For the past half-year, classified documents leaked by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden have revealed dozens of details about the U.S. government's spying operations. But the past ten days have been especially hectic, and especially complicated: First, we heard that the NSA has been spying on... well, basically of our allies and their leaders, and reportedly without the knowledge of President Obama; then the NSA said that wasn't true. It's all very confusing. Let us explain.

So who is the NSA (reportedly) spying on?

Like we said, pretty much everyone. But for the purpose of this explainer, basically every European and Latin American country, including many of their leaders.

Their leaders?

Yes. About two weeks ago, a report in Der Spiegel revealed the NSA hacked the public email account of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who has a close relationship with the U.S. Three days later, President Obama received what was surely an awkward phone call from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, having been tipped by a separate Der Spiegel investigation, wanted to discuss reports that the NSA had monitored her personal cell phone. It was later revealed that the U.S. had been doing so since 2002.

Okay, but, at least it wasn't happening in dozens of countries or anyth—

Two days after Merkel's phone call to Obama, the Guardian published a report saying the NSA had monitored the phone calls of at least 35 world leaders, most, if not all, of whom were U.S. allies.



But isn't that basically the NSA's job?

Well, sort of. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, alluded to as much Tuesday afternoon during a House Intelligence Committee hearing. “Some of this reminds me of the classic movie ‘Casablanca’ — ‘My God, there’s gambling going on here,’” Clapper said.

But the idea of spying on the personal communications of close allies seems to cross a line, especially with Merkel. From Der Spiegel:

Hardly anything is as sensitive a subject to Merkel as the surveillance of her cellphone. It is her instrument of power. She uses it not only to lead her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), but also to conduct a large portion of government business. Merkel uses the device so frequently that there was even debate earlier this year over whether her text-messaging activity should be archived as part of executive action.

"Spying between friends, that's just not done," Merkel would say later. "The trust will have to be rebuilt."

That's not mentioning that the eavesdropping was reportedly taking place from inside the U.S. embassy in Berlin.

Wiretapping from an embassy is illegal in nearly every country. But that is precisely the task of the ["Special Collection Service"], as is evidenced by another secret document. According to the document, the SCS operates its own sophisticated listening devices with which they can intercept virtually every popular method of communication: cellular signals, wireless networks and satellite communication.

Shouldn't the Chancellor of Germany be more careful about using a cell phone?

You'd think so. Then again, the monitoring reportedly started back when Merkel was still party chair of CDU, and, from the sounds of it, used technology capable of grabbing almost any communication, no matter how encrypted. Again from Der Spiegel:

According to the documents, SCS units can also intercept microwave and millimeter-wave signals. Some programs, such as one entitled "Birdwatcher," deal primarily with encrypted communications in foreign countries and the search for potential access points. Birdwatcher is controlled directly from SCS headquarters in Maryland.

With the growing importance of the Internet, the work of the SCS has changed. Some 80 branches offer "thousands of opportunities on the net" for web-based operations, according to an internal presentation. The organization is now able not only to intercept cellphone calls and satellite communication, but also to proceed against criminals or hackers. From some embassies, the Americans have planted sensors in communications equipment of the respective host countries that are triggered by selected terms.

How did President Obama respond? Did he know about the phone monitoring?

Obama has—or had—a close relationship with Merkel, and certainly a better one than his predecessor, who famously gave the Chancellor an unwanted back massage. And, of course, the alleged phone monitoring started during George W. Bush's first term.

But weirdly, according to White House officials, the president didn't find out about the monitoring of world leaders until this summer, after Snowden began leaking documents, which would mean he was president for more than five years before learning about the program.

So he didn't know.

Well: According to U.S. intelligence officials, including James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, the White House was briefed about, and in some cases approved, the operations, though Clapper implied it's possible that Obama may not have personally known. “They can and do [know],” Clapper said yesterday during House Intelligence Committee hearing. “I have to say that that does not extend down to the level of detail. We’re talking about a huge enterprise here, with thousands and thousands of individual requirements.”

What about other European countries? Did the U.S. monitor their leaders too?

Maybe! Tens of millions of phone calls in France and Spain were, according to reports in Le Monde and El Mundo, monitored by the the NSA over a 30-day period last year. In Spain, only the metadata—the duration of the calls, as well as the numbers—was kept, but in France the actual phone calls were recorded as well.

How did France and Spain react?

Both countries summoned the U.S. ambassador to discuss the reports, and France partnered with Germany to seek new spying rules from the U.S. and other allies.

That seems appropriate.

Sure, yes... except that according to intelligence officials, it wasn't the NSA who spied in France and Spain. Or at least it wasn't only the NSA. In his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander said it was foreign intelligence agencies—working in partnership with the NSA—who monitored the phone calls, which, if true, would undermine the reports, co-written by Glenn Greenwald, in Le Monde and El Mundo.

What was Greenwald's reaction?

About what you'd expect. In his response published Wednesday, Greenwald defended his work, attacking both Alexander's credibility and the "gullibility" of journalists who published the NSA's claims without adequately questioning them or demanding evidence. Greenwald also noted that, out of the dozens of reports published based on Snowden's documents, not one contains even a minor correction.

So now what?

Who knows! More Snowden revelations, probably. And what do you know: As I was writing this, another report, from the Washington Post, was published about the NSA breaking into Yahoo and Google data centers around the world.

[Image by Jim Cooke]