The first meeting between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping at California last week was “unique, positive and constructive”, as BBC stated, which was not different to most other media reports of the event.
US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon made it known that Mr. Obama had warned Mr. Xi that “cyber crime” could be an “inhibitor” in US-China relations. Both had agreed on the need to denuclearize North Korea, while the discussions did touch on economic and environmental issues too.
Although it was the week of a historic meeting between the heads of two major powers competing for dominance in the world today, it was certainly not the best week for President Obama, with revelations of the US surveillance operations that are the widest ever seen, covering the entire US population, as well as the citizens of other countries in the world, too.
There is little doubt that the leak about the “Prism” operation by the US National Security Authority (NSA) would have been most embarrassing to the US in seeking to deal with alleged “cyber crime” by China, when the US and its allies such as the UK, will now have to be muted in comments about the control of the Internet in China. There are almost routine protests by the US and its Western allies about Internet censorship in China. However, the news now is of how the US is doing much worse by spying into all Internet communications - breaking into or obtaining information from the largest US mobile phone operator – Verizon, and all major Internet and social media operators such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft - the whole lot.
“War on terror”
Barack Obama has justified this massive invasion of privacy of US citizens, and those of other countries too, as necessary in the ever present war on terror, and that it has been done within the US justice system. But it raises the major issue of accountability to one’s own citizens and to the world at large, about keeping logs of all Internet communication from e-mails to data; despite stating that the content of the material so obtained does not look into.
This is hardly the stuff one expects from the country that claims to be the leader of the “free world” and seeks to export its own brand of democracy to the rest of the world, and speaks so much of the right to privacy and freedom of expression. The Prism exposure has shown how much the US fails to adhere to its own declared policies on human rights and individual freedom, adding to the crisis it is facing on human rights, over the continued incarceration on 166 persons in Guantanamo, for more than a decade without any charge or trial.
The Guardian UK that broke the Prism operation story, reported that information chiefs worldwide had sounded alarm bells at what was happening in the US in this huge exercise of cyber surveillance, leaked admittedly by whistleblower Edward Snowden. As it reported on June 11, “Barack Obama was facing a mounting domestic and international backlash against US surveillance operations on Monday as his administration struggled to contain one of the most explosive national security leaks in US history.
Political opinion in the US was split with some members of Congress calling for the immediate extradition from Hong Kong of the whistleblower, Edward Snowden. But other senior politicians in both main parties questioned whether US surveillance practices had gone too far.
Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the US National Intelligence Committee, has ordered the NSA to review how it limits the exposure of Americans to government surveillance.
Officials in European capitals demanded immediate answers from their US counterparts and denounced the practice of secretly gathering digital information on Europeans as unacceptable, illegal and a serious violation of basic rights. The NSA, meanwhile, asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation and said that it was assessing the damage caused by the disclosures.
Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who revealed secrets of the Vietnam war through the Pentagon Papers in 1971, described Snowden's leak as even more important and perhaps the most significant leak in American history.
In his interview with The Guardian, Snowden revealed himself as the source of the Prism exposure which included disclosures of a wide-ranging secret court order that demanded that Verizon pass to the NSA the details of phone calls related to millions of customers, and the huge NSA intelligence system called Prism, which collects data on intelligence targets from the systems of some of the biggest tech companies.
Snowden said he had become disillusioned with the overarching nature of government surveillance in the US. "The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to," he said.
"My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them”.
Reacting to Snowden's revelations, Paul Ryan, the former Republican vice-presidential nominee, raised questions about whether privacy was being unduly threatened. "I'm sure somebody can come up with a great computer programme that says: 'We can do X, Y, and Z,' but that doesn't mean that it's right," he told a radio station in Wisconsin. "I want to learn a lot more about it on behalf of the people I represent," he added.
With increased public concern about the invasion of privacy, despite the Obama administration taking cover under the needs of national security and the battle against terror, pressure was growing on the White House to explain whether there was effective congressional oversight of the programmes revealed by Snowden.
The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said in an NBC interview that he had responded in the "least untruthful manner" possible when he denied in congressional hearings last year that the NSA collected data on millions of Americans.
In Europe, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated she would press Obama on the revelations at a Berlin summit the following week, while deputy European Commission Chief Viviane Reding said she would press US officials in Dublin on Friday, adding that "a clear legal framework for the protection of personal data is not a luxury or constraint but a fundamental right".
Peter Schaar, Germany's federal data protection commissioner told the Guardian that it was unacceptable that US authorities have access to the data of European citizens "and the level of protection is lower than what is guaranteed for US citizens." His Italian counterpart, Antonello Soro, said that the data dragnet "would not be legal in Italy" and would be "contrary to the principles of our legislation and would represent a very serious violation".
The problems caused by the Prism exposure extended to the UK, where the British foreign secretary William Hague was forced to defend the UK's use of intelligence gathered by the US.
In the House of Commons, Hague told MPs that British laws did not allow for "indiscriminate trawling" for information. "There is no danger of a deep state out of control in some way," he said.
But Hague was reluctant to go into detail on how Britain handled information offered by US intelligence agencies, as opposed to information requested, or whether it was subject to the same ministerial oversight, including warrants, the Guardian reported.
India too has voiced its concern at and surprise over reports that it was among the most tracked countries by the American intelligence apparatus, which used a secret data-mining programme to monitor worldwide Internet data.
“If Indian laws relating to privacy of information about ordinary Indian citizens have been violated, surely we will find it unacceptable,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said, as reported in The Hindu.
According to The Guardian UK, India was the fifth most tracked country with 6.3 billion pieces of information being collected from the country’s computer and data networks in one month alone., under the U.S.’ National Security Agency’s data-mining tool, called Boundless Informant.
There is also considerable support for Snowden. The first polls since the leak stories first broke indicated that the majority of Americans oppose the government scooping up their phone data.
According to the Rasmussen poll just 26 per cent of voters are in favour of the government's collection of data from Verizon (mobile phone service) while 59 per cent are opposed. In total 46 per cent of Americans think that their own data has been monitored.
While it is now clear that the US is looking at taking serious legal steps against Edward Snowden, with the immediate thinking is for him to be charged for espionage, there is much concern about the room for manoeuvre by the US on this whistleblower. It is hardly a secret that Barack Obama has shown the toughest position against whistleblowers although he was elected on a pledge to have more transparency in governance. The fact that Snowden was in Hong Kong when interviewed by the Guardian after he made the leak, with the possibility that he may still be there, have raised major issues.
Although Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the US, there are doubts whether this could be enforced in view of the role of China in US relations with Hong Kong, and the entire issue of cyber crime that the US keeps attacking China about. However there are doubts whether Hong Kong will offer Snowden permanent refuge.
It is the view of analysts that Snowden could buy time by filing an asylum request, benefiting by landmark legal ruling that has thrown the extradition process there into disarray. All of this will certainly not be to the liking of the US, which will seek to act with speed against Snowden, and limit the negative impact on its image and control the rising criticism of its lack of respect for privacy and the convenient use of the Patriot Act to violate the rights of civilians.
In a new development, Russia has announced it would consider granting asylum to whistleblower Snowden, Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday.
After revealing his identity to the public, Snowden said that he had sought refuge in Hong Kong, and was hoping "to seek asylum in a country with shared values." He has not made any requests for asylum yet, but Peskov told Russian newspaper Kommersant, "If such an appeal is given, it will be considered."
It is also reported that Snowden would seek asylum in Iceland, where there is a strong lobby supportive of cyber freedom.
Here too, although Iceland has an extradition treaty with the US, there were media reports of Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir stating she had begun work on an asylum application on Snowden’s behalf, aided by Smari McCarthy of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative. “We feel it is our duty to offer to assist Mr. Snowden,” they said in a statement.
All of this has certainly taken the glow off the reported success of President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, and has placed the US administration in one of the most embarrassing situations in recent years.
It is now faced with a major uphill task to establish its credibility on issues of privacy, freedom of expression and protection of the rights of citizens, apart from assuring citizens of other countries, including its own allies that their privacy too is not at threat by the sweeping cyber surveillance being carried out in the US.