White House officials have insisted that President Obama was unaware of a National Security Agency program that personally spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and 35 other world leaders.
Last week, news broke that the NSA maintained phone taps and other monitoring programs for 35 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The revelation sparked widespread outrage across the international community, including calls from Merkel herself to end the surveillance programs. In response, the White House announced that it had stopped collecting data on Merkel and several other unspecified world leaders. At the time, it was unclear whether or not President Obama knew of the NSA’s efforts in targeting Merkel and other world leaders.
On Sunday, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allegmeine Zeitung reported that that Obama was aware of the program and even encouraged it, writing that “not only did he not stop the operation, but he also ordered it to continue.” However, on Monday, officials at both the White House and the NSA denied this report, claiming that Obama had never personally been briefed on the extent to which the NSA targeted other world leaders.
Officials in the White House told the Wall Street Journal that while Obama was briefed on the overarching goals of the NSA’s intelligence-gathering programs, he remained largely in the dark as to the specifics of those programs.
"These decisions are made at NSA," the official said. "The president doesn't sign off on this stuff."
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Meanwhile, NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines claimed that the agency’s directives did not come from the White House, but from other government bodies.
"The agency's activities stem from the National Intelligence Priorities Framework, which guides prioritization for the operation, planning and programming of U.S. intelligence analysis and collection," she told the Wall Street Journal.
Both organizations reiterated that the United States has ceased collecting data on Merkel and several other leaders, though they did not specify which ones. The White House also refused to comment on whether Merkel’s private phone numbers and communications had been monitored in the past, though it stated that they are not being monitored now and will not be monitored in the future.
At the moment, it is unclear when the NSA began collecting data on Merkel. German paper Der Spiegel speculates based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden that the agency first began tracking her communications in 2002, before she was ever elected chancellor. If this is the case, the Wall Street Journal writes, it would be much less likely for Obama to have been briefed on the specifics of the program monitoring Merkel.