The latest revelations come amid anger and fury; allegations that United States had tapped the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and that NSA had also monitored the Brazilian and Mexican leaders’ communications according to a local report.
The National Security Agency monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders after being given the numbers by an official in another US government department, according to a classified document provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The confidential memo reveals that the NSA encourages senior officials in its “customer” departments, such as the White House, State and the Pentagon, to share their “Rolodexes” so the agency can add the phone numbers of leading foreign politicians to their surveillance systems. The document notes that one unnamed US official handed over 200 numbers, including those of the 35 world leaders, none of whom is named. These were immediately “tasked” for monitoring by the NSA. The NSA memo obtained by the Guardian suggests that such surveillance was not isolated, as the agency routinely monitors the phone numbers of world leaders – and even asks for the assistance of other US officials to do so(Published Guardian October 24, 2013)
European leaders have united in anger over the report. Herman Van Rompuy, European Council President, announced at a news conference that France and Germany were seeking bilateral talks with the US to resolve the dispute over “secret services” electronic spying by the end of this year. The report obtained by the Guardian dated 2006 suggest broad based surveillance of leaders from the world. The Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta told reporters. “It is not in the least bit conceivable that activity of this type could be acceptable.”German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated that this expose has shattered trust in the Obama administration and undermined the crucial trans-Atlantic relationship. (Aljazeera October 25, 2013)
According to a report by David Kravets, the incident setting off the idea was of an ordinary purse snatching in 1976 in Baltimore. A young woman passed by walking alone to her suburban home had her purse snatched and the assailant fled with it. The assailant Michael Lee Smith was apprehended weeks later, the court case instituted against him continued for three years, leading to a 10 year prison term. “Almost 35 years later, the court’s decision — in a case involving the recording of a single individual’s phone records — turns out to be the basis for a legal rationale justifying governmental spying on virtually all Americans. Smith v. Maryland, as the case is titled, set the binding precedent for what we now call metadata surveillance. That, in turn, has recently been revealed to be the keystone of the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of US telephone data, in which the government chronicles every phone call originating or terminating in the United States, all in the name of the war on terror.” (Published October 3, 2013)
This raises an interesting question though. The surveillance programme, concerns surveillance of persons within the United States who were in contact with “terrorists” during the collection of foreign intelligence by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) as part of the war on terror.(David E. Sanger & John O’ Neil January 23, 2006) Senior officials at the security agency determines that there is a “reasonable belief” that one party to a call between someone in America and someone overseas has a link to Al Qaeda, inside or outside the US. In light of global terrorism incidents, this makes a lot of sense, in particular events leading to and onward 9/11. The tragic event that has changed the face of political relations between nations persuaded President George W. Bush to authorize the National Security Agency (NSA) to engage in a warrantless wiretapping program. However, what does not make sense is extending the “warrantless eavesdropping program” tipped by Bush as the “terrorist surveillance program” to encompass communication of leaders of the world and those obviously having no links or nexus with Al Qaeda or any terrorist outfit. Let us not forget that though Article 1 of United States Constitution vests broad based rights in the Congress to institute laws as it deems proper in the domestic arena it restricts its application on international level.
Germany has summoned the US Ambassador to answer to the wiretapping claim. Merkel complained to President Barack Obama in a phone call after receiving information her cellphone may have been monitored. The White House said the U.S. isn’t monitoring and won’t monitor Merkel’s communications — but didn’t address what might have happened in the past.
The implications here are frightening. It means no one, and absolutely no one, is safe from surveillance of a most intimate and/or professional nature.
The nature of the allegations leads to more questions. What must be the guidelines NSA must follow in future so far as the warrantless eavesdropping program is concerned? Will this be shared with other nations? How can the nations be assured that such a blueprint is being followed through by those responsible for running the programme? How does one balance the right of the US government of surveillance if there is a “reasonable belief” that one party to a call between someone in America and someone overseas has a link to Al Qaeda, inside or outside the US as opposed to privacy rights? The key word here is “reasonable belief” that demands unambiguous contextual definition. These open questions need to be addressed.
The advance of technology has no doubt, allowed for surveillance in a world ridden with terror at levels not possible before. It has on the other hand raised serious ethical issues. The questions raised is not limited only to the legality of the procedure but on a more basic level; can an over exited government push the boundaries to a degree where any level of the loss of its citizens’ privacy becomes necessary? Where phones are wiretapped of international leaders violating the “reasonable belief” clause; some serious inquiry is called for. According to a report; Germany, France demand ‘no-spy’ agreement with US. However this too can be violated if clause of “reasonable belief” is-no?
To set the record straight, it was much earlier, on June 6, 2013 that Guardian reported that the National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April. “The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.” According to details the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19. The law on which the order explicitly relies is the so-called “business records” provision of the Patriot Act, 50 USC section 1861.
Relations between nations are built on trust, mutual respect and if lacking drives a wedge between the best of them. The world has come a long way. These allegations are a far cry from the days of Watergate which included testimony provided by former staff members in an investigation conducted by the Senate Watergate Committee, revealing that President Nixon had a tape-recording system in his offices and he had recorded many conversations. He resigned.
Charles de Gaulle summed up international relations beautifully, “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.”
The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.