The NSA, Edward Snowden, and Surveillance
An overview of the NSA surveillance program leaked to the media by Edward Snowden
One of the biggest and most far-reaching stories of 2013 broke in early June and continued to make headlines—and raise eyebrows—for the remainder of the year. On June 6, the British newspaper the Guardian published the first of many stories by Glenn Greenwald about the top-secret surveillance activities of the National Security Agency. Reports of the leaks, many of which were published simultaneously by the Washington Post, revealed that the NSA has secretly collected information from U.S. citizens without their consent, gathering data about their phone calls, internet use, instant messaging, and email activity.
The controversy surrounding the NSA's surveillance program gathered new momentum in September and October as leaks about U.S. spying on allies surfaced with regularity. Reports indicated that the U.S. has spied on the governments, officials, and citizens of several friendly countries, including France, Germany, Spain, and Brazil. The revelations have soured the relationship with normally faithful allies. Germany's Angela Merkel expressed outrage when she learned that the NSA tapped her cellphone for about ten years, beginning in 2002—three years before she became chancellor. Adding to the diplomatic crisis were conflicting reports about how long President Barack Obama knew about the surveillance of Merkel and other allies. The Obama administration denied any prior knowledge. However, reports said that NSA director Keith Alexander had informed him about the program in 2010. Then, in late October, James Clapper, national intelligence director, said in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee that the NSA had long been informing the National Security Council about its surveillance program in other countries. In addition, he said such eavesdropping is reciprocal.
In response to the growing scandal, Obama said he planned to order the NSA to end its program of eavesdropping on leaders of U.S. allies. In addition, Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who had been a supporter of the NSA surveillance program, said, "I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers." She said the Intelligence Committee would review the NSA's data collection programs.
Leaks Reveal Scope of NSA's Program
On June 9, Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, admitted that he was the source of the NSA leaks. The Snowden leaks divulged that the NSA collects meta data about virtually every phone call made in the U.S., amounting to billions of calls. Meta data includes the phone numbers of the caller and recipient and the duration of the call; it does not include recordings of the actual conversations. Major phone companies, including Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint Nextel, have complied with court orders to turn over these records to the NSA.
The leaks also uncovered details about PRISM, a secret program that gave NSA direct access to the servers of Facebook, YouTube, Skype, Google, Apple, Yahoo and other companies. Such access allowed the government to retrieve emails, photographs, and documents of millions of users. These companies denied that they offered the government "back door" access to their networks. Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)—an agency similar to the NSA—had access to data gleaned through PRISM.
Snowden: A Hero or a Traitor?
Public reaction to the leaks was mixed; some people considered Snowden a whistle-blower and a champion of government transparency, while others called him a traitor. President Barack Obama issued a carefully worded statement about the leaks, saying that there must be a balance between protecting national security and the privacy of citizens. "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," Obama said. He also said the NSA programs "do not involve listening to people's phone calls, do not involve reading the emails of U.S. citizens or U.S. residents, absent further action by a federal court that is entirely consistent with what we would do, for example, in a criminal investigation." He was referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret court, known as the FISA court, established in 1978 to hear requests for warrants for "electronic surveillance to obtain foreign intelligence information."
U.S. intelligence officials defended the NSA programs. In mid-June, NSA Director Keith Alexander told the House intelligence committee that the surveillance programs have prevented more than 50 "potential terrorist events" since 2001.
Fighting Extradition and Looking for a Place to Call Home
Snowden, fearing prosecution, fled to Hong Kong before the Guardian ran its first story. He arrived in Hong Kong with four laptop computers from which he could access some of the U.S. government's most closely held secrets. He remained in Hong Kong while he sought asylum in a number of countries. The U.S. government filed espionage and theft charges against Snowden on June 21 and also requested that Hong Kong extradite Snowden.
Fighting extradition, Snowden traveled from Hong Kong to Moscow on June 23. When Snowden first arrived at the Russian airport, he sought asylum in Russia. Russian president Vladimir Putin responded by saying that Snowden could stay in Russia only if he ceased "his work aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners." Meanwhile, the United States made diplomatic moves to prevent Snowden from receiving permanent asylum in Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, or Venezuela, the Latin American governments that stated they would take him.
On July 3, the plane carrying Bolivian president Evo Morales from Russia back to Bolivia was diverted because several European nations, believing that Snowden was on board the plane, refused Morales access to their airspace. The move created a diplomatic furor, and Morales called the incident an "affront to all [Latin] America," and the vice president, Alvaro Garcia, said Morales was "being kidnapped by imperialism."
On July 17, Snowden filed a temporary asylum request in Russia after being holed up in the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport for more than three weeks. Putin reiterated that Snowden must do no further harm to the United States, telling reporters, "We warned Mr. Snowden that any action by him that could cause damage to Russian-American relations is unacceptable to us. Bilateral relations, in my opinion, are far more important than squabbles about the activities of the secret services."
On August 1, Russia granted Snowden asylum for one year, despite strong urging from the U.S. not to do so. Snowden's asylum further eroded the relationship between Washington and Moscow and ratcheted up tension between Obama and Putin. President Obama canceled a September summit meeting with Putin.
Here are the major revelations about the NSA's surveillance program made public by Snowden.
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