Joel Brinkley: Snowden fallout has been massive for U.S.
By Joel Brinkley
Edward Snowden has wrought more damage on the United States than any private individual in recent memory.
It’s not just the theft and publication of classified material. That was bad enough because those disclosures make the U.S. look hypocritical and deceitful. The revelations are infuriating America’s allies and rivals alike. But the 30-year-old’s fervid attempts to find asylum are also setting off escalating rounds of anger and recrimination — all of that aimed at Washington, too.
Just one example: When Bolivian President Evo Morales left an energy conference in Moscow, Spain charged that he was smuggling Snowden out of the country to give him asylum. Austrian authorities grounded Morales’ plane in Vienna and searched it. Snowden wasn’t on board, of course, and Morales was furious — at the U.S., not Spain or Austria. Now he’s threatening to close the American Embassy in La Paz, saying: “Without the United States, we are better, politically and democratically.”
That set off Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president. He and Morales are buddies, fellow acolytes of Hugo Chavez, the deceased former president of Venezuela whose political life revolved around a hateful approach to the United States.
After Morales’ travails, and threats from Washington warning Ecuador not to offer Snowden asylum, Correa summarily canceled Ecuador’s free-trade agreement with the U.S., a public slap at Washington. But the victims will be his own people, who will likely have to begin paying export duties. At least 43 percent of Ecuador’s exports go to the U.S., while just .00045 percent of U.S. exports are sold to Ecuador. Who’s the loser here?
Snowden, a former contract employee for the National Security Agency, leaked highly classified documents laying out an American surveillance program called PRISM that intercepts cell-phone records and online data from individuals in the U.S. and abroad.
My first reaction, having covered national-security issues for many years, was recognition that his actions were patently illegal. But I was also interested to know how far afield the Obama administration had taken its counter-terrorism surveillance program. It reminded me of President George W. Bush’s illegal domestic surveillance program revealed in 2006 — and the years of illegal domestic surveillance in the ’70s that prompted formation of the Church Committee, charged with investigating the CIA’s surveillance abuses.
The difference this time: The NSA program is legal. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved it. But that doesn’t make it right. How many of you want government bureaucrats monitoring your emails, phone calls and Skype calls — even if it’s for a theoretically worthy purpose? It feels like standing in an airport X-ray scanner, arms over your head, as a nameless, faceless TSA employee is looking at you naked.
And now that details of the surveillance program are out, thanks to Snowden, look at the damage it has done.
“The reaction in Germany and throughout Europe to the revelations of NSA surveillance continues to swell in bigger waves,” said Jackson Janes, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Germans, particularly, “are furious” about being “objects of massive surveillance by the U.S.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, obviously angry, blurted out: “The monitoring of friends — this is unacceptable. It can’t be tolerated. We’re no longer in the Cold War.” That seems to be the view across Europe, home to America’s closest friends. Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said the EU is seeking “urgent clarification of the veracity of, and facts surrounding, these allegations.” Now, Brazil is complaining, too.
But the fallout isn’t limited to the West. China is glorying in the moment, particularly since Washington recently accused China of cyber-attacks and other forms electronic surveillance, targeting American government and business. Newspaper and television coverage of what the Chinese are calling “PRISM-gate” is swelling. And Xinhua, the Chinese government news agency, spat at Washington, saying: “The United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber-attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age.”
Good luck negotiating with China over its cyber-spying now!
What’s more, various newspapers are reporting that American intelligence agencies tracking known terrorists worldwide are finding that many have now gone silent. Thanks to Snowden, they’re no longer using the Internet, Skype or their cell phones.
Where do we go from here? Washington’s repeated explanation, “everyone does it,” simply isn’t helping, even if true. Do the French and Germans spy on us in the same way? I doubt it.
The U.S. has to find a way to arrest Snowden. He deserves it. And Washington must stop spying on our friends without permission.
Isn’t that perfectly obvious?