NSA exposé

Edward Snowden
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / The Guardian

29 June 2013

News broke recently that the NSA (the US‘s National Security Agency) whistleblower, Edward Snowden, has departed the Chinese territory of Hong Kong and arrived in Russia. As the NSA and GCHQ (the UK’s Government Communication Headquarters)-related leaks emerge, the public is faced with three central questions:

  1. What did the NSA do?
  2. Why is Snowden hiding?
  3. What next?

1) Secrets and lies

In October of 2001, President George W Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act, the aim of which was Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism. Through this act, government security organizations – including the NSA, FBI and CIA – were granted the ability to conduct extensive information gathering initiatives, such as “warrantless wiretaps”, on US citizens.

These security and intelligence organizations were intended to obtain permission for their surveillance programs from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), a federal court created by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The FISC was designed to provide the oversight which warrants for legitimate government data collecting. However, the FISC – also referred to as the FISA court – is under public scrutiny in light of recent events.

In a televised interview with Barack Obama, conducted by Charlie Rose, the following exchange occurred:

Charlie Rose: But has FISA court turned down any request?

Barack Obama: The — because — the — first of all, Charlie, the number of requests are surprisingly small… number one. Number two, folks don’t go with a query unless they’ve got a pretty good suspicion.

CR: Should this be transparent in some way?

BO: It is transparent. That’s why we set up the FISA court…

Obama’s circular reasoning – that transparency of the FISA court is overseen by itself – conveys a reluctance by the current administration to address the emerging security-related public concerns. In 2012 there were 1789 requests that were submitted for digital surveillance warrants – and a court memo notes that “the FISC did not deny any applications in whole or in part” and “the FISC made modifications to the proposed orders in 40 applications.” So, the court modified only 2% of surveillance requests, and granted every single one of them. Many are concerned that the programs granting the NSA seizure of mass personal digital effects of American citizens is unconstitutional.

US Senator Rand Paul told Candy Crowley on CNN: “[Snowden] did break his oath of office,” (Snowden breached contract by releasing classified information, as he worked for the private security contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, which granted him direct access to NSA networks) “but part of his oath of office is to the Constitution, and he believes that, when James Clapper [National Director of Intelligence] came in March, our national director of intelligence came and lied, that he [Snowden] was simply coming forward and telling the truth that your government was lying. This is a big concern of mine, because it makes me doubt the administration and their word to us when they talk to us, because they have now admitted they will lie to us if they think it is in the name of national security.” He continued: “Mr Clapper lied in Congress in defiance of the law in the name of security – Mr Snowden told the truth in the name of privacy…”

Paul, here, is referring to the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing this March, during which Clapper stated that the NSA “did not wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans.

2) All the data

What does it mean for the NSA to be dragnet collecting all our data? For starters, the opportunity for abuse is heightened, especially in a situation where there is little oversight or transparency. The data the NSA is collecting includes our phone records, our emails, Facebook information, forum histories and much more. All that is encrypted is being recorded and even decoded, including: exchanges on banking websites, computer files, personal financial records, file transfers, communications, and location data.

Your movements, thoughts and behavior are all being collected and tracked via your digital footprint. To your average Joe, it is a major breach of privacy; and to figures such as journalists, politicians and corporate heads, it is potentially much more dangerous.

Theoretically, from a live data feed, the government can track the movements and trends of citizens in entire cities, regions and states at any given moment. This provides the government with an incredible amount of information and consequently power, a situation that is, to say the least, disconcerting to many Americans and foreign nationals.

Some Washington politicians and mainstream media agents have accused Snowden of putting American citizens in mortal danger by releasing the information classified by the government; but to many, these accusations ring hollow.

Further details that Snowden disclosed tell a story of how US and British security – the American NSA and the UK’s GCHQ – have teamed up to spy on foreign diplomats during summits by setting up fake internet cafes and stealing keylogging data. It has also been shown that the US collects and stores the phone and SMS records of Chinese citizens, as well as data from Chinese universities. Amnesty International, while appealing for Snowden’s safety, has made statements accusing the United States of human rights violations.

The public is in distress owing to the apparent criminality of the US government, which is disregarding both international and domestic law as well as abusing its position as a global power. A German member of Parliament went on record saying, “Our concerns are that our friends are spying on us.”

3) Quest for asylum

Under the Obama administration, the US government has consistently penalized whistleblowers with an unprecedentedly heavy hand. Edward Snowden is the eighth person to be charged with the Espionage Act under Obama – more than all previous presidential administrations combined. The current administration uses this Act – created in 1917 to penalize spies – to prosecute leakers and whistleblowers.

Some are asking why Snowden decided to go to the press instead of trying to make an internal change. The answer is surprisingly straightforward. NSA veteran whistleblower William Binney explains his own experience:

“We tried to stay for the better part of seven years inside the government trying to get the government to recognize the unconstitutional, illegal activity that they were doing and openly admit that and devise certain ways that would be constitutionally and legally acceptable to achieve the ends they were really after. And that just failed totally … All it did was continue to get worse and expand.”

Snowden need have only looked to the fate of those leakers such as William Binney, Thomas Drake, J Kirk Wiebe or Bradley Manning in order to realize the necessity of fleeing a surveillance state that seeks to enforce the fullest possible extent of prosecution upon its whistleblowers.

Snowden first went to Hong Kong, and then fled to Russia. There are only a few places on the entire planet that won’t cooperate with the USA’s extradition requests, owing to American presence as a global intimidator. Certain South American countries such as Bolivia and Venezuela have offered him asylum, both to retaliate against the United States and to condone Snowden’s dedication to revealing illegality and human rights violation.

Though the US government maintains their story that he is an enemy and traitor – purportedly selling off American secrets one by one to the evil powers of the world – his behaviour suggests otherwise. Were he truly a spy, he likely would not have gone public; as an advanced covert computer specialist, he could have comfortably funnelled information to foreign governments in the shadows. Revealing the US government’s illicit activity to the world shows, ironically, a very American dedication to the personal value of privacy and the need for political transparency.

Subscribing to Constitutional tenets is now, apparently, a crime in the US – and most countries, whether or not they agree with Snowden, are not willing to risk incurring the wrath of a global superpower. Only countries that aren’t intimidated by the US are the ones he has any chance in.

Rand Paul, again, commenting in a CNN interview: “I do think, for Mr Snowden, if he cozies up to the Russian government, it will be nothing but bad for his name in history,” continuing, “if he goes to an independent third country like Iceland and if he refuses to talk to any sort of formal government about this, I think there’s a chance that he’ll be seen as an advocate of privacy. If he cozies up to either the Russian government, the Chinese government, or any of these governments that are perceived still as enemies of ours, I think that will be a real problem for him…”

International pressure is mounting on Moscow to extradite Snowden from their transit zone, so he may not stay there much longer. Most likely, he will go to a South American nation for safety, and will remain abroad in exile from the United States.


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