09/19/2013 02:26 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

The NSA Surveillance Destroys Diplomacy and Democracy

The diplomatic casualties mount as a consequence of National Security Agency (NSA) spying. On Tuesday, September 17, a summit-level meeting imploded because of the uncontrolled espionage of the NSA. Dilma Rousseff, the President of Brazil, cancelled a state visit to Washington, DC. By way of explanation, the Brazilian government referred to the fact that the NSA intercepted the communications of the president and her aides: "Given the proximity of the scheduled state visit to Washington - and in the absence of a timely investigation of the incident with corresponding explanations and the commitment to stop the interception activities - it is not convenient for the visit to occur on the date previously agreed."

The state visit by the Brazilian president was the only such event scheduled by the White House this year - but the illicit activities of the NSA left the two heads of state without any way to repair the damage. Rousseff, who has domestic political problems of her own, could not possibly swallow the affront to the sovereignty of her country and her office and make the trek to Washington as if nothing had happened. Moreover, the visit was apparently to finalize an oil exploration deal between the US and Brazil, among other things, but NSA espionage also took in the internal computer network at Petrobras, the Brazilian national oil company. Consequently, whatever deal was in the works could hardly proceed, as presumably the US negotiators had the Petrobras strategy in hand before final talks even began.

On the US end, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, responded to the situation with a statement: "What we do not do, as we have said many times, is use our foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of - or give intelligence we collect to - U.S. companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line."

In other words, the NSA was looking for terrorists at Petrobras.

No one believes Clapper anymore.

For his part, Obama did not have a single card to play. Clearly, he could not deny the intrusions. Every time the US government lies in order to minimize the impact of NSA espionage, another document appears exposing the duplicity. Thus, Clapper's credibility was destroyed after he gave Congress the "least untruthful" answer possible about domestic surveillance. Similarly NSA Director Keith Alexander was exposed after he told his staff: "The NSA/CSS [Central Security Service] work force has executed its national security responsibilities with equal and full respect for civil liberties and privacy."

Nor could Obama apologize because, apparently, the surveillance continues.

So the White House was reduced to this:

The President has said that he understands and regrets the concerns disclosures of alleged U.S. intelligence activities have generated in Brazil and made clear that he is committed to working together with President Rousseff and her government in diplomatic channels to move beyond this issue as a source of tension in our bilateral relationship. As the President previously stated, he has directed a broad review of U.S. intelligence posture, but the process will take several months to complete.

Alleged U.S. intelligence activities? Move beyond this issue as a source of tension? What does that even mean?

Consider, for a moment, the Brazilian President's history. She came of age under a dictatorship, belonged to a resistance movement, was captured, jailed and tortured. Now she finds that a clandestine U.S. espionage agency is monitoring her communications and those of her close aides. When she confronted the putatively responsible party - President Obama - he responds that he will order an investigation, which should be complete some months from now. And - that's it.

Obama does not express regret, does not acknowledge that the NSA invaded the sovereignty of an allied nation, does not commit to holding anyone accountable ... he cannot, in fact, even commit to stopping the surveillance. The meaningless statement strongly suggests that the President does not control the national security apparatus of the United States.

Think about that for a minute. Essentially, we should ask about the long-term destructive effects of this kind of secrecy on a democratic political system. How do democratically elected officials (the president, congressmen or senators) get control of a stand-alone secret government bureaucracy that was operating long before they arrived and will survive them after they've gone? A bureaucracy that knows everything there is to know about them, too?

They don't. They can't. So the surreptitious, illicit actions of a US spy agency can undermine the diplomatic work of months and years. And the president - the elected official chosen to lead the country - is so hamstrung by the NSA that he cannot stop the interceptions and order an immediate investigation.

Bea Edwards is Executive & International Director of the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection organization.