, but also his feeling the White House has abandoned him. Whether or not this need to be perceived as a victim is part of an overall pathology is another matter. Any FBI profilers out there care to comment? Regardless, a motivation to circumvent norms here is both plausible and deniable for even healthy minds under stress.

    No wonder, as EW wrote, “The NSA is now denying it (in language that seems desperate to deny that Alexander was Bild’s source).” [Directly or indirectly.]

  17. shekissesfrogs says:


    Contrary to the American press and its “heh-heh, boys will be boys” treatment of this, the Germans are mighty pissed.

    My son has been in Germany for the several weeks and he told me the same thing last night. It’s a bigger deal than we are being led to believe. I think the public in Spain is not happy either, but the French are more disgusted with Hollande.

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