Since The Guardian broke the NSA surveillance story twelve days ago, much information has come to light about both the PRISM program and Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee and whistleblower. In those twelve days we have learned that the NSA has secretly been collecting metadata from telephone companies in an effort to detect patterns that could undermine terrorist plots against the United States. On top of that, we learned that the government is in the middle of constructing data collection centers that will store telephone and Internet records with the same aim of preventing terrorism. The ACLU has already announced plans to sue the Obama administration over the constitutionality of the NSA’s activities. It seems like something new has come out each day, and that the scandal goes deeper than anyone would have imagined. We don’t know what else might come to light at this point.
In fact, we learned even more this weekend, and this new information might be the most damning part of the story. Snowden uncovered documents that claim that since 2009, the U.S. and British government have been eavesdropping on phone calls and computer-based communication between foreign diplomats at G20 summits, most notably the 2009 summit in London. The accusation included claims that fake Internet cafes were set up by the British government in London specifically for the purpose or monitoring diplomatic communications. It appears that the NSA and its British counterparts GCHQ and MI6 shared information on these communications.
Accusations of spying and surveillance at international conferences are not new, but this is one of the first instances where it has been backed by government documents of this nature. The documents showed that the HCHQ had the ability to hack into Blackberries and other smartphones, and that information gathered from foreign diplomats was passed along to government ministers. We don’t know what information was gathered from these surveillance programs, but it would probably be safe to say that this story will not help build trust amongst G20 nations. Great Britain is in a particularly precarious position as another G8 summit began earlier today in neighboring Ireland. It’s safe to say that this will add tension to a conference that was already set to discuss government transparency issues.
In regard to the NSA’s surveillance scandal, government officials are still running damage control and defending the use of metadata collection as a form of counterterrorism. On Saturday, top intelligence officials claimed that the programs had thwarted terrorist attacks in 20 countries in recent years. They also stated that any data collected is destroyed after five years, and that the programs are not nearly as sweeping as critics say. The claims probably won’t do much to calm these critics, as the government’s credibility is rather questionable at the moment. On top of that, the efficiency of tactics used by the NSA is still being questioned. If they really led to 20 foiled terrorist attacks, why can’t experts agree that they are worthwhile? This may be the biggest problem with government secrecy. We can’t believe the government without proof, but the government is still protecting whatever proof may or may not exist. The chances of anyone taking the NSA’s word for it as this point are slim to none.
With that out of the way, I’d like to talk about Edward Snowden. Here’s the interview he did with The Guardian last week. He’s a 29 year-old former CIA technical assistant and employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a government defense contractor, and he has proven to be just as polarizing as the story he uncovered. Some are calling him a hero for uncovering a scandal that reached the presidency. These people claim that he has taken a stand for our constitutional rights and deserves a great deal of credit for blowing the whistle on shady government action. Others claim that he has seriously jeopardized our national security and deserves to be punished for treason. His credibility has been questioned, but the NSA has admitted to the PRISM program and he has provided documents that support his accusations of spying at the G20 summits. Regardless of which stance you take, it’s clear that he has violated a number of federal laws and regulations. So why is he still a free man?
Snowden is currently in Hong Kong, presumably to escape federal prosecutions for releasing this information to the media. Yes, that’s right, the whistleblower is currently hiding out in the shining beacon of freedom and free speech that is China. Some members of the media have speculated that he is in cahoots with the Chinese government and may be selling them government secrets on top of releasing information to the media. After all, he certainly has access to sensitive information that China would love to have, especially given the strained relationship between the U.S. and China. But that relationship may also play another role in his decision to flee to Hong Kong. When it’s all said and done, how likely is China hand Snowden over to the U.S. for prosecution? Probably not very likely. He has information that they want, and he has caused a great deal of turmoil for a government that the Chinese have been competing with for a long time. He also stated in his interview with The Guardian that he does not expect to see home again. At least for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t look like Snowden will have to answer to the U.S. for his actions, which could be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it.
Either way, Edward Snowden has uncovered a story that does not seem to be going away. New information comes to light daily, and the scandal is becoming more and more serious. On top of attacking the Obama administration and the NSA, he has now brought the British government into the mix. Whether you regard him as a hero or a moneygrubber, he has seemingly found a safe haven in China and we probably haven’t heard the last of his accusations.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research