NSA: the Deceptive Scandal

The latest round of leaks on the NSA could end the spying culture through major policy-shifts promised by President Obama though one should remain sceptical.


By Gulshan Roy, 5th November 2013

The average unemployment rate set to hit a record 12% in the EU; the growth rate stagnating at a dire 0.3%; the much fanfared recovery that never turned up; an ever-so-fragile eurozone:  these are the major themes Angela Merkel would have nervously expected to debate as she appeared in Brussels last Friday for this year’s crucial EU summit. Instead, the meeting was (rather conveniently for her) foreshadowed then dominated by America’s intriguing secret curiosity for the contents her cell phone. In yet another round of blows for US National Security Agency (NSA), The Guardian revealed last week that the agency had been monitoring calls of 35 world leaders without their knowledge, let alone their consent. Edward Snowden has his president biting his nails once again for traditional allies of Washington are understandably outraged.

“Spying on friends is not on at all,” was the upset German chancellor’s first reaction to the disturbing revelations, as the freshly appointed US Ambassador to her country was given the tough first assignment of explaining the NSA’s actions to the foreign minister in Berlin. And it gets worse.

Under the Prism espionage program, millions of private communications between civilians of several countries have also been spied upon, along with those of their leaders. In Germany alone, US intelligence ‘spear-fishermen’ used a pool of up to 60 million communications a day to gather targeted information.

Francois Hollande had in July condemned these operations in unequivocal terms, stating that “such practices, if proven, do not have their place between allies and partners,” before solemnly adding “in the name of our friendship, we owe each other honesty.” The European Parliament wasted little time in promptly passing a resolution that “strongly condemns the spying on E.U. representations.”

Hence, the latest lousy retort from the White House simply stating that “all nations spy on each other” (curiously echoing the position of former State Secretary Madeleine Albright- we’ll come to that in a second) was expected to vent yet more fury within the international community.

But then the journalists properly joined the fray, reverting to an article in Le Monde earlier in the year entitled “Revelations sur Le Big Brother français” revealing that France engaged in a full range of similar spy operations and instantly turning Mr Hollande’s face just as red as his proverbial socialist tie.

Espionage is not a new phenomenon. Societies, groups and businesses have probably been spying on each other since the very beginnings of human civilization. Some readers might be familiar with the fascinating life of Carl Schulmeister, for instance, the famous Austrian double-agent recruited by Napoleon, whose help was seminal to France’s victory in the Battle of Austerlitz.

More recently, as information has increasingly been passed from the human brain onto machines, so have spies adapted to digitalise the game. It was thus under a still imperfect web-space of 1997 that thriving US corporations fell victim to cyber-espionage from foreign firms keen to throw their weight in the competition at a time of accelerating technological change. The FBI estimated that intellectual property losses for American firms due to spying reached $300billion that year and that organised espionage on the Silicon Valley came from 23 different countries (prompting Madeleine Albright’s now-famous shrug). Just for the record, the country that topped that particular spy-list was Germany.

Thus, once history brings a bit of perspective, the dramatic finger-pointing and teeth-showing along with the ‘melancholy of a friend lost’ serenade suddenly seems somewhat of a grotesque spectacle with clumsily-rehearsed lines.

Yet, though spying on each other apparently ought to be treated as a given fact of life, Washington would be ill-advised to re-emulate the shrug-tactic for this time the consequences could be far more serious. The world is angry, and it could respond in kind by taking aim at one of America’s most ferociously-guarded jewels.

The United States is home to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which deals with domains and numbers that allow virtually anyone to access virtually any web address regardless of where in the world the data is stored and without state interference. When compounded with the preference of companies such as Facebook or Google to have their servers based in America, one realises just how ample an asset Washington holds from that market. It doesn’t end there.

Publications by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal during the year revealed that agreements between the US government and telecom companies allowed the vile NSA to touch up to 75% of total world internet traffic, possibly adding some further substance to rumours that Uncle Sam and Big Brother might in fact be not-so-distant cousins.

In riposte, several countries could hence try to cut through the US internet monopoly to legitimately defend themselves. One of the angriest victims from the revelations was Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, who last month cancelled her White House meeting with President Obama scheduled for this week in her fury. She is proposing to legislate for companies investing in Brazil to have their servers located in the country rather than abroad. Germany had similar plans earlier this year. China is the epitome of this model, having cut itself from the rest of the worldwide web through what I am told has been dubbed “the Great Firewall” by internet geeks.

Other alternatives exist. Public outrage could also push for EU leaders to come up with legislation that does more than to simply ‘condemn’ foreign intelligence intrusion. The EU bloc could also turn to Geneva and the UN to adopt a resolution that would extend the scope of the 1976 Covenant on International Civil and Political Rights to cover the internet- and would probably win the vote.

However, both these paths of action smell danger and not just for the United States. In the first instance, a Balkanization of the internet will at the very least mean that aggregate costs of mining for sometimes the most basic information will be pushed upwards, ceteris paribus. Worse still, it could create domestic information structures that would encourage despotic regimes to thrive. Multilateral treaties will tend to have the same effect on prices, while leaving the actual problem of espionage entirely whole (the whole point of spying is not to get caught).

Any step in either of these directions would obviously represent a disaster for President Obama, which is why he will have the non-enviable task of resisting pressure both abroad and at home for these measures to be implemented, at least in part. The most hypocritical Republicans in Congress are likely to enjoy joining the cohort of angry foreign statesmen urging the president to pass domestic laws scaling down espionage programs such as Prism. In the very unlikely event that he does, it will mean that Edward Snowden will have effectively shaped US defence policy from exile.

These last two weeks have been particularly damaging for the image of US defence and security strategy as well as its diplomacy, and not only due to the NSA leaks. Earlier this year, I argued on this same page about the drone program that Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning cloak concealed a far more ruthless commander-in-chief. Last week, two damning reports (one from Human Rights Watch on civilian collateral from drones in Yemen and one from Amnesty International covering the same issue in Pakistan) have condemned US security strategy, citing human-rights violations.

It is possible that the current furore will exert enough pressure for Obama to amend what is generally considered to be the untouchable national defence and security strategy legislation. Edward Snowden may well have dealt a further blow to his country’s administration and a section of his supporters have probably started to call for him to be allowed to run for president.

Yet, my hunch is that once the hype has dissipated, Mr Hollande has recovered his natural skin hue and Angela Merkel buys a new mobile phone, nothing will come out of this scandal. The consensus within the pentagon will not magically vanish overnight. National security strategists will not suddenly start attending Sunday mass to discuss morality and human values. The policy overhaul promised by Mr Obama is likely to be more discreet than meaningful.

And so the spies will soon again vanish from the blinding spotlight to resume their routine in dimmer and more tranquil realms, somewhere close to you.


Gulshan Roy has pursued economics and international studies in university, most recently at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He regularly writes for publications in Mauritius, which is his country of origin. He can be followed on twitter here.

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