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What did Obama know?

Antje Passenheim, Washington / bk
October 28, 2013

Barack Obama has come under intense pressure following the scandal over the bugging of Angela Merkel's cell phone by the NSA. The intelligence agency insists the US president knew nothing, but there are contradictions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama walk together during the family picture event during the G20 summit in St.Petersburg September 6, 2013. REUTERS/Anton Denisov/RIA Novosti/Pool (RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Image: Reuters/Anton Denisov/RIA Novosti

The White House remains silent, while the National Security Agency denies German media claims that its chief, Keith Alexander, informed President Barack Obama in 2010 that it was bugging German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone.

Alexander neither spoke with Obama about the secret operation, "nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel," a statement from NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said.

According to the New York Times, the eavesdropping began 10 years ago, around the time of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, while Merkel was still in opposition as chairwoman of her party, the Christian Democratic Union. "What is coming to light now is no surprise to me," said Thomas Drake, an NSA operative for 18 years before becoming a whistleblower.

From 'Trailblazer' to persona non grata

In 2010, Drake and others publicized information on a spy program called "Trailblazer," making himself a public enemy along the way. "After knowing what I did about the inner workings of the apparatus, I hoped and waited for the next revelations to come," he told DW.

Thomas Drake, former NSA Whistleblower (Foto: Antje Passenheim / DW) - eingestellt von Andreas Grigo
Thomas Drake compared the NSA to the GDR's infamous stasi state policeImage: DW

He says the new revelations about the NSA tally with his own memories of working for the agency a decade ago. "Just after the September 11 attacks the word on the ground was: since many of the attackers had been to Germany, had lived in Germany, or had travelled through Germany, the NSA and the US government declared Germany as the number one target in Europe."

Still the former agent is shocked by the level of surveillance targeting Merkel. "It is an unbelievable violation of the rules of international diplomacy," he said. "It affects Chancellor Merkel personally. That is her personal cell phone. How is that necessary?"

"She is one of our main allies in the fight against real threats," added Drake. The man who once spied on East Germany from airplanes says the operations reminded him of the dictatorial state that was once in the grip of the stasi.

The veteran Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward also criticized the NSA activities. "They need to review the this secret world and its power in their government because you run into this rats nest of concealment and lies time and time again then and now," Woodward told broadcaster CBS. He said that the US was being ruled by an "incredibly powerful government that gets on automatic pilot and you have people with inexperience who don't know about nuts and bolts questions."

NSA Document Quelle: Bild.de Dokument, das der „Spiegel“ zusammen mit anderen NSA-Papieren vom Whistleblower Edward Snowden bekam.
A document that purportedly shows that the NSA began bugging Merkel in 2002

Doubts over Obama's innocence

Woodward is famous, alongside Carl Bernstein, for uncovering President Richard Nixon's surveillance operation against Democratic Party headquarters, a scandal that ended with the first ever resignation of a US president in 1974. Plenty of critics, such as film director Oliver Stone, have already drawn a comparison with the Watergate affair. Nixon's crimes foreshadowed the even greater surveillance possible in the Internet age, Stone said in a video that he and other Hollywood stars and civil rights campaigners have put in the Internet.

For its part, the White House has refused to add anything to its previous statements on the transatlantic bugging scandals. "The United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of the chancellor," White House spokesman Jay Carney said last Wednesday (23.10.2013).

Insiders now argue that may have been a straight lie. Pete Hoekstra, former chairman of the secret services committee at the US House of Representatives, told DW that it would not surprise him if Obama knew of these operations all along. "The president makes the rules by which the secret services operate. The NSA and other US organizations cannot work outside the boundaries that the president sets," he said.

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