President Barack Obama’s legacy will be blotted further by the latest revelations. By JOHN CHERIAN
THE REVELATIONS by the American whistle-blower Edward Snowden that the United States administration has been listening in illegally on phone conversations of its own citizens and snooping on Internet communications worldwide for many years now is yet another illustration that the U.S. has no respect either for sovereignty of countries or for fundamental democratic rights of even its own citizens.
Snowden had leaked information on secret U.S. government surveillance programs with the code names PRISM and Boundless Informant. This is probably the biggest expose so far on the U.S. government’s use of subterfuge to conduct illegal acts on a massive scale. Well-meaning American citizens such as Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning had struck a blow for individual freedom when they took a calculated risk and released classified documents. The Watergate Papers led to the downfall of Richard Nixon and documents released by Manning through the auspices of WikiLeaks exposed American war crimes and the country’s complicity with authoritarian regimes. President Barack Obama’s legacy will be blotted further by the latest revelations.
As the U.S. seeks to establish “full spectrum dominance” over world affairs following the end of the Cold War, surveillance programs have expanded far and wide. These moves were accelerated after the global “war on terror” started in the beginning of the last decade. Earlier this year, U.S. intelligence officials told the U.S. Senate that military units had been set up to wage cyber war to destroy computers and computer-controlled infrastructure in countries deemed hostile. Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency (NSA), told the Senate that 13 offensive U.S. cyber teams had been set up. They operate from the premises of the NSA and have an annual budget of $199 million. James Clapper, the NSA chief, has acknowledged that the U.S. faces no serious cyber threats from any nation. The most notorious incident so far has been the unleashing of the “Stuxnet” virus by the U.S. in coordination with Israeli security agencies against the computers operating the Natanz nuclear reactor in Iran. The U.S. had also designed the “Flame” virus to spy on Iranian officials. Under Obama, the U.S. government has claimed the right to launch pre-emptive cyber strikes.
The Obama administration is busy preparing criminal charges against Snowden. He has been characterised as a “traitor” and a “Chinese agent” by the American political establishment. Snowden, currently holed up in Hong Kong, has said that he was not unduly threatened by the smear campaign launched by the Obama administration and right-wing politicians in the U.S. He acknowledged his fears that he might be eliminated or deported to the U.S. to face a treason trial, similar to the one being faced by another courageous American, Pvt. Bradley Manning.
“It is important to bear in mind that I am being called a traitor by men like former Vice-President Dick Cheney. This is the man who gave us a warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead,” Snowden told The Guardian newspaper.
Snowden revealed that the U.S. had hacked into hundreds of civilian computers in mainland China and in Hong Kong since 2009. He told The Guardian that one of the key factors that motivated him to blow the whistle was to expose the “hypocrisy of the American government when it claims that it does not target civilian infrastructure, unlike its adversaries”.
Li Haidong, a specialist on America in the Chinese Foreign Affairs University, wrote in China Daily that “for months Washington has been accusing Beijing of engaging in cyber espionage, but it turns out that the biggest threat to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the U.S. is the unbridled power of the government”.
The Chinese authorities were, in a way, forewarned. In the second week of May, the Bloomberg news agency admitted that it was accessing personal data of clients through its data terminals. Bloomberg, along with Reuters, controls 70 per cent of the global financial data market. Bloomberg has close connections with the U.S. political and business establishment. Chinese users of Bloomberg data terminals included big corporate houses, commercial banks and securities firms. The Snowden expose shows that all the big American Internet companies willingly cooperated with the NSA.
Only days before Snowden’s bombshell revelations, in the run-up to the summit meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, American officials were describing China as the biggest cyber threat to the U.S. and the world. A Pentagon report in May accused the Chinese security and military agencies of hacking into military and corporate computers. President Obama had sought to make the issue a top priority in the discussions with his Chinese counterpart. But after the blowback unleashed by Snowden’s expose, the Obama administration tried to put the issue on the back burner.
The Chinese government reacted angrily to the latest developments. It warned that electronic surveillance on such a large scale would “test developing Sino-U.S. ties” and strongly rejected the insinuation that Snowden was a “Chinese spy”.
The spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the allegation was “completely groundless” and instead urged the U.S. to pay more attention “to the international community’s concerns and demands and give the necessary explanation”. The widely read Global Times, known to be close to the government in Beijing, observed that Snowden’s real “crime” was that he blew the whistle on the U.S. government’s violation of civil rights. William Binney, a former NSA official, has estimated that the agency collected over 20 trillion pieces of information on millions of people, Americans as well as foreigners. Snowden himself has asserted that he had the authority to “tap anyone, including the President of the United States”.
International public opinion has been outraged by the sheer brazenness and magnitude of the U.S. spying. India’s National Security Adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, has asked his American counterpart for an explanation for India being on the U.S. surveillance list. The Indian External Affairs Ministry’s official spokesman said it would be “unacceptable” if Indian privacy laws were violated by the NSA. But it is also a fact that there is close cooperation between Indian and American intelligence agencies. The Americans have on several occasions provided valuable tip-offs to their Indian counterparts. Recent reports in the Indian media suggested that the Indian security establishment was trying to replicate the American system of widespread eavesdropping by gathering all Internet usage. India also cooperates closely with another security state, Israel. Two Israeli companies, Verint and Narus, having ties with their country’s security agencies, work for the NSA.
The European Union’s Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, has demanded for Europeans the same rights as those accorded to U.S. residents when it comes to data protection. Even close allies of Washington, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have raised questions. The Pirate Party, which has a strong representation in the Berlin Municipality and is a growing force in German politics, held a demonstration on June 18 with protesters holding banners that said “Yes We Scan”, mimicking Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan “Yes We Can”.
President Obama got a lukewarm welcome in Berlin and other capitals which he visited recently. A leaked map from the NSA’s Boundless Informant program showed that Germany was particularly targeted for surveillance. President Obama told the German Chancellor that the NSA’s global surveillance succeeded in aborting around 50 terror strikes, but he did not give any concrete instances. Counterterrorism experts, however, said that NSA surveillance efforts had no significant role in foiling terror attacks.
The conviction, in 2009, of Najibullah Zazi, who is alleged to have hatched a plan to bomb the New York subway system, and the arrest of David Headley in 2008, according to reports in the British media, resulted from tip-offs from U.K. intelligence. The Obama administration has highlighted these two cases as illustrations of the efficacy of data mining.
Both domestically and internationally, most people and governments have concluded that the Obama administration is not a harbinger of change and is no different from the Bush administration. In fact, President Obama has arrogated to his office even more powers than his predecessor. The drone programme has been expanded with bases in Africa and Asia. Drone attacks have killed many thousands since Obama took office. More whistle-blowers and journalists have been targeted under Obama than during the period when Bush and Cheney were in office.
The ongoing trial of Bradley Manning for leaking U.S. State Department cables that shed light on many appalling U.S. war crimes and diplomatic skulduggery is an example. Because of Manning, the international community saw the video of a U.S. Apache helicopter targeting and killing defenceless journalists and civilians in Iraq. When Manning released his cables, he said he was doing so for “people to see the truth”, adding that “without information you cannot make informed decisions as a public”.
Manning has pleaded guilty to 10 charges that could put him behind bars for up to 20 years. The Obama administration wants even more stringent punishment, charging him with, among other things, espionage and “aiding the enemy”. If convicted on these charges Manning will face a life sentence without parole. Manning has been in solitary confinement in an 8ft by 6ft cell since his arrest. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Ernesto Mendez, said last year that Manning had been subjected to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”.
Meanwhile, Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder responsible for disbursing the data to the world at large, finds himself holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for more than a year with very little hope of being allowed out of the U.K. The Obama administration, according to reports in the American media, has organised a secret grand jury to try him for his alleged treasonable conduct. Assange was given asylum by the Ecuadorian government, but the U.K. is still refusing him permission to leave.