Global Politics

What will it take to curb the NSA's spying? Political courage, says an expert

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Credit: REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz
The flag on the US embassy is pictured next to the Reichstag building, seat of the German lower house of parliament Bundestag. A German newspaper said on Sunday that President Barack Obama knew his intelligence service was eavesdropping on Angela Merkel as long ago as 2010, contradicting reports that he had told the German leader he did not know.

You remember that dance tune from the 80s with the chorus, "I got this feeling somebody's watching me"? Well, these days, it's not just a feeling. 

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NSA surveillance of friendly world leaders has led to outrage abroad. It's put President Obama on the defensive. And one of the NSA's biggest defenders, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, says the agency needs to stop snooping on our foreign buddies.

For years, it seems like the agency had unchecked powers to collect data on millions of people around the globe. Tim Weiner is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of 'Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA." He used to cover the intelligence-gathering beat for the New York Times. He says we've seen this movie before, in the 1970s.

"After Watergate, the Senate held hearings in which we heard that the NSA had been spying on Americans," he says. "Now, what we got after those painful public hearings was a set of laws and procedures. We got the foreign intelligence surveillance court, which is supposed to oversee the NSA." 

But, Weiner argues, the surveillance technology has gotten so good, it has surpassed the ability of US policy to control it. 

"And the freedom that Bush gave the NSA," he says, "with secret orders, enforced by a secret court, and guided by secret laws, have obviously grown to the point where they are not only potentially dangerous to democracy... but ridiculous, like listening in on Chancellor Merkel of Germany."

So, is a proper self-examination even possible? Weiner says any change would have to start with the Senate Intelligence Committee. But he says they would first have to grow a spine and it would come at a cost.

"The cost would be that this administration, President Obama, and this Congress would have to question the leaders of American intelligence about what they have done in our name in an open session. And what they have done, in their view, is so secret and so imperative to the national security of the United States, that you cannot discuss it in an open democracy." He says that is the tug-of-war.

He believes the NSA has gone beyond the rule of common sense in its pursuit of secret information. "Information is power. Secret information, which is the definition of intelligence, is power squared. And secret information that only you can deliver to the president, that is power cubed."

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