Clarke said the only time the CIA would likely inform the White House about a recruitment mission is if the target is politically sensitive.
"Let’s say you were recruiting the secretary to a president... You’re recruiting the butler to the prime minister, something fairly high up," then, Clarke said, the CIA may decide to inform the White House. "But it’s up to the CIA pretty much to determine what a politically sensitive recruitment is."
Devine told ABC News that in his mind, the equation is simple: “This is espionage. Espionage doesn’t require the president’s approval. Having said that… if you think the case is going to get to the president’s desk, you should brief him on it.”
The German operation has certainly hit the president's desk, as well as newspaper headlines the world over.
When asked if the president was originally briefed on the alleged recruitment of the Germans, National Security Council spokesperson Hayden said she would “definitely” not get into “who knew what and when.”
While Devine said doing anything with human intelligence in Germany was risky due to raised tensions after revelations months before that the U.S. was tapping the communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, both Rizzo and Clarke said that from what’s been in the media, the suspected agents wouldn’t fit the bill for being "politically sensitive" enough to require a White House heads up.
“If [the German allegations] did happen, this was just a classic recruitment of a foreign citizen,” Rizzo said.
Unless something goes wrong, as it apparently did in Germany.
In that case, Clarke said the CIA should have informed the White House immediately, most likely the with word coming from CIA Director John Brennan to Susan Rice, the president’s National Security Advisor.
“I’m sure it wasn’t intentional” that the president wasn't briefed until after the call with Merkel, Clarke said, guessing that the news maybe just hadn't spread rapidly enough in the intelligence community.
Whatever the case, the U.S. may have underestimated the diplomatic fallout of the bungled operation. Twice the U.S. Ambassador in Berlin was summoned to German government offices to “clarify” the spying allegations, and Thursday the German Foreign Office announced it had requested America’s top intelligence official in Berlin be sent packing. The Foreign Office said today on Twitter that the move was a "necessary and appropriate action to [the] breach of trust."
“The way I see it, if you consider this with a healthy dose of common sense, it’s a waste of energy to spy on one’s ally,” Chancellor Merkel said Thursday, according to a translation by German news outlet DW. Other prominent German politicians demanded the U.S. cease all spying in their country.
For days the White House, the CIA and the State Department have either declined to comment or offered deflecting statements, but have not denied the allegations.
State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki announced Thursday Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to speak with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in coming days.
“I would also say that, last year the president underwent a review of all of our intelligence gathering,” Psaki said. “The Secretary was engaged in that, as were administration officials across the board. There are, of course, a range of factors that are taken into account… keeping Americans safe, keeping allies in other countries safe as well as taking steps to reform and revise some of our systems when needed, and he did just that.”
However, Psaki was presumably referring to the government’s review of signals intelligence in the wake of disclosures about National Security Agency’s electronic eavesdropping, a review that doesn’t deal with old-fashioned human spying.
ABC News’ Mary Bruce contributed to this report.