For years American presidents had a key advantage when conducting foreign affairs. If a president or senior U.S. official wanted to know what a foreign leader was really thinking, they could ask the National Security Agency to send over transcripts of their private electronic communications, assuming the foreign government could not foil U.S. eavesdroppers.
No more. As part of unprecedented reforms of America’s collection of communications intelligence, President Obama has ordered that the NSA stop routine collection on dozens of foreign leaders, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters Friday on the president’s speech.
“We have made a decision not to pursue surveillance on dozens of heads of governments,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday. “It’s not just a case of Angela Merkel. We determined we will not produce surveillance on dozens of leaders. That gives a sense of scale without being able to go one by one.”
Last year the German press first reported the NSA was tapping the private cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of several embarrassing disclosures found in a trove of documents stolen by Edward Snowden, a former NSA whistleblower. The disclosure of NSA tapping of Merkel’s phone led to a rupture in an important alliance between the United States and Germany and was followed by similar stories about NSA snooping on other heads of states.
In the telephone briefing, a senior administration said from now on when President Obama wanted to know what allied foreign leaders were thinking, “he will pick up the phone and call them” instead of reading surveillance reports.
The reviews of foreign leader surveillance come as part of a sweeping set of reforms announced today by President Obama in a speech at the Justice Department. Those reforms include plans to end the government’s practice of collecting records of the time and duration of personal phone calls, or metadata, of U.S. citizens. Obama will also announce new rules that will require the U.S. analysts and investigators to receive a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant before querying the vast stores of metadata.
The president’s announcement follows recommendations from a five-person review group he appointed in the summer ++to review NSA programs after the Snowden leaks. That group recommended the practice of spying on heads of state be limited and avoided in most cases, particularly with U.S. allies.
“We focused on heads of state and governments,” a senior administration official said. “That is the issue that emerged. We do believe this is a unique category. The changes relate to heads of state and governments.”