I think the main thing I want to emphasize is I don’t have an interest and the people at the NSA don’t have an interest in doing anything other than making sure that where we can prevent a terrorist attack, where we can get information ahead of time, that we’re able to carry out that critical task. We do not have an interest in doing anything other than that. — President Obama, August 9, 2013.
A report in the German newspaper Bild cites NSA sources claiming that in 2010, Gen. Keith Alexander briefed President Obama on the targeting of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone.
The NSA has responded with a statement saying:
[General] Alexander did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel.
That sounds very much like a non-denial denial.
Given that as it was widely reported in the English-language press that Obama had been “briefed” on the surveillance, an unambiguous denial from the NSA would have simply said that Obama had not been briefed on this matter. He had not been briefed by Alexander or anyone else in the intelligence community.
A briefing involves nothing more than the exchange of information. Whether that exchange provokes discussion is another matter. Every U.S. president will be briefed on matters every single day during which he is a passive recipient of information.
That Obama presents the appearance of being a disengaged president, is well documented.
If Alexander presented Obama with a list of heads of state currently under U.S. surveillance — a list including Merkel’s name and/or position — and Obama scanned the list, noting who was being spied on and for how long, but this information provoked neither comments nor questions from the president, then he could certainly have been briefed while having no discussion.
Officials choose their words very carefully precisely because they are afraid of accused of lying. That they might at the same time be engaged in an effort to be deceptive is another matter, since in response to the suggestion that a statement might be misleading, they can always plead ignorance or regret or blame the press. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. Sorry if there’s a misunderstanding. You misinterpreted my statement.
The charade of a press briefing won’t, however, alleviate the credibility issue that Obama now has with Merkel. In her eyes the U.S. president must now appear to be either a liar, incompetent, or both.