U.S. security and diplomatic agencies have gone into full grovel mode, sounding like teenagers who overstayed their curfew: We didn’t do it; and if we did do it, the president didn’t know about it; we’ll never do it again; and, besides, everybody does it.
Each incoming president receives full national-security briefings. The briefings are updated regularly. Almost surely Obama was informed that we were listening in on Merkel’s iPhone. Simply the name of the program, “head of state collection,” gave it away.
These public revelations are undoubtedly embarrassing to the Obama administration, and, as Merkel says, it will take a while to rebuild trust, even though they know, and we certainly know, that we’ll all continue spying on each other.
There’s no animosity or hostile intent here. It’s like the old poker expression: You trust your mother, but you still cut the cards.
The revelations, based on detailed information provided to news organizations by fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, do not even leave Obama the usual out of “plausible deniability,” i.e., it was all the work of overzealous subordinates.
But Obama, in a pinch, has shown as usual that he’s capable of some fancy verbal footwork: Who knew that new, untried and untested computer systems don’t always work as planned, or even work at all, on new, untried and untested health care programs?
However, the alternative — that Obama really didn’t know about U.S. spying on friendly world leaders — is even worse. It would mean that an exceptionally capable and well-funded intelligence agency had gone out on its own — gone rogue, in Washington jargon. But not likely in this case.
This will blow over, and when it does, our spies should keep listening — only much more discreetly.