U.S. government refers to NSA “autopilot” as Snowden considers German testimony

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that some of the NSA’s espionage activities took place without his or President Obama’s knowledge. He said such activities went too far.

This follows the biggest diplomatic scandal to emerge from the Snowden leaks, namely news that the phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and dozens of other world leaders were monitored. Also on Thursday, Edward Snowden wrote to Merkel from Russia, saying he might agree to bear witness in a criminal trial over the affair.

And, again on Thursday, the British Parliament debated the country’s Tempora scheme – a massive program of fiber-tapping that is conducted in partnership with the NSA – for the first time.


“The president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there,” Kerry said via videolink on Thursday, remotely participating in a London conference. “In some cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.”

The White House has already denied that Obama knew about the Merkel tap, following widespread reports in the German media that NSA chief Keith Alexander briefed Obama on the matter back in 2010. The autopilot reference strengthens that denial, though it doesn’t say much for the White House’s own oversight capabilities.

The Merkel incident was something of a tipping point — she is the second most important leader in the world. It caused fury in Germany, and the left-wing parties have called for a parliamentary investigation. Merkel’s party has agreed not to block it.

Visit to Moscow

That raises the interesting question of whether and how the star witness – Snowden himself – might participate.

Stroebele campaign posterGreen MP Hans-Christian Stroebele represents the district next to mine in Berlin – I cannot resist embedding the adjacent shot of his recent campaign poster (if you click on it to enlarge, and squint, you may note the iconic TV Tower draped with U.S. and British flags, together with CCTV cameras).

On Thursday, Stroebele revealed a surprise visit to Snowden in the Russian capital. The whistleblower is stuck there for now, after the U.S. cancelled his passport. Stroebele said Snowden was “willing in principle to shed light” on U.S. espionage in Germany, and brought back a letter from the former NSA contractor to Merkel.

The German politician said Snowden was willing to come to Germany to testify, although his lack of a passport would be an issue. The question is whether the Germans would give him asylum as the Russians have, or whether he would risk deportation back to the U.S.

Snowden could testify remotely from Russia, but that comes with its own complications: President Putin gave him temporary asylum on the condition that he stop hurting the U.S., and his testimony could qualify as such.

Belated debate

Meanwhile, the UK Parliament saw its first debate on Snowden’s revelations on Thursday, just under 5 months after the scandal first broke.

In it, Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert (who called for the debate along with Labour’s Tom Watson) echoed Kerry by noting the role of technology as an enabler: “Individual surveillance is one thing, but the mass hoovering up of information enabled by new technologies has changed the system completely.”

Huppert also called for greater oversight of the UK intelligence services, and pointed out how current laws there allow secret tapping activities as long as they help maintain relations with other governments.

“So if the U.S. asks for something, we are supposed to provide it,” he complained. “The information does not have to be provided to Parliament, and it gags whoever the directions are served on.”

Most speakers from the dominant Conservative Party disagreed, although a Conservative MP and former Foreign Office lawyer, Dominic Raab, maintained that “the bald assertion of national security cannot be used to guillotine all debate.”

A UK parliamentary committee is currently looking into the laws surrounding intelligence oversight, and has said it might allow some of its hearings to be held in public for the first time.