"This is a pretty serious embarrassmentfor the U.S., and as top officials try to protect theiragencies and their reputations, they are notsticking with their talking points," a former senior U.S. officialtold The Cable.
Secretaryof State John Kerry touched off the furor when he saidsome of the NSA's overseas surveillance efforts -- which also included tappinginto tens of millions of calls in France and Spain -- had been carried outwithout the Obama administration's knowledge or explicit approval. The remarkshighlighted what appears to the White House's emerging strategy for dealingwith widespread public fury over the programs: blame it on the NSA.
"Thepresident and I have learned of some things that have been happening in manyways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability isthere," Kerry told a conference in London. "In some cases, some ofthese actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure itdoesn't happen in the future."
GeneralKeith Alexander, the head of the NSA, responded by putting responsibility forthe spying efforts squarely on the State Department itself. He saiddiplomats around the world were asking for information about the "leadershipintentions" of top foreign officials, and that his agency was simply trying torespond to those intelligence requests.
Alexander,according to a report in The Guardian,was responding to a series of sharp-edged questions from James Carew Rosapepe,a former American ambassador to Romania. Rosapepe had asked the general toexplain how U.S. national security interests justified the NSA's spying effortson "democratically elected leaders and private businesses."
"Thatis a great question, in fact as an ambassador you have part of the answer. Because we the intelligence agencies don'tcome up with the requirements. The policymakers come up with the requirements,"Alexander said. "One of those groups would have been, let me think, holdon, oh: ambassadors."
Thisisn't the first time that the Obama administration has seen high-leveldisagreements play out in public, of course. In December 2009, President Obamaannounced plans to send tens of thousands of reinforcements to Afghanistan butstressed that they were being sent to carry out a narrow counter-terrorismmission targeting al-Qaeda terrorists, not a broader counter-insurgencymission. Within days, top military officials began to publicly and privatelysay they were going to undertake a counter-insurgency approach anyway.
Theincreasingly-heated NSA debate is different, however, because it risks doinglong-term damage to key White House relationships with foreign leaders likeMerkel as well as long-term damage to the relationship between theadministration and the spies it entrusts with protecting the nation from newterror attacks.
Foreign Policyreported earlier this month that senior NSA officials, including Alexander,were angryat the White House for failing to do more to defend the spy agency fromcriticism of its surveillance efforts on Capitol Hill and in foreign capitals.The administration, meanwhile, has seemed blind-sided by the continuingrevelations about secret NSA spying programs at home and abroad.
TheWhite House had two basic choices for how to respond: argue that Obama knewabout the programs and approved them, which risked further infuriating keyAmerican allies, or say that he was unaware of the NSA's efforts, which riskedpainting a picture of a surprisingly out-of-touch commander in chief. For the moment, the administration seems tohave settled on the latter.
P.J.Crowley, a former State Department spokesman, said the administration has had ahard time settling on a PR strategy because it doesn't know how many moredisclosures are yet to come, or precisely what will be in them.
"There's a drip, drip, drip that makes categorical statements inresponse to the latest news report risky," he told The Cable. "At what point do you have a sense that youknow what you're dealing with so you can start to repair and rebuild? From adiplomatic standpoint, you can only start those repairs when the shovel stopsdigging a deeper hole."
Crowley helped craft the State Department's response to theinitial WikiLeaks disclosures, but said that was relatively easy compared tothe ongoing disclosures of once-classified NSA documents by former NSAcontractor Edward Snowden.
"During WikiLeaks we had months to assess the damage and seewhat was in the archive," he said. "Forthe moment, with Snowden, it's hard to know if we're closer to the end or thebeginning."