Who knew what? The White House's strained NSA narrative

Whether the administration knew much or little about its spy agency's activities, the optics are terrible


Natasha Lennard
October 30, 2013 8:05AM (UTC)

The question du jour in the never-ending NSA scandal is one of knowledge: When it comes to spying on foreign nations and their leaders, just how much has the Obama White House known about its spy agency's activities?

Following revelations that the NSA had intercepted German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone calls since as long ago as 2002 -- prompting a diplomatic maelstrom in recent weeks -- White House officials insisted that President Obama had not been aware of the spying. Meanwhile, during a Congressional hearing Tuesday, NSA Director Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper both stressed that senior White House officials have been consistently kept abreast of the NSA's surveillance practices "in general terms."

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As the New York Times noted on Clapper's efforts to clarify just who knows what:

Asked whether the White House knows about the NSA’s intelligence-gathering, including on foreign leaders, Mr. Clapper said, “They can and do.” But, he added, “I have to say that that does not extend down to the level of detail. We’re talking about a huge enterprise here, with thousands and thousands of individual requirements.”

However you cut it, the narrative reflects badly on the administration: If top White House officials, perhaps including the president, were aware that the NSA was surveilling ordinary foreign citizens and ally leaders, then the U.S. appears to have an executive with a megalomaniacal disregard for the privacy of those at home and abroad. The attitude seems imperial at best: Highest level U.S. officials giving support to the mass surveillance of any individual on earth, be it friend, foe, suspected terror group, ordinary French business people, or allied world leader.

The alternative narrative is no more preferable: If the White House knew little or nothing about NSA surveillance practices, it appears a flailing puppet, unable to rein in the hegemonic hoarding tendencies of its spy agency. And indeed, if this narrative is closer to the truth, then the White House owes a great debt to Edward Snowden, without whose whistle-blowing administration officials and lawmakers may have remained in the dark about many controversial NSA surveillance operations. Indeed, as the New York Times noted, some Congressional intelligence committee members have admitted first discovering certain NSA practices through media reports on Snowden's leaks:

Even on the House Intelligence Committee, members sparred over what they had been told by the intelligence agencies about eavesdropping on foreign leaders. Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat and a senior member of the committee, said that he had first learned about the practice after the recent news media reports.

The issue of who knew what about NSA spycraft sheds important light on the operations of government, highlighting the divisions and confusions inherent in an operation as totalizing, vast and complex as upholding a surveillance state. As Clapper noted, it's "a huge enterprise." The intelligence chief's comment, that top administration officials and lawmakers had enough "general" information about NSA practices is reflective of a broader pattern. We only have, at this point "general" information about who knows what about the NSA's surveillance. To borrow a Rumsfeld-ism, with many Snowden leaks reportedly still to come, the public is faced with a set of known unknowns and unknown unknowns regarding the surveillance state. Thanks to Snowden we now know about sprawling, invasive NSA spycraft; we don't know how much more we will find out in the coming months -- a nail-biting prospect, no doubt, for the White House P.R. machine, scrambling and spluttering in the wake of an ever-expanding scandal.


Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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