People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 50

December 15, 2013




The Snowden Effect: US Facing International Opprobrium


Yohannan Chemarapally


LATEST revelations emanating from the dossier compiled by the American whistleblower, Edward Snowden, have provided irrefutable proof that the Obama administration has been spying on friends and foes, on its own citizens and foreigners alike. The international community is now fully aware that the American security agencies, if they so wish, can decipher the political and social tendencies of millions of global citizens at a flick of a button. Now it has also emerged that Western intelligence agencies belonging to countries like Canada, and also of Australia, have been lending a helping hand to the American National Security Agency (NSA) in the pursuance of these nefarious activities. The NSA, according to the documents that have emerged till now, had hacked into the cell phones and personal communications of three heads of state. The list is expected to grow.




The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who thought she enjoyed a special relationship with President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W Bush, would not have ever imagined that she could be subjected to surveillance by Berlin’s closest political and military ally. Her communications were compromised by the American intelligence agencies since 2002, even before she became the chancellor for the first time. The German media has said that President Barack Obama was first informed about this by the NSA only in 2010. “Obama did not halt the operation but rather let it continue,” the Sunday Bild newspaper wrote. The American embassy in Berlin, according to the German media, was transformed into a busy nest of spies, routinely eavesdropping to monitor the conversations and mail pertaining to politics and business. Further, it was revealed in September that similar activities were ongoing in Brazil and Mexico, two countries having good relations with Washington. The list of heads of state that were under close American surveillance, according to documents released by Snowden, was more than 35. It will not be much of a surprise if the security of the India’s prime minister office (PMO) was also similarly compromised.


The German chancellor and the Brazilian president have made their anger very visible to Washington. Dilma Roussef, the Brazilian president, took the unprecedented step of calling off her official visit to the US in September to send a strong signal to Washington that it could not be business as usual till an official apology was forthcoming. Merkel, after having a testy telephone conversation with President Barack Obama, dispatched her top intelligence officials to the White House to get a first hand explanation about the scope of American intelligence activities in Germany. Merkel had described her cell phone hacking and related activities by the NSA as a serious “breach of trust.”


On its part, the White House acknowledged that that the German Chancellor’s conversations and mails were routinely monitored but added that the president had ordered an immediate stop to this. “It is not just about me but about every German citizen. We need to have trust in our allies and partners, and this trust must be re-established once again,” she told the media. German lawmakers have gone to Moscow to meet with Snowden and request him to come to Berlin to testify in the Bundestag on the NSA spying network.


Both Merkel and Roussef are evidently not satisfied with the official American response.




In late October, Germany and Brazil jointly announced that they planned to circulate a draft resolution in the UN General Assembly that would call on member states “to take measures” to end excessive electronic surveillance, data collection and other gross invasions of privacy. The draft resolution being circulated did not chose to specifically name the US for the violation of international human rights laws. The two countries wanted all the 183 UN member states to unanimously declare that they “are deeply concerned at human rights violations and abuses that may result from the conduct of any surveillance of communications, including extraterritorial surveillance of communications.” The proposed resolution was also to call on member states to “create conditions” to prevent such violations in the future by “ensuring that relevant national legislation complies with their obligations under international human rights law.”


The German-Brazilian initiative wanted all UN member states to establish “independent oversight mechanisms capable of ensuring transparency and accountability of state surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data.” But General Assembly resolutions, unlike the UN Security Council resolutions, are not binding. It is improbable that big powers like the US would ever agree to totally abstain from spying in third countries as they slide into becoming full blown national security states. The UN Human Rights commissioner, Navi Pillai,  observed that mass surveillance poses “one of the biggest threats” to human rights. The draft may undergo changes before it is put to vote. Many countries, including India, which have sophisticated and wide ranging surveillance capabilities, may not come fully on board. Both India and Germany share intelligence data with the US.


Latest documents provided by Snowden have evidence showing that Australian embassies in Asia collected intelligence on behalf of the NSA. A former Australian prime minister, John Howard, a close buddy of George W Bush, had once described his country as America’s “junior sheriff” in Asia.  The “Five Eyes” --- as the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are known in western security parlance --- have continued to cooperate closely. No evidence has emerged as yet of any intrusive spying on the leaders of UK, Australia, Canada or New Zealand so far.


In India and the West, China was being blamed for most of the cyber spying. Now it has been conclusively proved that most of the spying in Asia and Europe was done by the NSA and the CIA, with China being the main target. The data released by Snowden exposes the existence of American “Special Collection Services” (SCS) listening posts in leading Asian and European countries. A recent report in Der Spiegel magazine said that among the eight listening posts located in Asia, two were in the American embassies in New Delhi and Islamabad. The SCS located in the American embassy in Berlin was used to monitor the German chancellor’s office. The German interior minister, Hans Peter Friedrich, recently stated that running such operations on German soil was illegal and “those responsible must be held accountable.” The scandal has caused the biggest rift between Germany and the US since the end of World War II.




The US secretary of state, John Kerry, recently acknowledged that the NSA had “reached too far” and claimed that the federal agency was in an “auto pilot” mode, with the Obama administration being unaware of many of its activities. There are many in the US who actually think that President Obama has very little control over the Pentagon and the NSA, dominated as it is by right wing ideologues left behind by the Bush administration. The annual security budget is estimated to be around 80 billion dollars annually. At the same time, the US secretary of state said, without giving any supporting evidence, that the NSA surveillance “prevented airplanes from going down, buildings from being blown up, and people from being assassinated.”


Under the Obama administration, however, the NSA has appropriated more wide ranging powers than it had under the Bush administration. In late October, Snowden revealed that the NSA was allowed to secretly gather all information from Google and Yahoo. The NSA program code named “Muscular” had broken into the global data centres of the two global internet giants ---Google and Yahoo.


According to The Washington Post, the NSA was able to “collect at will from among millions of user accounts, among them Americans.” In January this year alone, “Muscular” programme was able to access 181 million records for storage at the NSA headquarters. Another 70 million phone calls and SMS messages were collected from France and 60 million in Spain, just within a one month period earlier this year. Interestingly, the NSA, under a separate programme called “Prism” was officially allowed “front door” access to the user accounts in these two internet giants.


The French foreign ministry spokesperson said that the continuing NSA denials about their culpability are “not believable,” and that there was a need to get “more clarity on the practices of the US Secret Service.” The Spanish foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, said that if reports of the NSA snooping on private phone calls in his country proved to be true, then it would “break the climate of trust that traditionally existed between the two countries.” The German chancellor and the French president, Francois Hollande, are planning to hold talks with President Obama to chalk out the terms of a “non-spying” agreement on EU member countries. An Italian magazine, Panorama, has reported that the NSA did not even spare the Vatican, monitoring the incoming and outgoing phone calls there. In June, another Italian weekly, L’Expresso, had claimed that the NSA had monitored more than a million calls in Italy.




In Germany, many are calling for the intelligence apparatus in their country to be strengthened so that it would be less dependent on help from allies like the US. Merkel had hinted that intelligence sharing with Washington could be reviewed in the light of the latest revelations. Glen Greenwald, the investigative journalist who has been closely involved with Snowden, noted that Merkel was initially unconcerned when reports about the massive American spying on Germany first came out a few months back. It was only after she realised that her personal phone was hacked that she reacted strongly. Grigor Gysi, the leader of the Left party that is the third biggest in the Bundestag, said that Germany should give Snowden political asylum so that he could freely speak before the parliamentary committee looking into NSA hacking affair.


The governments in Europe and Asia that have a close relationship with Washington are, meanwhile, trying to keep under wraps their own close linkages with the American security agencies like the NSA, FBI and the CIA. The British intelligence services also have been collecting cell phone and internet data on behalf of the NSA. In return, the Americans gave their British cousins access to data, impacting on their national security interests.


The French and German intelligence services too cooperate closely with the US on the world stage, especially in West Asia. The NSA is now claiming that European security agencies had secretly provided records of millions of phone calls. The alacrity in which the major European security agencies cooperated in forcing the plane of the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, to land in Vienna, is an illustration. They had believed that the Bolivian president, who was returning from an official visit to Russia, had Edward Snowden as a co-passenger. Bolivia was among the handful of countries which had the courage to unconditionally offer political asylum to the fugitive whistleblower. Even today none of the European governments, even those subjected to massive US surveillance like Germany and France, are willing to consider the possibility of giving Snowden asylum.