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Cole writes: "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."

Juan Cole. (photo: Informed Comment)
Juan Cole. (photo: Informed Comment)

America's Secret 4th Branch of Government

By Juan Cole, Informed Comment

28 October 13


he 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. your social media marketing partner


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+79 # PABLO DIABLO 2013-10-28 13:43
ALL very important questions. THANK YOU Juan Cole.
+78 # iggypops 2013-10-28 13:47
within a couple days of the snowden leaks going public, i was suggesting that obama folks were behind the leaks as a way of partially dismantling some of our intelligence operations. note that booz allen (snowden's employer) is owned by the carlyle group (bush people). it'd be no surprise to me if obama doesn't know half of what the NSA is up to. and neither do the rest of us. since the passing of the patriot act, folks are making buckets of money on our newly expanded intelligence industries. when folks wonder aloud why a guy like snowden was being paid the kind of money he was being paid, it's similar to what went on down on wall street . . . plenty of folks saw things that weren't quite right, but the money's so good folks keep their heads down & just do the work dropped on their desk. and so it goes.
+17 # cordleycoit 2013-10-28 14:28
That Obama did not know what was going on from the beginning would make him stupid as W. Bush which we know is near impossible. Very few politicians from Chicago could be that dumb. He is a very smart person not sure on his honesty, That is another question.
+9 # iggypops 2013-10-28 14:37
do some research on booz allen hamilton, snowden's employer. i'll make it easy for you:
+26 # Sandy 2013-10-28 15:09
Being smart may not help, since the NSA has apparently been lying to everyone for a long time. But as you indicate, the real question is how much did Obama actually know before the Snowden revelations. I'm sure there is plenty he knows, but it wouldn't surprise me if there's plenty he doesn't know as well.
+1 # RLF 2013-10-29 05:06
It is very dangerous to assume that Obama is telling the truth and not working his legacy when he says he did not know. I will assume he knew everything and if he didn't then his incompetence is even more stunning.
+17 # Texas Aggie 2013-10-28 19:55
How does being smart mean that you know things that people are deliberately keeping hidden from you?
+15 # wantrealdemocracy 2013-10-28 20:18
It is not a matter of how smart Obama is. He was selected to be the main puppet which only means they have something on him. He knows he is a puppet and wants to stay alive.

They killed Kennedy because he thought he was the President. When he crossed the big boys they killed him. That was when our democracy died. It will only continue to bet worse if we don't rise up in a massive resistance.
-2 # RLF 2013-10-29 05:08
Yeah...right... shoot the first black president? at is the fastest way imaginable to revolution! The threat to Obama is probably the same as we have seen with other imploded progressives... sex crimes. Booty!
+17 # fredboy 2013-10-28 14:35
Let's face it, our current and most recent president know and knew very little--neither was really ready to be president.
Sad, but true. The reigns are in the hands of Wall Street and the Daddy Warbucks out there.
+70 # michelle 2013-10-28 14:49
"...James Clapper (who certainly should be in jail for lying to Congress) ..."

Until we put people in jail, real prison not Club Fed, this behavior will continue. There are little if any consequences for the people undermining our democracy. Our biggest mistake was letting Nixon walk. It set the precedent of no accountability for illegal behaviors.
+1 # RLF 2013-10-29 05:09
Really? You know justice has been playing golf for the last 10 years.
+25 # treadlightly 2013-10-28 14:53
Dick "The Truth is What I say it is Punk" Cheney has steadily been defending the NSA.
It's going to take some time to restore our country back to one governed by people who put the citizenry first.
I think we are making progress in that direction.
We are living with the alternative.
+34 # Vardoz 2013-10-28 15:00
The ethics of the founding fathers have been dumped. It's an anarchistic free for all at our expense. They do it because they can. They figure they've got the majority over a barrel. Obviously the NSA is not just about foreign threats, that's just a lie. It's about control, intimidation, blackmail and abuse of the rule of national and international law. It's not only using our tax dollars as more people are dying of shootings, smoking and car accidents here and as our poorest kids are going to bed hungry, cities are crumbling across the nation and our economy is going down the tubes as all of our reps are enjoying their Triple A health care and pensions for life, the NSA is extracting billions to aid and abet the Elite, Wall St, Banks, corporations that pay zero taxes and get lavish subsidies and the militaries agenda for endless wars for profit! I knew this Spy matrix would open an international Pandora's box. It is an unregulated corrupt entity that our so called reps and president accept as just doing business as usual.
+11 # wantrealdemocracy 2013-10-28 20:23
All Vardoz says it true, but he did not mention the bastards are killing the earth. The greed of the 1% will kill us all if we do not stand up and resist. How bad must it get before we rise up? When the dollar collapses and you and your family are hungry? It might be too late then.
+31 # Artemis 2013-10-28 15:31
Extremely interesting.
I have been saying to disbelieving friends that Obama did not know and that probably many NSA and OTHER spying, surveillance rules were laid down during the Bush era by the Cheney, Rumsfeld gang - Rumsfeld did pick out Alexander and promote him. I don't have illusions about Obama necessarily, but believe Cheney and Rumsfeld to be capable of anything, in particular, setting things up so that the President doesn't know all.
Additionally, I believe and having been saying for a while that Obama is surrounded by people who advise him badly, for example regarding drones and the whole 'terror' madness, and that the Zionist gang in particular exerts great pressure on him.
Wouldn't it be great if Obama could stand up and say in all honesty: My fellow Americans, I have recently become aware that I have been lied to....
+21 # Old Man 2013-10-28 16:44
The "Disspickables" Cheney, Rumsfeld, The Bush's and Mr. Alexander are most likely still profiting from the NSA antics. I want to believe that President Obama knew nothing, but my heart says he knows something. It's a sad day when you say to yourself that you may not believe in your own government anymore.
The last Administration put such a stench on this country that it will take us hundreds of yrs. to reinstate our integrity. I'm sorry I won't be here to see it.
+5 # ericlipps 2013-10-28 17:35
Of course, this assumes President Obama really DIDN'T know. What if he did, and approved, and is now backpedaling with a bogus plea of ignorance only because this spying scandal looks so bad--maybe even impeachable. And I say that as someone who voted for him in 2008 and 2012.
+7 # oakes721 2013-10-28 18:54
An arrogant Obama did bare his teeth when Snowden began to calmly explain the facts to the waiting world. Ignorance of the facts and loss of memory are the going fare for politicians.

The Bush plan to run the government as a (BIG) business is in full profit mode: inside information on everyone allows our complete manipulation and causes the world's wealth to flow to these schemers alone. Back to business: where the is no conflict, instigate WARS to create the need. Regulations on weapons sales to foreign powers were just removed or water-boarded down to eliminate any obstacles to sales and the constant flow of money and innocent blood.
-28 # bingers 2013-10-28 19:53
One thing to be noted is that revealing NSA actions against the citizens is one thing, but revealing anything at all about their actions against foreign powers id TREASON! Snowden finagled his way into the job, which he admitted when the first revelations came out, to harm Obama.

It's time to stop thinking f Snowden as some kind of hero and demand his return and trial for treason.

And anyone who thinks that every one of those countries isn't doing the exact thing to us is at best naïve and more likely stupid.
+8 # RODNOX 2013-10-28 21:08
i could support spying to some extent if our govt wasnt a corporatly corrupt---power hungry--out of control military---out of control in general --empire wanna be...that had at least an ounce of integrity.....B UT THEY DONT have an ounce of moral honesty......ju st look at our history of overthrowing govts for our own benifit-----jus t look at our bogus wars--just for profiteering and stealing and controlling natural resources....ju st look at how our govt treats its own citizens about morally and ethically celibate ! ! !
+4 # sophiacat1 2013-10-28 19:14
Heavens-- NOW WHAT?
+5 # RMolineaux 2013-10-28 19:53
Like on "Mission Impossible," we hear a lot about "plausible deniability." Obama may have known, but pretends he doesn't. Politicians are good at that.
+6 # jamander4 2013-10-28 20:07
The point of gaining intelligence is to get actionable intelligence. The questions raised by Juan Cole are good questions. What where and are the actions carried out by the US govenment? Did the actions go farther than mere creating legal problems? Is the targeted killing program in operation within the USA? Did the actions of the US government include activities like Murder Incorporated? Does the government clear out the bank accounts of those not favored by the powers that be? Chances are very good that this information was compartmentaliz ed so Snowden would probably not have access. We need information from someone on the action side.
0 # karenvista 2013-11-01 02:12
Quoting jamander4:
Is the targeted killing program in operation within the USA? Did the actions of the US government include activities like Murder Incorporated?

Do you mean targeted killings like Michael Hastings?
+6 # futhark 2013-10-28 20:51
Barack Obama has been an active advocate of the state surveillance apparatus since he voted for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 2008 while representing the state of Illinois in the U. S. Senate. As president he has consistently pushed for extensions of the PATRIOT Act. Anyone who thinks he prioritizes protection of civil liberties certainly hasn't been paying attention.
+9 # RODNOX 2013-10-28 21:00
this is not so much plausable deniability as it is confirmation of a SHADOW GOVERNMENT
0 # tahoevalleylines 2013-10-28 21:00
Every politician from President to Governor to Congressman knows where they cannot tread. They have loved ones...

The other side of the matter is technical. If we can do it so can the competition. We knew that even before WWI, carried on the same credo through the thirties so we had the Japanese code in our pocket before Pearl Harbor.

The Germans were smarter, they had "Enigma", but British initiative with the help of inside info helped break that early in WWII.

Juan is a child of a World "Gentlemen don't read each others mail". That is an imaginary world. Strategic planners want to know what any given government may be up to as soon as possible. Our enemies & allies do their damnedest to find out our state secrets. We shall continue our side of the game.

As a matter of fact our ability to determine if a third party enemy has a spy in the service of a friendly government is revealed by these technologies in our time.

As for government officials forced to bow to pressure to do things not in their national interest, watch Mahmoud Abbas do things that save him from assassination.. . "DEBKAfile"
-3 # LAellie33 2013-10-29 04:49
Obama didn't know, and Snowden knew he didn't know, but Snowden's goal was to "disgrace the President" any way he and his cohorts could. And that's the truth. Period!
+4 # RLF 2013-10-29 05:16
And Mickey Mouse is a real mouse living in LA and starring in the movies!
+1 # 2013-10-29 15:02
We shouldn't be spying on anyone. Nor should this country be intimidating the rest of the world militarily and economically. We need to find people willing to run for federal office who will stop finding ways, legally and illegally, morally and immorally, to exploit the rest of the world, and begin the work of fixing this planet and the social fabric upon which we all rely to live heathy and happy lives. It's possible. Why aren't we all working towards that end?
+3 # Letthewordgo4th 2013-10-29 15:25
Isn't this the same issue that JFK faced when dealing w/the CIA in Cuba & Southeast Asia? The political facts on the ground back in the early 1960's were the CIA was doing the work of the Lord & James Bond, ridding the world of the "bad" guys. As such, they were politically untouchable. It was almost a violation of National Security to admit the CIA even existed let alone engaged in unethical or illegal activity. It was impossible to challenge "the Agency" directly w/allegations of impropriety as the political price would have been defeat at the polls & in the court of public opinion if you lived to tell of it at all.

President Kennedy came to realize he could not trust the reports & intelligence he was receiving from the intelligence agencies & military & so he found his only alternative to be a cat & mouse game where he hoped the intelligence community/rabid super patriots/cold warriors would miscalculate & be outed for the frauds, lies, incompetence, & unconstitutiona l practices they routinely engaged in. Unfortunately for Jack & the country, that game came to an abrupt end in Dealey 50 years ago.

As Juan Cole so accurately points out above, this situation has reached the inevitable point of no return. We either confront it, stop it, & reverse it, or there can be no real future for any of us. We've got our work cut out for us & it may very well be too late as it is. The sooner we find out, though, the better our chances!

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