Editor’s Note: Noah Shachtman, Shane Harris and Elias Groll report that it is essentially impossible the White House would not know foreign leaders were being monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies. While President Obama may not have heard specifics of operations, it has long been part of normal protocol to use information gathered by intelligence to better understand both allies and enemies, they write.
Everyone from the president to the lawmakers who are supposed to oversee the National Security Agency claim they had no idea it was spying on the communications of dozens of foreign leaders. But that claim is laughable, according to veteran members of the intelligence community, former White House advisers, and now one of the NSA’s main overseers in Congress.
A former White House official, who served in a prior administration, said it was essentially impossible that the president wouldn’t know foreign leaders were being monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies, and principally the NSA, as part of regular operations aimed at keeping him informed about diplomatic relations and negotiations. Information on foreign leaders that is based on recorded calls or other signals intelligence is “unique,” the former official said, and its nature is obvious to anyone reading or hearing an intelligence report or receiving a briefing.
“If you saw it, you’d know that it came out of somebody’s mouth,” the former official said. “I cannot believe that [Obama’s national security staff] didn’t brief the president on foreign leaders when he was going in to visit with them.” Much of that information would have comes from signals intelligence. And the failure to inform the president that a piece of information came from spying on a leader could be a fireable offense, the former White House official said. “It’s almost a dereliction not to tell him.”
I think probably that the lesson that [Kim Jong Un is] learning is that he doesn’t have to give up anything and yet people will be scrambling for summits with him. ... The longer we have these drawn-out talks, these summits, bilaterals, trilaterals, quadrilaterals, the more it buys time for them to reinforce their claimed status [as a nuclear power] but also to continue with their R&D. But I do think that there is an element of trying to mitigate the sanctions, and also Kim took all those discussions about military strikes seriously enough to try and take the wind out of the sails. ... I find it difficult to envision how or why he would give up his nuclear weapons, which have pretty much given him what he’s wanted: which is the strategic relevance, the international prestige, and deterrence.
[Regarding President Trump's shift from enthusiasm to uncertainty over the U.S.-North Korea summit] In effect, President Trump is getting a mini-lesson in talking to the North Koreans even before he talks to the North Koreans.