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Foreign Policy

Obama Shouldn’t Lecture Xi About Surveillance

Nov 01 , 2013

President Barack Obama has been a vocal critic of China’s hacking into U.S. government and corporate computer systems, accusing the Chinese government of Orwellian tactics. But now President Obama is having to defend similar activity by his own government. 

Steven Hill

A firestorm is gathering under the Obama presidency over the latest revelation that the National Security Agency has been spying on the telephones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and 34 other world leaders. This is in addition to previous leaks that the U.S. government spies on the phone logs, Internet activity and credit card transactions of virtually every U.S. citizen, of Spanish and French citizens, and that the US has bugged European Union offices as well as the United Nations and world leaders at international conferences of the G-20. 

Of course, the Chinese leadership is no innocent when it comes to electronic surveillance. Beijing also monitors vast amounts of Internet traffic and even shuts down offending web sites if it wants. It tracks personal phone and email accounts as a way to intimidate political dissidents. Certainly Orwellian, but the US is not that far behind, having used electronic surveillance and the muscle of government authority to harass and threaten journalists who are following the proud Western tradition of a free press reporting on government misconduct and malfeasance. West is meeting East, but in the wrong ways. 

At least Beijing does not try to portray itself as a model of transparency and accountability, as President Obama and US congressional leaders routinely and self-righteously try to do. In the most recent chapter of NSA skulduggery, President Obama has claimed that he was in the dark over spying of those world’s leaders. White House officials say that the NSA has so many eavesdropping operations under way that it wouldn’t have been practical to brief the president on all of them. 

Is President Xi similarly uninformed about Chinese surveillance? How could it possibly make national security sense that the man in the Oval Office did not have to approve or at least be informed about a decision on bugging the phones of so many of the world’s top leaders?   

And if that’s true, it means that even the President of the United States needed leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden in order to know what his own top spies are doing. That’s alarming, because it also would indicate that the U.S. national surveillance state is out of control. 

But hold on, this just in – current and former U.S. intelligence officials are saying that, in fact, top-ranked officials in the White House and State Department signed off on the surveillance of phone conversations of friendly foreign leaders. If what they are saying is true, then President Obama is either lying or his top aides did not inform him and they are not stepping forward to take responsibility. It also raises troubling questions about how honest – or informed – President Obama has been in his previous defenses of the surveillance state. 

So while the chief executive and the nation’s top spies engage in a “he said, she said” spat over who knew what when, the rest of the nation is left puzzling over whether their president is an incompetent bumbler who didn’t know what he should have known, or a bald-faced liar. No matter how one answers that question, it looks really bad for the president. And for U.S. stature on the world’s stage. 

But the bafflement is bipartisan, since thanks again to the whistleblower Snowden, it was reported in the German publication Der Spiegel that the monitoring of Merkel’s cell phone began back in 2002, when President George W. Bush was chief of U.S. spies. What did he know, and when did he know it? 

Congressional “Dimwit of the Season” award has to go to Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein. Previously, she insisted that she and her Intelligence Committee colleagues were informed and knowledgeable about the NSA’s activities. Senator Feinstein has been chief Democratic Party cheerleader of the national security state, but now even she’s alarmed. Recently she stated, “It is abundantly clear that a total review of all intelligence programs is necessary.…It is clear to me that certain surveillance activities have been in effect for more than a decade and that the Senate Intelligence Committee was not satisfactorily informed.” 

This is the same clueless Senator who previously condemned Snowden as a traitor, saying, “I don’t look at this as being a whistleblower. I think it’s an act of treason…He violated the law. It’s treason.” And yet if it wasn’t for his “treasonous” acts, the very serious Senator Blindstein would still be clueless. 

There is little doubt that the national surveillance state is out of control. Previously President Obama, Senator Feinstein and other congressional leaders insisted that that the NSA is subject to stringent congressional oversight and monitoring from the executive branch, but it’s now clear that this isn’t the case at all. Like the good ol’ days during the Reagan administration, when Ollie North and his accomplices ran gun- and drug-running operations to support the Contras in Nicaragua, the off-the-shelf rogues, goons and spooks are back. Regardless of which party has the presidency, they lurk in the White House basement, making vital decisions regarding the nation’s foreign policy and remaining unaccountable to the nation’s elected leaders. 

But all is not lost. President Obama can partially redeem his tattered reputation by following the fine example of that intrepid charlatan-who-would-be-president, Donald Trump. The boss-in-chief can Trump-et the words “You’re fired!” to whichever of the head spooks that gave these orders. 

Does anyone believe Obama will do that? I’m not holding my breath. It’s hard to see how Obama comes out of this without a dramatic loss of stature, both in the US as well as abroad. Increasingly, the hero in all of this is looking like that “traitor,” Ed Snowden. President Obama and Senator Feinstein should pin a Presidential Medal of Freedom on Mr. Snowden’s lapel. 

American officials have criticized rightly China’s Orwellian tactics, and urged Beijing to become, well, more like the West. But behind closed doors, the US is becoming more like China. And the US is fast losing all credibility to criticize China for any of its domestic and international surveillance activities. That is a loss for the world’s evolution toward global peace and prosperity. 

Steven Hill ( is a political writer and author of “10 Steps to Repair American Democracy” ( and “Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age” (

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