White House press secretary Jay Carney (image credit Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)
By David Jackson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - An Obama administration review of surveillance policies -- started because of criticism within the United States - has now led to diplomatic problems overseas.
Administration officials refused Monday to comment on a report that President Obama learned only this year about a National Security Agency surveillance program that monitored the communications of foreign leaders.
"I'm not going to get into the details of internal discussions," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the NSA ended a program monitoring foreign leaders after an internal review revealed its existence; the account suggested that Obama did not know about the programs until that review began during the summer.
Carney said a report on the review is due by the end of the year, but leaders in Germany and other countries are demanding immediate changes to U.S. surveillance policies.
Spain is the latest in a string of nations to protest NSA surveillance tactics, revealed in news reports based on disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Other nations include Germany, France, Brazil and Mexico.
Paul Pillar, a former senior intelligence officer, said most presidents don't know about "the targeting decisions" made by their intelligence agencies.
"It would be a horrible drain on the president's time and attention," Pillar said.
Pillar said it's not the tactics themselves that create international friction as much as the fact that they have now been publicized.
"Not only do allies spy on each other all the time, allies know about it all the time," Pillar said.
Normally, he said, nations that discover surveillance from other countries would tighten their security procedures and not make "a public stink" about it.
But the news coverage - inspired by the Snowden revelations and fueled by outrage from their domestic constituents - forces leaders to confront the United States.
The issue is particularly sensitive in Germany, where memories of the nation's Cold War divisions remain fresh. Those memories include spying by police forces in Communist-run East Germany - the native region of Chancellor Angela Merkel, an outspoken critic of NSA tactics.
"Their history is speaking very loudly to them," said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Merkel demanded a U.S. response after reports that her cellphone had been monitored by the NSA. Carney said that, in a phone call last week, Obama assured Merkel that the U.S is not and will not monitor the chancellor's communications, but did not comment on any past efforts.
The administration did deny a German news report that NSA Director Keith Alexander informed Obama about surveillance of Merkel three years ago.
"Gen. Alexander did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel," said NSA spokesperson Vanee Vines. "News reports claiming otherwise are not true."
Germany has demanded changes in mutual intelligence rules. The Germans are sending an intelligence team to Washington this week to meet with U.S. counterparts.
While the United States and Germany figure to remain allies, Conley said the flap could undermine joint efforts on trade, data-sharing and law enforcement efforts to block potential terrorist attacks.
"This is not going to wait until the review," she said. "This requires leadership and action."