A “Hardy Perennial”: US Intelligence Operations Targeting Foreign Leaders

At Tuesday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, it is a “hardy perennial as long as I have been in the intelligence business, 50 years, leadership intentions in whatever form that is expressed is kind of a basic tenet of what we are to collect and analyze” (see video).

It is, indeed, important to recall previous revelations (see examples below) of US intelligence gathering that targeted foreign leaders over the past several years.

If such practices are perennial, we should assume that the White House and congressional intelligence committee members, in their oversight capacities, have been briefed by the NSA over time (including across the Bush and Obama administrations). Yet, now that recent intelligence practices have come to light – against Chancellor Merkel in particular — some congressional leaders, such as Senator Diane Feinstein, are expressing strong opposition to these methods, and the White House has apparently assured her that “collection on our allies will not continue.”

The record, however, suggests Clapper is being forthright. Consider the following samples:

  • In 2003, news reports, based on a leaked NSA memo, reported that in 2003 the NSA’s surveillance operations included the “interception of the home and office telephones and the emails of UN delegates in New York,” including Security Council members.
  • In 2004, news reports, based on a leaked UK government memo, reported that the British intelligence services had been ordered to cooperate with the 2003 US spying operation at the United Nations after a request from the NSA.
  • In 2010, news reports, based on a leaked document, reported that in 2009 the  Department of State asked US diplomats to collect “passwords, personal encryption keys, and types of V P N versions used” of UN officials.
  • In August 2013, perhaps buried among other revelations, news reports, based on leaked NSA documents, reported that in 2012 the NSA “secretly monitored the U.N.’s internal video conferencing system by decrypting it” and that “the NSA installed bugs in the European Union’s office building in downtown Washington and infiltrated the EU’s computer network.”
  • Yesterday, according to an interview with a leading Australian intelligence expert, Australia has been monitoring political leaders in the Asia Pacific region for the NSA and has used its embassies “to monitor local, essentially, microwave relayed telephone conversations.”

Did the White House and congressional bodies know about these types of activities?

In this morning’s Boston Globe, a former Bush administration official went on the record suggesting that the Bush team did know and that presumably the current administration does as well:

Several current and former US officials said that presidents and their senior national security advisers have long known about which foreign leaders the United States spied on.

“It would be unusual for the White House senior staff not to know the exact source and method of collection,” said Michael Allen, a National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration. “That information helps a policy maker assess the reliability of the intelligence.”

Allen, the author of book about intelligence reform called “Blinking Red,” said this information often comes to the president during preparation for phone calls or meetings with the foreign leaders.

The Boston Globe does not mention that Allen, until two months ago, also served as Majority Staff Director at the House Intelligence Committee. He has that insight as well.

The record of past intelligence gathering and political oversight will likely have different implications, depending on who you ask. Some will argue it shows that the oversight system is broken: political leaders with oversight capacity are only now expressing outrage and opposition once such methods have reached the public. Some will argue, on the contrary, that the system works: longstanding use of such methods along with approval by political officials indicates that the methods have been vetted and considered a vital part of the nation’s security. Regardless of how these debates turn out, we should understand the historical record. Although Clapper’s testimony was vague on the details, in this more general respect, he helped set the record straight. 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.