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The Snowden Conversation We Aren’t Having

Edward Snowden  about the NSA at the Sam Adams award presentation in Moscow (WikiLeaksChannel)

Edward Snowden about the NSA at the Sam Adams award presentation in Moscow (WikiLeaksChannel)

In the first few months after Snowden’s leaks first exploded onto headlines, the public, and the media, struggled to fathom how private individuals figured into this story, and how close the U.S. had come to that “Orwellian state” Edward Snowden warned us of. If Google Trends are any indication, the story reached a peak in June, and by September had settled into the steady churning of smaller revelations attentive news junkies are now used to. However, as William Saletan and Fred Kaplan at Slate observed, by October there was also another fuzzier story emerging. Snowden had divulged, and the media was publishing, dozens of documents relating to international espionage.

Take, for instance, this New York Times article published in January that details the NSA’s use of radio pathways to infiltrate offline computers. The New York Times notes that the primary targets were the Chinese and Russian military networks, Mexican drug cartels, trade institutions in the EU, and uncertain allies like Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan. There is no evidence to suggest these methods were used on American citizens. As Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor pointed out, publishing these leaks had little to do with protecting the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, they were exactly the kind of operations the NSA was designed to do.

While Snowden’s first leaks intelligently fit into a narrative about the compromise of democratic integrity in the name of national security, these latest disclosures have lacked a similar sophistication of framing. The impetus for reporting such a story — especially for the New York Times, which has historically taken precautions against revealing military sensitive information — is not immediately clear. Here it must be noted that Germany’s Der Spiegel broke most of the details several days earlier, presumably in the interest of Germany and its citizens, victims of the NSA’s cyber intrusions. This seems an almost inevitable consequence of the how far the Snowden’s documents have spread.

Despite the fact that these activities did not violate the U.S. Constitution, some Americans were nearly as outraged over international espionage as they were over domestic espionage. Was this the kneejerk reaction of activists who, as Murphy described, believe that “the mere existence of secrecy is some kind of human rights violation”? Was it what Saletan described as the naiveté of those for whom “the original rationale for exposing US espionage – subversion of American democracy – had given way to a fantasy of global democracy, in which all espionage was illegitimate, since leaders of the perpetrator country were unelected by the people of the target country.” Were Americans truly disturbed by the U.S.’ apparent betrayal of some of its closest allies?

In order to intelligently consider the story of Snowden’s leaks about foreign surveillance it is necessary, first of all, to separate it from the domestic story. These are different situations. Saletan is right to point out that the NSA does not have the same obligations to the rest of the world that it has to U.S. citizens. Nor does the same disparity of power, knowledge, and resources that exists between the NSA and an individual citizen exist between the NSA and another country (although it admittedly does exist between the NSA and an individual citizen of another country).

Second, the NSA’s surveillance of foreign countries and leaders should be observed from a relative point of view. After all, little can be done to encourage any kind of espionage consensus, especially when the issue is by its nature shrouded in secrecy. And although the U.S. does engage in industrial or economic espionage, it is nowhere near as aggressive as Russia or China.

In the U.S. there appear to be to two consensuses on espionage. The first is that the U.S. should share intelligence with its closest Anglophone allies, the “Five Eyes.” The second is that it is permissible to spy on the government or military operations of adversarial countries like Russia or China. Yet between these two extremes there lies a very complicated middle ground. There is, in fact, a good reason for why Germany should be so outraged by the NSA’s activities, but unfazed by Russia and China. Germany, unlike China and Russia, is an ally. They may not have elected the U.S. government, but they have elected a foreign policy that supports the U.S.

At home, the debate is clear: Did the NSA overstep its mandate and violate the constitutional rights of the American people? But in the global context, it seems that Americans are not even sure of where international rights begin and U.S. interests end. Regardless of Snowden’s intent in leaking the details of foreign surveillance, it should force an important and inevitable conversation. What is an ally?



Eugene Steinberg

Eugene graduated Tufts University with degrees in International Relations and Quantitative Economics. He works with the editorial team at the Foreign Policy Association on Great Decisions 2014. He is deeply interested in Eastern European affairs, as well as the intersection of politics, technology, and culture. You can follow him on twitter @EugSteinberg