America’s Secret 4th Branch of Government: The NSA kept even Obama in the Dark

The revelation from the Snowden Papers that the National Security Agency had German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone under surveillance has produced a central fallout. Dueling leaks over the international embarrassment have forced the White House to a key admission: President Barack Obama did not know what the NSA was up to.

Ever since the Snowden revelations of the massive, world-girdling extent of NSA electronic surveillance surfaced, I have been wondering two things: Did they tell Obama about it when they took office in 2009? And, do they have something on Obama?

Outgoing NSA head Keith Alexander or his circle leaked to German tabloid Bild am Sonntag that Alexander had told Obama about the tap on Merkel’s personal phone in 2010 and that Obama asked for more information on Merkel at that time.

DeutscheWelle reports:

That leak forced the White House (and the NSA) to deny the allegation and to see Alexander his leak and raise the ante.

The White House then leaked on Sunday that the Snowden revelations provoked a review of NSA programs and procedures, and the fact that the NSA had Merkel’s and 35 other world leaders’ personal phones under surveillance was revealed to the White House. Someone there then ordered this summer that the personal spying on Merkel and “some” other leaders be halted (the halt wasn’t ordered on all 35?).

In attempting to repair Obama’s reputation with his colleagues at the G-20, however, the White House counter-leakers have made an epochal and very serious revelation: The President wasn’t in the know. (Even in the best case scenario that he was told in 2010, he wasn’t in the know for the first 18 months of his presidency!)

Edward Snowden’s critics have alleged that he revealed classified US secrets to the enemies of the US. But it seems increasingly likely that he revealed them to . . . Barack Obama.

If so, imagine how furious Obama is behind the scenes. It is not his style to act out in public. But the sudden announcements of the retirement of NSA chief Keith Alexander (who apparently should be in jail) and of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (who certainly should be in jail for lying to Congress) likely signal that Obama demanded they leave.

All of these revelations are being treated as bureaucratic infighting by the inside-the-Beltway courtier press.

It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to ask what the implications are that an occult intelligence bureaucracy funded at $52 billion a year by your and my tax dollars keeps our elected leaders in the dark about its activities.

Among the founding principles of the United States was “no taxation without representation.” But the NSA appears to be a secret kingdom that appropriates our money with no oversight or accountability. We didn’t elect it, and if it doesn’t let our chosen representatives know what it is up to, then it is taxing us without giving us any representation. It is a tyrant. It is an ominous homunculus within the body politic.

Secrecy is anathema to a democratic republic. If we ever had one, it is long gone. The only real question left is what the unelected fourth branch of government, created inadvertently by Harry Truman, is really up to. It is clearly involved in a great deal of industrial espionage, but how are its discoveries transferred to US corporations? Who do the mostly right wing NSA bureaucrats really report to if not to Obama? And, what are they really doing with our cell phone records, which reveal to whom we speak, how often, and where exactly we are? How are these being data-mined and for what purposes?

How much of our society and politics are shaped by selective leaks about individuals gained from this surveillance? Did the 2008 Wall Street Crash occur in part because the Bush administration had removed pro-regulation New York Governor Elliot Spitzer, using information gathered from his bank accounts, cell phone and personal computer? How many Iraq War critics were, like myself, targeted for surveillance? How many seemingly minor scandals that force decision-makers from office are actually a conspiracy of shadowy intelligence operatives? How many of the vocal defenders of the NSA, or of those politicians too timid to demand reform, fear revelation of personal secrets? Do we have a government or a Mafia extortion racket? These questions may seem outlandish, but they are evidence of the corrosive impact of covert government on a Republic. One can never know what politics is legitimate and what is the result of manipulation. NSA denials that they are using this material gathered on US citizens are not very credible given their officials’ repeated lies and also given their hiding of their activities from the President of the United States.

42 Responses

  1. Couldn’t it also be that Obama has known all along about this wiretapping of Merkel’s phone but was forced by the report to deny this knowledge to avoid harming his relations with Merkel? Didn’t Reagan also deny knowledge of what Oliver North was doing in the Iran contra case? I think this is a White House calculation–that there is less harm to the president if he denies knowledge. It makes him look dumb but it shields him from the fallout to some extent.

    • “Couldn’t it also be that Obama has known all along about this wiretapping of Merkel’s phone but was forced by the report to deny this knowledge to avoid harming his relations with Merkel?”

      It is unlikely we will ever know the truth other than political Washington is like life in a shark tank – and that may be an insult to sharks. The safest approach is to consider all involved guilty until proved innocent.

    • There are two persons, selected or approved personally by BHO, who work on the staff of the NSC and who are deeply involved in monitoring the Intel Community.
      It is unthinkable for me that these 2 didn’t know about spying on Merkel, and much, much more.

      Of course BHO has to deny knowledge.
      But to accept that denial at face value reeks of religious belief, faith in things unseen, for which evidence would have been offered, if there was any.

      • So your theory is that it is in the realm of fantasy to believe that the intelligence agencies keep the White House in the dark?


  2. I think the most disturbing part of this is that any can/would be surprised at this “revelation”?
    Shame on you all.
    Which begs the question; just what the hell do you all think is going on in your country?

    • Even though you left the United States, unless you renounced your US citizenship, it is still your country of citizenship as well, Mr. Arn Varnold. If that is the case, does your self-righteous call of “Shame on you all,” apply to you as well? Does the question, “Just what the hell do you all think is going on in your country,” apply to you as well? Or, like members of Congress who exempt themselves from many of the laws they pass, have you exempted yourself from the “shame” you so flagrantly hurl at others?

  3. “Did the 2008 Wall Street Crash occur in part because the Bush administration had removed pro-regulation New York Governor Elliot Spitzer, using information gathered from his bank accounts, cell phone and personal computer?”

    I think the better question is how the 2008 Crash happened given all the domestic information collected by these occult scumbags. When you emulate Cicero and ask ‘cui bono’, you start to wonder who made their money off that crash.

    The fact that we have to ask these questions is a sure sign of the totalitarian state being built on the banks of the Potomac.

    If you think voting for Democrats will save you, you’re sorely mistaken.

    • The 2008 crash was like every other crash. I was saving all the money I made at my job because I was seeing websites from cranks saying that the debt bubble could not keep going forever. There were plenty of people saying that housing prices could not keep going up when wages were flat. There were plenty of people drawing comparisons to 1929. Most folks did not want to believe that tough government regulations had held back these bubbles and that they now were dismantled and the system defenseless.

      It doesn’t matter with market hysteria. The rich always start it and get out mostly intact, and the middle class is lured in hoping to make up for the lack of raises and promotions, and gets creamed. You can read about the Tulip Mania in the 17th Century Netherlands.

  4. Juan. Great article and analysis as usual. Whenever a writer brings up Spitzer and others as possible victims I point to a program used by the Nazis. Look up Salon Kitty. The bordello was used by the SS to blackmail and get rid of certain diplomats and German officials. Sound familiar?

  5. We should all work hard to constrain the NSA, CIA, etc through laws and other directives. However, those clearly are not enough, the most effective restraint is to cut their budgets. If they do not have the resources to get into trouble then they will get into trouble less often.

  6. Politicians are extremely vulnerable to blackmail, even a tacit or implied kind of blackmail.

    It is so easy to do. Politicians are able to pay in a way that is both secret and entirely public. It does not have anything so crude as a money trail, and there is no requirement for any fully explicit communication.

    The question is not whether the Washington events in the news are partially driven by extortion, but to what extent. In principle, intelligence agencies need not be involved. The problem would still be large. In practice, the chances are great, maybe at the top of an agency, but even more likely among the people even less accountable in its body.

    Silence on this subject gives no certainty that nothing is going on. No one has an incentive to complain about tacit blackmail, and the press has shown itself able to operate with willful ignorance.

    Is it even imaginable that there isn’t a lot of quiet blackmail in Washington, and of many different kinds? Politicians do a lot of things that seem hard to explain. This must be one reason, but hardly anybody talks about it.

  7. Why do people keep confusing outrage with surprise, and saying there’s no surprise, so why be outraged?

    Suspicions grow over time, but there’s no particular day when a lot of people will think that it’s time to say something until there is a trigger event. Sudden news about what has been happening doesn’t have to be a surprise, though the details always are. When the news hits, it’s still time to speak out.

    “Why are you surprised?” is just a “Nothing new, move along” talking point.

  8. Were they fired for the actions of spying?
    Were they fired for doing it and not telling Obama?
    Were they fired for not keeping it sufficiently secret?
    Were they fired for not saying Obama didn’t know?

  9. It might seem outrageous to suggest the NSA is holding blackmail information on elected officials as a way of maintaining it’s own funding, power, and legal advantages, or even to pursue particular right-wing political agendas. But it would not be unprecedented. J. Edgar Hoover notoriously did so for decades, using his command the surveillance and information-gathering technologies available in his day. Is it really that unthinkable that practices commonplace under the Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations would be unthinkable today, when in fact government secrecy has dramatically increased since then, rather than decreasing? In fact, from a sheerly sociological perspective, it would be more surprising if a bureaucracy with this kind of power did not use to pursue it’s institutional interests, and if those running it never used it to pursue personal agendas of any kind.

  10. What’s worse than a lie? A clumsy lie. Of course President Obama knew what was going on. He is briefed every morning on important events and revelations. When Hoover was engaged in domestic spying, he was careful to inform sitting Presidents of what he’d uncovered. No competent intelligence organization is going to leave themselves open to retaliation by failing to inform (and thus involve) their ‘superiors’. By telling them, it makes them accomplices in the acts.

    • “no competent intelligence organization…” Looks like, on the basis of this little episode and a whole century of mostly idiocy, that one little adjective, “competent,” is the root of the whole problem.

      What are these self-serving, self-aggrandizing a__holes SUPPOSED to be doing, to “keep us safe?” What are they ACTUALLY doing, with all the money and clout? Making a nice safe playpen for a bunch of idiots who are playing games that would make even Dan Brown or Clancy, let alone John le Carré, wince and duck for cover. Aren’t “we” proud of what “we” have managed to wreak?

      The first rule of “intelligence” is that there are no rules.

      Welcome to the best of what humans do, at the end of consequences, at the end of Empire…

    • But it is believed that Hoover intentionally delayed telling LBJ about Nixon’s treasonous secret deal with South Vietnam in 1968 until LBJ could not act on it without creating even greater political chaos than was already happening. Hoover counted on LBJ to sacrifice his candidate for the good of the nation at that point, just as he had already sacrificed his own chance to remain in the White House.

  11. Perhaps the NSA have the Prez’s real birth certificate?

    Seriously – Obama has been at best letting his underlings doing the dirty work and letting them taking the blame when he is caught out. There is less and less to like about the current US President.

  12. Don’t forget that in 2007-2008 Obama was a Chairman of United States Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs.

    Who is looking after the NSA, really?

    • The United States Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs has nothing to do with intelligence matters in general or the NSA in particular. That would be the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

      • Yup, everything fine and dandy then!

        Seriously. I think head of Foreign Relations Committee about Europe should know that the head of states in Europe is being spied on!

        It’s not like these were some random terrorist suspects, who are inconsequential for foreign relations. Why do you think they were spied on? If they were spied for strategic advantage in foreign policy, then HELL YES the head of foreign relations committee should know about that kind of spying.

  13. “But the NSA appears to be a secret kingdom that appropriates our money with no oversight or accountability. We didn’t elect it, and if it doesn’t let our chosen representatives know what it is up to, then it is taxing us without giving us any representation. It is a tyrant. It is an ominous homunculus within the body politic.”

    Not only the NSA. There are also the Wall Street bankers, the military-industrial-security-media complex, and the Israel lobby. But we still get to vote for the components of the fig leaf giving the illusion of a democracy.

  14. Obama has a history of going after whistleblowers with a vengeance. He is no friend of liberty. He has defended serial liars like Clapper and Alexander. Doesn’t it make the most sense that he is lying about this? Doesn’t it make more sense that of course he knew that the NSA was tapping whatever they could on world leaders, and viewed it as them doing their job? Isn’t it a far more likely hypothesis that we are dealing with a lying hypocrite?

  15. Oversight or overlook?

    “The other questions Senator Ron Wyden wants answered on NSA surveillance by Kevin Gosztola – link to … Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, Democratic Senator Mark Udall and even Republican Senator Susan Collins had more questions to ask, but, instead of allowing more oversight to take place at an alleged oversight hearing, Feinstein suggested the committee get to the expert witnesses from the second panel. This effectively ensured Alexander, Clapper and Cole did not have to face Wyden or Udall again in the hearing.”

    This was probably the intelligence (?)committee hearing that didn’t require Alexander and Clapper to take an oath to tell the truth but required the next panel, more likely to tell the truth, to hold up their right hands and take the oath.


    “Feinstein’s phony excuse for NSA spying: After 9/11, the excuse for missing clues was too much data – trying to sip from a fire hose – but with the priority now excusing NSA spying, the metaphor is for more data – you can’t find a needle in a haystack without a haystack – a shift ex-FBI agent Coleen Rowley dissects.” – link to

  16. This post touches on a great hope and a dark fear.

    I hope Obama is privately furious with the NSA, and that before his second term is through he will have crafted and implemented sweeping reforms.

    I fear that our President, any President, can no longer reign in the intelligence community, that doing so would trigger shadowy threats on his life and the lives of his family. Perhaps enough conflict between the President and the intelligence community would lead to Secret Servicemen standing down during an attack on the President. I hope this is nothing other than nagging paranoia, and that my most reasonable impulses represent the reality.

    • That’s not the problem. The problem is that if any non-Republican President shows the slightest sign of weakness anywhere in the world, he is immediately accused of being a traitor. Since this definition of “weakness” is all based on media hysteria, it is easier to try to manage the news by knowing in advance what things are about to happen, than to try to educate the public that they have no right to expect their country to be able to exercise a monopoly of power on the world.

      This is political blackmail, but it is blackmail we voters could easily disarm by making it clear that we are willing to live with the consequences of being an ex-superpower. Yet whenever there’s a military crisis anywhere in the world, we still behave like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating for action, shooting up the approval ratings of the President as long as he looks threatening and violent. But those of us who hate the President for not being leftist enough gladly join hands with fascists who believe he’s a Moslem Communist terrorist to destroy his reputation unless everything works out perfectly. 99% of us are terribly unqualified to say which of these crises demand action. The 1%, unfortunately, are all employed in the political theater of building up the crisis for the very imperialist party, or tamping it down for the somewhat less imperialist party.

      So you see, it’s not necessary for intelligence agencies to blackmail presidents at all. Our fantasy-driven electorate and our corporate fantasy-media do the job just fine.

  17. It is my understanding from Greenwald interviews and columns that they have barely scratched the surface on the information they possess. I suspect the revelations have just begun.

  18. If it’s unthinkable that BHO didn’t know just remember that Harry Truman didn’t know about the Manhattan Project until he was told after FDR’s death.

  19. We don’t know enough to conclude that Obama was left out of the loop. Something doesn’t add up with Merkel. Why did she “write” (ghost-write??) that Washington Post piece supporting the invasion of Iraq in the run-up to the war in early 2003? That article was certainly an odd piece for a foreign opposition leader. Her piece was published shortly after the beginning of the surveillance. Could it be that intercepted material was used against her to induce the article? If that’s the case, US intelligence would want to keep tabs on her to be assured that she had not divulged anything.

  20. The NSA does represent Americans: they’re called corporations. And just as the Egyptian Military holds that country’s Portfolio, so the Pentagon holds ours. I always thought the phrase The Great Satan were well chosen words.

  21. Eliot Spitzer was only one lawyer who fought government misconduct and became a target.

    Geoffrey Fieger raked in millions in legal fees suing for police misconduct and uncovering wrongful conduct among public officials. He was the 1998 Democratic nominee for governr in Michigan.

    He was indicted for campaign violations in connection with fundraising in the 2008 John Edwards presidential campaign. There was court testimony that the FBI was questioning regarding his personal sex life. The presiding federal judge, Paul Borman, said he rarely seen a case where several dozen FBI agents were dispatched to execute a single search warrant. 80 to 100 FBI agents were briefed in a single powerpoint presentation at the federal building prior to the warrant’s execution.

    Gerry Spence defended the case and Fieger and his law partner were acquitted by a jury.

    • “Eliot Spitzer was only one lawyer who fought government misconduct and became a target.”

      Targeted by whom? Spitzer was not brought down by the Feds. Spitzer was out to make a name for himself with his indictments, many of which were, in whole or in part, later overturned, by the way. Not only that, he was personally a hypocrite. You will recall that Spitzer pushed for a tougher law in New York against “Johns” frequenting prostitutes, the very act in which Spitzer was caught and which led to his downfall. Spitzer’s wounds were all self-inflicted.

      • Spitzer’s misconduct was discovered when US officials monitoring his bank account saw sums of $4,500 regularly coming out of it. They had no warrant to monitor his bank account in the first place. Movement of sums over $10,000 may be monitored to fight drug money laundering. But Spitzer’s wounds were not self-inflicted. He was spied on illegally and outed by Federal employees who had no business doing so.

        • To suggest that Spitzer was not responsible for his own downfall because he was “caught,” via monitoring his bank account, violating the very laws against “Johns” and prostitution that he himself championed in New York is tantamount to absolving an armed robber of responsibility for knocking off a Seven-Eleven because he was “caught” in the act by a surveillance camera. Spitzer has no one to blame but himself.

        • What a masterful misdisplay of ratiocination. What’s the logical flaw here? I’m sure you know…

          One has to ask how pristine one’s past and present behaviors are, or what one’s past and/or present anonymous but implicitly important position is, that the kind of scrutiny that gets so variously applied by State Security to the rest of us gives no qualms and makes such facile false analogies so easy to emit…

      • @Bill:

        7-11 surveillance cameras do not violate the Fourth Amendment. That’s the difference.

        That said, Spitzer’s patronage of commerccalized vice is disapproved an inadvisable.

  22. The United States has always spied on its foreign friends. We know that in 1968 Lyndon Johnson had reasons to believe that private citizen Richard Nixon had secretly cut a deal with Saigon to wreck Johnson’s peace negotiations, thus ruining Humphrey’s chances against Nixon. Nixon accused Johnson of wiretapping his campaign plane, but in fact Johnson was wiretapping the office of the dictator of South Vietnam, the man so many of our boys were dying to defend.

    So if you want to point out that it’s “different” when we do the same to the leaders of genuine democracies, you run up against the point that we sacrificed 55,000 troops to a dictatorship in the first place.

    You might also recall “The Falcon and the Snowman”, a movie based on an actual incident in which a CIA analyst began selling data to the Soviets after he was disgusted by his discovery that the CIA was interfering in Italian elections to sabotage the Communist Party. That is a far more grotesque act than any of this spying, yet there were no consequences from us voters, were there?

  23. But the sudden announcements of the retirement of NSA chief Keith Alexander (who apparently should be in jail) and of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (who certainly should be in jail for lying to Congress) likely signal that Obama demanded they leave

    Keith Alexander’s retirement has certainly been announced, but I’m not seeing reports anywhere that James Clapper has been asked to leave office. Did I miss something?

    • Apparently, Tom, you still believe in the quaint notion that no one is above the law and that we are all equal before it. After all, it’s not like they were taking drugs to boost their pitching arms in a baseball game.

  24. It seems that the only way out of this is for a loyal army unit to massacre the NSA criminals. Since the DOJ sure isn’t doing anything.

    How third world.

  25. Just some things to think about. Not to justify any of this but we should not be surprised. It is inherent to the very nature of bureaucracy to exist on its own behalf. Most have ideologies that persist despite who is in office at the moment. I think of Kafka.

    The people at NSA did it just because they can–and thought they could get away with it and pretty much have and will despite the inconveniences of the revelations.

    People easily fall into the trap that their cause places them above the law. It is also typical of bureaucracies to foot-drag or even sabotage programs when its administration differs from Ihe administration. There is a good chance this behavior is behind the health care website fiasco and a better chance such allegation is impossible to prove acc. to technicalities of the law.

    Other than having their own agendas, it is also typical bureaucratic practice to protect the ability of superiors to deny what you are doing covertly for the patriotic cause. One’s duty can become to quietly subvert the ideal, say democracy, for the sake of the ideal, say democracy. The contradiction does not go unnoticed but in all cases the individuals believe that they are the good folk, god’s chosen, etc….

    Agencies like the CIA, NSA and so on are all about covert ops. In principle everyone knows, including the President, that they engage in operations that are not strictly legal as a matter of routine. That is why they are all subject to special oversight which of course is never effective–it relies on the testimony of the same dutiful liar under the influence of the same ideology who at the least will suffer from memory lapses.

    The sad thing is that New Deal style stimulus now brings us the construction of huge NSA spy complexes in Utah instead of schools and parks. It’s economic development!

    Its old behavior. It is only the technology involved that is new. We wrongly tend to ascribe the good and bad to the technology rather than to how it is used by who.

    As for democracy–the USA was never and was never meant to be a democracy–it was designed as a republic to balance the various forms of government. Democracy would look like a Tea Party in Machiavelli’s Italy.

    Last, never has an American President been do ignored and subverted by the executive branch.

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