President Barack Obama has ordered the National Security Agency to stop eavesdropping on the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank as part of a review of intelligence gathering activities, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter.
The order is the latest move by the White House to demonstrate that it is willing to curb at least some surveillance in the wake of leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden of programs that collect huge quantities of data on U.S. allies and adversaries, and American citizens.
The NSA’s surveillance of the Washington-based IMF and World Bank has not previously been disclosed. Details of such spy programs are usually highly classified.
In response to Reuters inquiries, a senior Obama administration official said, “The United States is not conducting electronic surveillance targeting the headquarters of the World Bank or IMF in Washington.”
The Obama administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not address whether the NSA had eavesdropped on the two entities in the past.
The first official said Obama had ordered a halt to such practices within the last few weeks, about the same time he instructed the NSA to curtail eavesdropping on the United Nations headquarters in New York.
The IMF and the World Bank both declined to comment.
Representatives of the NSA and the Office of Director of National Intelligence had no immediate comment.
Loch K. Johnson, a former congressional oversight aide who is now a professor of international relations at the University of Georgia, said Obama made the right decision by curbing eavesdropping on international organizations and friendly foreign leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“I think it’s a good idea to cut back on surveillance” of economic-related targets, Johnson said. “The enemy is terrorism and we should focus on that. We have to focus almost all of our resources on Al Qaeda and its affiliates,” he said.
Paul Pillar, a former senior analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, said that U.S. policy makers have to weigh the value of collecting intelligence on an organization like the IMF against the risk it will become public.
“In this instance the gain from that information is likely to be minimal,” Pillar said.
“Sound analysis on international economic issues of concern to U.S. policymakers is apt to draw more from other sources of information, both secret and public, and from tapping relevant expertise both outside and inside government, than from eavesdropping on conversations at the IMF,” he added.
It is no secret that U.S. spy agencies historically have collected and analyzed information related to economic affairs – in public briefings to Congress, top intelligence officials have discussed assessments of economic issues.
But a former senior U.S. intelligence official said that the Obama Administration had put greater emphasis and resources than predecessors into collecting and assessing economic information.
In February 2009, shortly after Obama entered the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency began producing a new “Economic Intelligence Brief” for him to review along with the regular President’s Daily Brief on international security and threats.
Leon Panetta, Obama’s first CIA director, said at the time the change was aimed at understanding the implications of the global economic crisis, and that the agency was considering hiring more economic analysts.
The former U.S. intelligence official noted that insider detail on economic policy developments – for example, financial crises affecting the economies of European countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, and the stability of the Euro – is the type of critical information U.S. policymakers welcome.
The desire by U.S. policymakers for such information could help explain why NSA collected information on foreign leaders such as Merkel. Her cellphone number was listed in a NSA targeting document, which German media outlets apparently obtained from Snowden’s cache. U.S. officials have now indicated that much NSA eavesdropping on Merkel and other allied leaders is likely to be curtailed if not halted.
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