BACK TO MAIN  |  ONLINE BOOKSTORE  |  HOW TO ORDER

TWN Info Service on Finance and Development (Jul13/01)
15 July 2013
Third World Network

Snowden, NSA and ever-changing US narrative
Published in SUNS #7624 dated 11 July 2013 

Geneva, 10 Jul (Chakravarthi Raghavan*) - It is now just over five weeks since the English daily ‘The Guardian' and its columnist Glenn Greenwald began publishing the series of news reports and analysis on the US National Security Agency's (NSA) spying activities across the globe, vacuuming up and storing for future access and analysis all kinds of data on national and international communications and transactions, all in the name of ‘fighting terror'.

Beginning 5 June, and the first of the series of Guardian reports of the US secret court order for US telecom giant Verizon (and perhaps other telecom operators too) to hand over the phone records of millions of Americans, the attention of world polity has been gripped by the disclosures of the massive spying and the global Orwellian surveillance, by the United States, with its imperial hubris cloaked as promoting world-wide democracy and freedom of speech and human rights.

While the Guardian reports are based on files disclosed by Edward Snowden, much of the catchup reports in other media have focussed on the US and the activities of its agencies on US nationals. It should be underscored that this gigantic operation of illicit data collection, storage and analysis, and sharing, involves what has been described as the five-nation "core western alliance" - of USA, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand - with everyone else being viewed as ‘fair game'. Part of this spying has been in real time as disclosed in the Guardian report of 16 June, on the British MI5, MI6 and GCHQ (UK Government Communications Headquarters) operations of bugging Summit participants and their advisors at the G20 Summit convened by then British PM Gordon Brown.

The entire operation has been such that it is futile to try to distinguish between US spying activities on its own citizens and enterprises, with or without legal authority and judicial sanction, and NSA snooping outside the US. It is more or less seamless. Even if it is legal and is authorised on its own soil, in terms of its external impacts, it is a violation of the laws of many nations, and a breach of civilized diplomatic concourse.

What has so far come out shows a flagrant violation of all norms of international law: the UN Charter obligations, international treaties and conventions codifying the relations among Sovereign States, the age-old principles of inviolability of envoys, their communications with the sovereign and their person and premises; Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which proclaims the right of an individual "to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution"; and perhaps (depending on interpretations), international telecommunication and civil aviation treaties and protocols.

The details tumbling out of eye-catching media headlines every day show the gross violations by the US of the privacy and human rights of the citizens of the world: PRISM, Boundless Informant, and other code-named operations; the various levels of collaboration by various national security agencies, particularly in Europe (but also elsewhere) with the NSA, perhaps without the full knowledge and informed sanction of their political masters in governments, or more probably with their connivance, being provided only just enough information for ‘credible deniability'; and the more recent, often proforma, protests and demands for explanations from the governments concerned, when details relating to particular countries have come out. The cooperation among some of the agencies has enabled them to get around their own domestic laws, for one or other of the agencies to collect information on nationals of others and share them.

And since June, when the whistle-blower Edward Snowden outed himself in Hong Kong, in an effort to focus public attention on the US violations, much of the western media focus has been on Snowden. The latter was an employee of the NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton (with its revolving door arrangements for its executives and agency officials swapping jobs with changing administrations, and with deep ties with the US NSA and security agencies bringing in billions of US government dollars in contracts).

Since 23 June, the 30-year-old Snowden, who fled Hong Kong China, has been caught up in the limbo of the transit area and ‘hotel' of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, with no papers for further travel. Most countries where he wanted to go for asylum turned it down, either under some legalism or plain summary rejection. Over the last few days, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have offered asylum, if sought, with the Venezuelan President reiterating it publicly; but with no papers for further travel, and no guarantee of safe transit from Moscow to his destination, Snowden is still stuck in limbo.

[On a personal note, this writer has every sympathy for Snowden and his plight in that limbo and "transit hotel" - more so since his and his families' experience in that limbo, albeit for only 14 hours, way back in September 1971, before being rescued by the Indian embassy and the Soviet TASS newsagency Editor with whom he had scheduled appointments. But that is another story for another time.]

Much of the media focus has been on Snowden and his plight and western media efforts to locate and track him (‘global voyeurism', as a former foreign secretary of India has described it). This is as it should be, but it should not be used to sidetrack or avoid focussing on the US double-standards (more on that below), theft of other nations' and nationals' "property" including Intellectual Property of people and enterprises in other nations, and the serious implications of the disclosures for the future of the UN-based world order - a debate that appears to be just getting under way.

In 1965-66, at the time of the US savage war on Vietnam, with the Security Council and its permanent members (China was represented by the KMT regime) not getting seized of the matter, UN Secretary-General U Thant raised his voice. Almost every Saturday as he left the secretariat around lunch time, he would stop and talk to a few journalists in the lobby, and express his views, critical of the US, on the War. And at a regular press conference, when this writer questioned him on his sources of information and his channels for communicating with Hanoi, and his many comments, U Thant responded that beyond his duty as the chief administrator of the secretariat, and duty to bring matters to the attention of the Security Council or the General Assembly, he also had the responsibility to speak out, as ‘the conscience of humanity', as he put it. And in 1966, when the US and Soviet ambassadors called on him, requesting him to run for and accept another term (since they could not agree on anyone else), he said he would do so only if the permanent members agreed to his right to speak out. The two agreed, and he was elected to and accepted a second term.

The ‘private comments' on this affair of the current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, on 3 July at Reykjavik to members of the Iceland Parliament ("Snowden's digital misuse has created problems that outweigh public benefits"), and the silence* of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay (so far) on violation of Snowden's fundamental Human Right to seek and get asylum without interference, show how far the UN has travelled - from the days of U Thant to now.

[Since this comment was written, published and posted on 10 July, a UN press release, issued to media by email at 1950 CET on Friday 12 July, cited the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, as urging "respect for right to privacy and protection of individuals revealing human rights violations". Ms Pillay was cited as saying that "the situation of Edward Snowden and alleged large-scale violations of the right of privacy by surveillance programmes raise a number of important international human rights issues which need to be addressed." The press release quoted her as citing among others Art. 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights and Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights, and saying, "The right to privacy, the right to access to information and freedom of expression are closely linked....Snowden's case has shown the need to protect persons disclosing information on matters that have implications for human rights, as well as the importance of ensuring respect for the right to privacy... National legal systems must ensure that there are adequate avenues for individuals disclosing violations of human rights to express their concern without fear of reprisals."

Ms. Pillay, according to the press release, added: "Without prejudging the validity of any asylum claim by Snowden, I appeal to all States to respect the internationally guaranteed right to seek asylum, in accordance with Article 14 of the Universal Declaration and Article 1 of the UN Convention relating to the status of Refugees, and to make any such determination in accordance with their international legal obligations." – SUNS] 

It is time those who understand the need to uphold and support the United Nations and its multilateral specialised agencies to ensure a peaceful world order to sit up, do some thinking and act to reform and save the United Nations.

When the history of our times comes to be written, perhaps it will be recorded that the United States, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the first to recognise the threat of Nazism in Europe (when Britain and others were trying to accommodate and collaborate with Hitler and Mussolini, and some British leaders acclaimed, ‘trains are running on time'). FDR, even in his second term, began planning and preparing domestic opinion, created and led the Atlantic alliance in the war against fascism, and prepared the ground for a new United Nations Order (the Charter, conceived and agreed upon by him with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin at Teheran and Yalta, was concluded by his successor Harry Truman). That UN Charter-based world order ended a few centuries of European just war theories, replacing it with a narrower individual or collective right of self-defence against armed attack until the UN Security Council takes measures to restore international peace and security (Art. 51 of Charter).

History would also record that the same United States, under FDR's successors began going down the slippery path of breaching the Charter provisions leading to the present situation, in the words of Johan Galtung (Rector of the Transcend Peace University): "when democracy is most needed, abolish it ... and criminalise whistle-blowers. (see SUNS #7618, ‘The Rise of New Fascism'). President George W. Bush, President Barack Hussein Obama and the EU (the latter two Nobel Peace Prize winners) may find a footnote placement on their contributions to this downfall.

From the very first day of the exposure of US activities in The Guardian, there has been an ever-changing daily narrative (a series of explanations, quickly shown to be untrue by the next day's headlines), from the US and the Obama administration and its allies, and the so-called US "Mainstream media", playing the tune, in attempting to discredit Greenwald and Snowden. These so far have only resulted in exposing further the US imperial hubris, cloaking itself with the mantle of promoting and spreading ‘democracy, human rights and rule of law, national and international,' around the world.

The efforts by the US ‘mainstream' media, beginning with initial attempts to denounce Snowden as a ‘traitor' and not as a ‘whistle-blower' (New York Times and the AP), in the hope that the other media and public attention would move on, and Snowden would be brought back to the US and silenced (ala Bradford Manning), have failed. The New York Times was criticised, among others by its own Public Editor, for its initial efforts to dismiss Greenwald as a blogger and activist for a British website (The Guardian!) and hence not a ‘journalist'.

To their credit, Snowden and his exposures have been defended by other US personalities: the New York Times own columnist, Roger Cohen, said ‘history will judge him kindly'; and Robert Kuttner, an associate editor of the ‘American Prospect' magazine, said on the Huffington Post: "Snowden, whatever his motives and whatever his fate, needs to be counted, on balance, a hero"; Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in the Nixon Presidency, in an op-ed in the Washington Post (8 July), defended Snowden fleeing US jurisdiction to Hong Kong, and now stuck in the Moscow airport transit area, underscoring that Snowden could not otherwise have exposed the massive wrong-doing of the NSA and other agencies. Some former security officials of earlier administrations have also said the Snowden leakages have no security implications either. Amnesty International too has denounced the US actions.

In applying pressure on various countries and threatening them with grave consequences if they gave asylum, US authorities and high officials have spoken of Snowden's "theft of government property", and norms of behaviour among states requiring them not to shelter or help him flee US jurisdiction but to hand him over! Some of the remarks, including Obama's own high-level contact with Russian president Vladimir Putin, and US Vice-President Joe Biden calling up other nations, would make it appear that the US has never sheltered those stealing other government's secrets or fleeing justice.

In fact, Snowden has only pointed to the massive theft and appropriation of the property of US citizens and other peoples and governments, by the US NSA and other agencies for, among others, private profit of a few US corporations and contractors; he has also perhaps ‘secured' evidence, and efface the evidence, if ever the ‘rule of law' gets restored in the US and Justice, national and international, comes after them.

Leave aside those who spied for the US and fled the Soviet Union and East Europe (Warsaw Pact allies) in the cold war era, in recent days there are at least two published Indian media reports (obtained by Google search) of the United States suborning Indian security and intelligence officials to ‘steal government property' and provide it to the US embassy; and enabling the culprits to escape Indian justice.

Not too long ago, in the 1990s, there was the case of Rattan Sehgal of the Indian Intelligence Bureau, who was caught in unauthorised and clandestine meetings with US CIA station chief Timothy Long and his deputy Susan Brown, bypassing established working level informal channels between the two governments for exchange of operational intelligence information. The Indian government found the breach serious enough for Singh to be disciplined and forced to retire (evidence was not viewed as sufficient to convict him). As a result, the Indian government asked the US to withdraw from India, chief Timothy Long and his deputy Susan Brown (some Indian media reports had outed her as Heidi August or Susan Brown). The US Ambassador in Delhi, when confronted by the highest official of the Indian bureaucracy, the Cabinet Secretary, attempted to brazen it out, but then agreed to the withdraw Long and Brown. Washington retaliated by getting two Indian consular officials in the US to be withdrawn. Neither government allowed the incident to affect other relations.

More recently, Rabindra Singh, a joint secretary in India's external spy agency (RAW), was suborned to photocopy documents and hand them over to US embassy CIA operatives. When about to be unmasked and arrested, Singh and his wife were enabled to escape from India, cross the porous borders into neighbouring Nepal, collect false papers provided by the CIA station chief at Kathmandu in Nepal (the station chief was subsequently reassigned and withdrawn purportedly for a bungled effort leaving traces), and fly away to the United States; on arrival at US side, the two Singhs were met at the aircraft and spirited away (without having to go through immigration), leaving no trace of arrival, and given new identity papers to live in the US. Indian government efforts to get Rabindra Singh back, with an arrest warrant, were repulsed with a bland ‘no such individual' found to have entered the US.

After the initial focus on Snowden, and his ‘treasonable activities', much to the worries of the US and complicit western governments, the debate is now shifting to substantial issues, even if it does not get much attention in ‘mainstream' media. It is being discussed by students in universities and academia. At a recent event in Wisconsin, where some ‘recruiters' of the NSA came to attract bright young students to join the NSA, students confronted and questioned them, unlike the US ‘mainstream media correspondents in Washington' and left the NSA red-faced unable to respond (See ‘NSA comes recruiting' at (http://mobandmultitude.com/). The incident and posts of it at a US website resulted in others, including an earlier one of the NSA efforts in Berkeley, San Francisco, to recruit mathematicians needed by the NSA to write alogrithms for software analysis programs, by inviting mathematics graduates looking for jobs to visit the NSA centre on the west coast and talk to other NSA employees working there and find ‘how cool' it was (See ‘NSA Mathematicians' at (http://mathbabe.org/2012/08/25/nsa-mathematicians/)

Much of the US media attention, and opposition, has been on the violation of US citizens' constitutional rights, as if the US has a god-given right to violate the privacy of the world's citizens under the guise of ‘national security' and fighting ‘terrorism'.

From initial denials and lies (even in sworn testimony to Congress), the NSA and the administration have now fallen back to the argument about how their ‘giant snooping' has prevented terror attacks.

However, says Kenneth Roth (of Human Rights Watch) in a July 3 post ‘Rethinking Surveillance' at the New York Review of Books (http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/): "The government claims this enhanced capacity to monitor our metadata has helped to foil terrorist plots. But officials have been hard-pressed to identify cases in which broad, unfocused electronic surveillance has made a decisive difference."

Other critics have brought out that several of the foiled attempts came out of normal police intelligence work, and not as the result of the NSA ‘vacuuming of metadata and its analysis.'

In other domestic arguments, not of particular interest to other nations but indicative of the extent of ‘lies' that senior officials of the US administration tell Congress in sworn testimony, have been claims that ‘it is legal', and that all data collection involving US nationals ‘of interest' (a very loosely defined term, as it turns out) has been ‘authorised by US FISA (Foreign Intelligence Service Act) judges.'

These courts and judges appear to function in the same mode as the medieval English ‘Star Chamber' judges - an institution created in the Tudor era by Henry VII to enable the King to provide justice, that common law could not, for ordinary people against powerful nobility. It soon deteriorated under successor kings, used for secret trials, secret testimony without the accused, and to punish opponents, with the abuse and oppression leading to trial and regicide of Charles I by Oliver Cromwell and his Parliament. And now, the FISA courts are claimed (New York Times report) to be extending common law to deal with ‘terror', and have been dubbed as a parallel US Supreme Court!

So much for democracy, accountability and ‘due process' and ‘rule of law'.

[According to a report in the Guardian Wednesday, in testimony as a witness to the first public hearings into the Snowden revelations, Judge Robertson, a former federal judge who retired from the District of Colombia circuit court in 2010, and who was among a select group of judges (chosen by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) that presided over FISA courts, said that he was shocked to hear of recent changes to allow more sweeping authorisations of programmes such as the gathering of US phone records, and called for a reform of the system to allow counter-arguments to be heard by FISA judges. Without an adversarial debate, he told members of a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) recently appointed by President Obama, that the courts should not be expected to create a secret body of law that authorised such broad surveillance programmes. Robertson told the panel: "A judge has to hear both sides of a case before deciding... What Fisa does is not adjudication, but approval. This works just fine when it deals with individual applications for warrants, but the 2008 amendment has turned the FISA court into administrative agency making rules for others to follow... It is not the bailiwick of judges to make policy."

[Supplementing this report, Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor of The New York Times, in a post at the Editor's blog, has disclosed Wednesday, that Robertson was a FISA judge from 2002 to 2005, that he was the judge who ruled against Mr. Bush in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the case that granted inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp the right to challenge their detention. Rosenthal, in his post, also mentioned that Robertson told The Associated Press that he had resigned from the FISA court to protest President George W. Bush's warrantless wiretapping operation.]

The practice of spying by rulers on the ruled or on other nations is no doubt millennia-old. The earliest known example in recorded history is that of Kautilya, also known as Chanakya (350 BC to 283 BC), a professor of pre-classical political economy at Takshashila University (in present day Bihar State), who befriended Chandragupta, an obscure ruler in the northwest frontier area of today's Pakistan, used him to overthrow the Nanda kingdom in Patna (in east India, across the Gangetic plain) and masterminded the establishment of the Maurya empire. (Ashoka, the grandson of this emperor and held sway all over what are now India and Pakistan). Chanakya, in his Arthashastra, wrote (perhaps systemising then existing knowledge and practice) among other things on the art of governance, duties of a king in providing welfare to his subjects, and spying - on what a king can and must do, and in what circumstances, to maintain power. Centuries later, in Italy, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his ‘The Prince', writings that European and modern rulers try to practise.

In modern times, true, every government engages in police and intelligence collection on its own citizens, and has operations abroad (in friendly, and not so friendly countries).

In the US, the National Security Agency or NSA, and the CIA were set up as early as 1952 by President Harry Truman. In the UK, the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) is the British intelligence agency responsible for providing signals intelligence (SIGINT) and information assurance to the British government and armed forces. Based in Cheltenham, operating under the guidance of the Joint Intelligence Committee, it was originally established after the First World War as the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS or GCCS), and known as such until 1946. During Second World War, it was located at Bletchley Park.

However, modern technology that has enabled gathering of ‘metadata' and its analysis, is qualitatively of a much different genre. According to Wikipedia, ‘metadata' is an ambiguous term, and in the current context its use by the Obama administration, the NSA and its congressional and mainstream media collaborators, and some policy-makers in other countries, is also obfuscatory. The term, according to Wikipedia, refers to "data about data" and describes two fundamentally different concepts (types): structural, design and specification of data structures or more properly called "data about the containers of data"; and descriptive, about individual instances of application data or the data content. Metadata (metacontent) is also defined as the data providing information about one or more aspects of the data, such as: Means of creation of the data; Purpose of the data; Time and date of creation; Creator or author of the data; Location on a computer network where the data were created; and the Standards used.

The way the US administration and the NSA is using the term publicly to explain away its activities, would thus appear to involve a deliberate effort at obfuscation and confusion of the public, lest it catch on that it also involves actual content.

The distinctions sought to be between ‘metadata', and contents of various communications, it has been brought out in the Snowden-NSA related reports and comments, that metadata analysis reveal much of the personalities of the communicants. A website, set up as a result of the interactions of a MIT professor and his students and their software program for analysing metadata from Gmail accounts, (https://immersion.media.mit.edu/), brings out the extent of profiling information that can be gleaned by accessing metadata of ‘from', ‘to', ‘cc' and ‘timestamp' of email messages. Anyone using Gmails and with Gmail login can visit the site, enable it to acess and login ‘metadata' to show graphically some aspect of the profile of the user and his or her communicants.

Taking advantage of the fact that the communication lines, the fibre optic global network, pass via UK and the USA, the spy agencies of the two have been tapping into the networks, and accessing the vast internet traffic passing through US servers or stored there. If one digs deep enough, it may be found to be in violation of international telecommunications accords, norms and regulations (however, ambiuguously worded with their security exception provisions). It has also been brought out that the US collects and keeps data relating to all credit card and similar transactions (thus giving perhaps a fatal body blow to the entire financial systems and their basis in confidentiality and security), and routinely scans and keeps records of all postal mails.

In recent history, perhaps only the Shah of Iran's Sawak, and the Stasi in East Germany collected and kept tabs on all their inhabitants, though that didn't prevent their downfall; for that matter, for all its data gathering and storage ability, and programs to analyse, the US has not been able to act against terror acts inside the country - even when, one of their agencies had intelligence, and either lacked human intelligence to understand it or kept it to themselves without sharing (as was brought in the inquiries into the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York WTC and the Pentagon in Washington DC) or as in the more recent Boston Bombing affair where they had intelligence tip-offs from the Russians about the Chechen brothers. All these are perhaps instances of ‘drowned in data'.

For the immediate present, other countries and governments may be helpless, and their nationals have to ‘grin' and ‘bear'. However, it will result in putting a stop to ‘free flows of information' (a US promoted WW-II doctrine at the instance of the AP, attempting then to achieve decolonisation from imperial control of information by British Reuters and the Continental Havas news agencies); slow down and disrupt normal business transactions across frontiers; and induce other users of internet etc to ‘hide in the open' as a news report put it - adapting and using code terms known only to the particular group and personalities, and not others, and defying NSA analysts!

However, over time, other governments will open new connectivities and links, bypassing the US, UK and their agents in the international communications grid. And countries, at least those big enough, will insist on domestic sources of equipment, manufactured by domestic, rather than foreign manufacturers. There will also be restrictions on such facilities and innovations as ‘cloud storage', with data stored by telecom giants in servers in the US, required to be ‘stored' locally with firewalls against access from abroad, and perhaps a reversal of proliferating ‘globalisation' via information, technology, trade and investment under misleading ‘trade liberalisation' theologies.

That the NSA and other US agencies have been engaging in such activities has been suspected for quite sometime, but made much easier now for those having access to such technology and controlling it. In attempting to ensure the continuance of this state of affairs, the US and its giant telecom operators have brazen-facedly invoked ‘freedom of information' and threats to freedom doctrines to control and operate the internet by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), as a sub rosa activity of the Commerce Department and US IT Corporate oligopolies, acting through service agents in various countries who raise similar cries, and turning back efforts at some multilateral governance, by raising outcries about attempts to censor and control the media, with some civil society groups without full understanding joining the pack.

This was the US argument used in Tunis, 2005, at the world information summit, and in 2011 in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to turn back an Indian-led effort at that time to bring global governance to this area, without in any way impinging on freedom of information and media.

Strangely, though the fourth largest victim of NSA snooping the Indian government has been quiescent, with one or two voices even giving some support to the US. Perhaps, some yet to be disclosed Snowden releases, or Greenwald articles in an India media, will disclose in detail about NSA spying in India, and force the government to act, including reversing its efforts to attract Foreign Direct Investment by throwing open the sector to 100 percent foreign investor controls. After the latest exposure of the NSA data collection in Brazil, the foreign minister of Brazil has now raised the possibility of revisiting the UNGA agenda for multilateral governance of the Internet and ICANN.

The US-NSA activities, it has now come out in some detail, has not only involved ‘metadata' collection from all over the world, but most of this work is ‘contracted' to private firms, with some one million persons cleared for accessing US ‘Top Secret' data.

It would also appear to involve the US agencies (NSA, CIA, FBI etc) ‘swapping data' with major US corporations. And, since NSA acknowledges only to be restrained by US domestic laws - ‘we hack everyone everywhere', an unnamed official was cited in the US media as saying - NSA activities extend to gathering information on commercial secrets abroad and swapping them with big US corporations - something the US had been claiming the Chinese do, but now has been caught with its own hands in the till.

While this has now come out into the open (with various US corporations trying to limit damage), it is worth recalling that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, to ward off pressures for cutting military and intelligence budgets ‘for a peace dividend', the US military has been spotlighting the ‘global war against terror.'

And, soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and pronouncements (after the first Gulf War) of George H. W. Bush, and some leading US media columnists, about the ‘New World Order', the CIA similarly began quietly publicising and planting stories in the media about its other important roles. Among these ‘other important' roles reported in the ‘mainstream' US media at that time was the CIA ‘foreign intelligence activities' on economic and technology information and innovation in other nations with implications for the US corporations.

The NSA files that have now surfaced thanks to Snowden have merely underscored and highlighted what was long suspect - of the NSA and US agencies engaging in snooping, swapping information with giant US corporations, and role, in these operations of Microsoft, Google, Apple etc, as well as social networks like Facebook.

And as Kenneth Roth in his post at the New York Review of Books notes, for foreigners outside the United States, the US government makes no such distinction between metadata about phone or internet communications, and the content of such phone or emails (a point that Obama falsely made recently, when he spoke of ‘no one is reading your emails').

With US law benightedly protecting the privacy rights of only US citizens and others lawfully in the United States, Roth says, the government takes the position that even the content of phone calls and emails among most foreigners can be readily monitored. American Internet companies, he says, which aspire to serve the world, must worry about the commercial consequences of that official disregard for others' privacy as it becomes widely known.

Simon Lester in a post at IELP blog (worldtradelaw.typepad.com) has flagged the issue, and WTO members invoking ‘security exception' option against foreign suppliers of telecom services. This though is problematic for those with scheduled commitments, according to a former Indian GATT ambassador, Bal Krishan Zutshi, who negotiated the GATS for India.

In recent weeks, spokesmen for the NSA including General Alexander in testimony to Congress have claimed that the surveillance operations revealed by Edward Snowden have disrupted dozens of terrorist plots. Upon scrutiny, however, says Roth, many of these plots appear in fact to have been uncovered not because of the mass collection of metadata but through more traditional surveillance of particular phone numbers or email addresses - the kinds of targeted inquiries that easily would have justified a judicial order allowing review of records kept by communications companies or even monitoring the content of those communications.

The NSA's two most publicized cases of data collection disrupting terrorists are of a plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange and an effort to send money to the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab. The NYSE case, Roth says, was said to have unraveled beginning with a foreign email captured from the monitoring of a foreign website; and the al-Shabaab case was apparently discovered when someone in San Diego called a known terrorist number in East Africa. Neither, he says, seems to have depended on "the mass vacuuming up of our metadata."

In view of the weakness of these "best" cases, twenty-six US senators have written to the National Intelligence Director asking him to "provide examples of [the NSA program's] effectiveness in providing unique intelligence, if such examples exist."

These are yet to be provided and made public.

(* Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Editor Emeritus of the SUNS.)

 


BACK TO MAIN  |  ONLINE BOOKSTORE  |  HOW TO ORDER