By S. Rajagopalan
Although the United Nations’ draft proposed by 20-odd countries, including India, doesn’t name the United States as its target, it is an open secret who it is aimed at.
From weak denials to contradictory statements and vague responses, the United States has tied itself up in knots in trying to deal with its still-unravelling “Snoopgate”. It is more than five months since whistleblower Edward Snowden left the American shores for Hong Kong, the first port of call in his agonising quest for political asylum — and three months since the Russians did grant him a temporary asylum for a year. But there is still no stopping the copious flow of sensational disclosures on America’s far-reaching surveillance operations, all based on top-secret documents leaked by the one-time CIA staffer and National Security Agency contractor to select media outlets.
For President Barack Obama, the last two weeks have been a particularly testing time. The new disclosures have been acutely embarrassing as never before, relating as they do to some of America’s close European allies: France, Germany, Spain and Italy. A Guardian report that the NSA has been monitoring the telephone conversations of as many as 35 world leaders has been followed by the stunning dispatch in German weekly Der Spiegel that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone has been tapped by NSA right since 2002. An outraged Ms Merkel wasted little time in picking up the phone and confronting Mr Obama, who sought to assure her that the US was not eavesdropping on her.
The German chancellor is apparently far from convinced. For the better part of the past week, a team of German officials and a delegation from European Parliament have pitched themselves in Washington, complaining of “breach of trust” and demanding that the Obama administration make amends forthwith. Their hurried trip followed another set of damning disclosures: That the NSA tracked more than 70 million phone calls in France, some 60 million in Spain and 46 million in Italy. It led to the incredulous spectacle of these allies summoning the respective US Ambassador and giving an earful over what Washington has been up to. France and Germany have demanded a “no-spying” pact, like the one the US has with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
So horrified have German diplomats been that they teamed up with their counterparts from Brazil in an effort to draft a resolution for consideration and adoption by the UN General Assembly. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, after all, is one of the first reported victims of American snooping, so much so that she cancelled a scheduled State visit to Washington in September. The proposed UN resolution may well be aimed at America, but the draft being deliberated upon by some 20-odd countries, including India, does not name the United States as such. Instead, it simply calls upon all States to uphold the right to privacy and review their “extra-territorial surveillance of private communications and interception of personal data of citizens in foreign jurisdictions”.
With one report or another popping up every passing day, the Obama administration is still to get its act together on how to deal with what willy-nilly has become a credibility crisis for it among its own allies and other friendly nations. As in the case involving Chancellor Merkel, the question being asked is whether President Obama was really unaware of what has been going on for years. US officials insist Mr Obama had no knowledge of the reported tapping of Ms Merkel’s phone till she raised the matter with him, but the German newspaper, Bild am Sonntag, quoted US intelligence sources as saying that NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander had briefed Obama on this specific matter back in 2010. Yet, Mr Obama did not halt the operation but rather let it continue, the paper said. NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines, however, refuted the assertion.
US intelligence chief James Clapper, however, came up with an altogether different take during a Congressional hearing, surprising everyone by stoutly defending America’s spying on world leaders, including close allies. His rationale? The other nations, including allies, were doing much the same. For Mr Clapper, it is “a basic tenet” to collect, whether by spying on communications or through other sources, confidential information about foreign leaders to find out “if what they’re saying gels with what’s actually going on”. The embattled Gen. Alexander was quick to concur with him at the same hearing, commenting that one of the first things he learned in intelligence school was that how valuable it would be to learn about the “intentions” of foreign leaders.
But the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairperson Dianne Feinstein appeared to disagree with the Obama administration’s intelligence brass. “With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of US allies — including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany — let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed,” said the senior California Democrat, who was particularly critical of NSA’s monitoring of the calls of such friendly leaders as Chancellor Merkel. Senator Feinstein mooted “a total review of all intelligence programmes”. She spoke of indications from the White House that intelligence collection on US’s allies would be done away with. But there has been no formal communication from the White House on this score. Spokesman Jay Carney, however, acknowledged: “We recognise there needs to be additional constraints on how we gather and use intelligence.”
All these assertions notwithstanding, noted American scholars are skeptical if the allied nations would put an end to their spying on one another, given that “it has been going on for centuries”. As ex-CIA veteran Peter Earnest, citing a famous quote by 19th century British statesman Henry Temple, told CNN: “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” One of the strong defenders of the far-reaching American surveillance is former Vice President Dick Cheney.
“The fact is, we do collect a lot of intelligence,” he says, noting: “That intelligence capability is enormously important to the United States, to our conduct of foreign policy, to defence matters, to economic matters.”
For President Obama, however, the worldwide American surveillance and the backlash from its allies and friends have only added to his other recent woes, notably the poor handling of events leading to the Government shutdown that lasted 16 days, and the ongoing problems with the rollout of his signature healthcare initiative. All these have combined to bring down Mr Obama’s approval rating to an all-time low of 42 per cent in a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week. The only consolation for him is the even lower rating of 22 per cent for Republicans in the US Congress, who have made the going tough for him on about every major policy decision.