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Live and Let Spy: The International Implications of Edward Snowden

Since The Guardian and the New York Times revealed in a series of exposes the extent of the American government’s intrusion into private correspondence, much has been written about what PRISM and the NSA mean for the American public. What is ultimately more interesting and significant is what Edward Snowden’s leaks mean for the international community, as well as their impact on America’s role within the global sphere.

First and foremost, Snowden himself represents a change in how information is revealed and released. While whistleblowers and exposes are nothing new, Snowden represents a growing trend towards “lone-wolf libertarianism.” Bradley Manning, a chief supplier for WikiLeaks, immediately comes to mind, but others, such as AT&T’s Mark Klein, or the NSA’s own Russ Tice, are other prominent examples. America, however, is not the only nation seeing major leaks from individuals within the exposed agencies. India has seen a wave of whistleblowers coming forth to expose corruption and gross mismanagement in areas such as finance, construction, and transportation; Ramin Pourandarjani exposed Iran’s use of torture on political prisoners; and Kathryn Bolkovac revealed misuse of funds by private contractors during the U.N. mission into Bosnia.

America’s hunt to capture Snowden is also weakening America’s already poor ties with international partners.  The White House has criticized China and Hong Kong for the “deliberate choice” to “release a fugitive”, a dangerous choice of words when directed at two countries with whom maintaining a good relationship has proven to be rather delicate. With news breaking that Snowden is in Russia and seeking asylum in Ecuador, through Cuba – countries that all have strained relationships with America – a public relations nightmare is clearly on the horizon. The U.S. cannot simply storm in and seize him, but if Snowden finds asylum, the U.S. could lose its reputation as global hegemon, for better or for worse.

More important than Snowden himself however, is what the leaks reveal about America’s new attempts to dominate the international community. American attempts at global control have been on display since the end of the nineteenth century, but until now, typically featured examples of military prowess. What America tried to do in the last few years is to control, or at the very least monitor, what the foreign and domestic public was not even aware could be controlled.

The Bush administration established a precedent in the post 9/11 era of dismantling or maneuvering around international law for their own benefit, using for example “black sites” to torture at will, and forcing the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 1373 ( the first attempt in history at creating an international body in charge of domestic law), via diplomatic pressure. The Patriot Act and other less infamous legislative pieces have led to the molding of the US into a surveillance state.  The extent to which this was the case was only made clear when Snowden leaked his information to the Guardian. What should have the international community frightened is the fact that America is not just surveying its own citizens, but also those of other nations.

The audaciously named “Boundless Informant” program revealed by the Guardian is one of the most shocking revelations in the history of intelligence gathering. The program is a metadata analysis and visualization system that simplifies the billions of communication data points made on computers or phones. The programs own “Top Secret” heat map shows the most monitored places in the world. Unsurprisingly, Iran and Pakistan are the most monitored nations, but countries such as Germany, India, and Brazil also appear high on the list. The existence of the program casts away all doubts one could have about America’s intentions to filter as much information as possible. The US reputation, already poor when President Bush left office, has only gotten worse.

Edward Snowden’s leak of classified NSA intelligence was a daring move by a man attempting to end, or at least falter, the existence of very dangerous programs conceived and used by a very dangerous agency. The leaks are an absolute disaster for an administration that touts transparency and openness, and the domestic ramifications will persist for quite some time. But the international implications present a tricky road ahead for the government. Will the administration boldly continue the programs and the surveillance of sovereign nations, or will we finally see international pressure end, or at least impose some limits, to unwarranted spying? It may take some time for us to learn the final answer to this question, but if the past has taught us anything, then there is little doubt that the NSA will persist.

 – Harry Mcalevey


Photo Credits: AttributionNo Derivative Works S zennie62, Flickr Creative Commons

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