In light of last year’s Snowden intelligence leaks, United States President Barack Obama is expected to order the National Security Agency (NSA) to stop storing data from Americans’ phones. After initially defending the US surveillance programme, in August, the president announced that the US “can and must be more transparent” about its intelligence gathering.
Reports in Washington have indicated that during a speech set for Friday, which is scheduled to take place at the Department of Justice at 11:00 (1600 GMT), President Obama will request Congress to arrange how data is stored and how the US Intelligence Community (IC) will have access to it. The storing of phone data is just the first in a number of planned changes to the intelligence system that the president is due to announce. The proposed changes within the IC and how the community gathers its intelligence stem from former intelligence worker Edward Snowden’s continued leaks of information pertaining to the NSA’s spying programme. The latest revelations made by Mr Snowden, who is wanted for espionage in the US and now lives in exile in Russia, claim that US intelligence agencies have collected and stored 200 million text messages every day across the globe. According to Mr Snowden, an NSA programme, known as Dishfire, was responsible for extracting and storing data from SMS messages in order to gather location information, contacts and financial data. The information was later shared with the United Kingdom’s spy agency GCHQ. While both agencies have defended their activities, stating that they operate within the constraints of the law, many advocates and civil rights groups have called on greater transparency.
President Obama is expected to approve a number of recommendations put forth by a panel that the White House commissioned last year. If approved, the centrepiece of reforms will be an order to stop the NSA from storing Americans’ phone records. Storage of such data will instead fall to firms or another third party where it can be queried, however under limited conditions. In terms of how this will be implemented, the president is expected to leave this decision to Congress and the IC.
Amongst the other proposals that are likely to be approved is the creation of a public advocate position at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), where government agencies request permission for mass spying programmes. Currently, only the US government is represented in front of FISC judges. In turn, Mr Obama is also expected to extend some privacy protections for foreigners, increase oversight of how the US monitors foreign leaders and limit how long some data can be stored.
According to White House spokesman Jay Carney, the aim of these proposals and changes is to make intelligence activities “more transparent,” adding that this would “give the public more confidence about the problems and the oversight of the programmes.” However while in the wake of the Snowden leaks, civil rights groups have been requesting significant reductions to powers that government agencies have with respect to the collection of data, many believe that these latest proposals appear to be structured in a manner of broad rules, effectively meaning that they will do little to limit the intelligence-gathering activities of the US IC.
Edward Snowden and the Leaks that Exposed US Intelligence Programme
In May 2013, Edward Snowden, a former contractor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) left the US shortly after leaking to the media details of extensive internet and phone surveillance carried out by the US IC. Mr Snowden, who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia, faces espionage charges in the US over his action.
By early June, the scandal of the US spy programme broke when the UK Guardian newspaper reported that the NSA was collecting telephone records of tens of millions of Americans. At the time, the newspaper published the secret court order, which directed telecommunications company Verizon to hand over all its telephone data to the NSA on an “on going daily basis.” The newspaper report was later followed by revelations in both the Guardian and Washington Post that the NSA had tapped directly into the servers of nine Internet firms, including Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft. This was done in order to track online communication through a surveillance programme known as Prism. At the time, Britain’s GCHQ was also accused of having gathered information on Internet companies through Prism.
Several days later, it was revealed that Mr Snowden, a former CIA systems analyst, was behind the leaks pertaining to the US and UK surveillance programmes. He was later charged by US authorities with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence.
The spy scandal continued to develop when on 21 June, the Guardian reported that officials at GCHQ were taping fibre-optic cables, responsible for carrying global communications, and sharing vast amounts of data with the NSA. At the time, the paper also revealed that it had obtained documents from Mr Snowden, which indicated that the GCHQ operation, codenamed Tempora, had already been running for eighteen months. According to reports, GCHQ was able to monitor up to 600 million communications every day throughout that period, with information gathered from the Internet and phone use allegedly being stored for a period of thirty days where it would be sifted and analysed.
A week later, on 29 June, claims by Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine emerged that the NSA has also spied on European Union (EU) officials in the US and in Europe. At the time, the magazine reported that it had seen leaked NSA documents confirming that the US had spied on EU internal computer networks in Washington and at the 27-member bloc’s UN office in New York. The files, all provided by Mr Snowden, also allegedly suggested that the NSA had conducted an electronic eavesdropping operation in a building in Brussels, where the EU Council of Ministers and the European Council were located. While it remains unknown as to what information the US IC may have obtained in the operation, reports have suggested that details pertaining to European positions on trade and military matters may have been obtained.
On 24 October, Italian weekly L’Espresso reported that the NSA and GCHQ had been eavesdropping on Italian phone calls and Internet traffic. The revelations were later sourced to Mr Snowden. It is alleged that three undersea cables with terminals in Italy were targeted in the operation. That same day, the German government summoned the US ambassador after German media reported that the NSA had eavesdropped on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone.
French President Francois Hollande also expressed alarm at reports that millions of French calls had been monitored by the US. In all, the Guardian later reported that the NSA had monitored the phone calls of thirty-five world leaders. In turn, according to a secret file leaked to the Guardian, a total of thirty-eight embassies and missions had been the “targets” of US spying operations. On 1 July, it was reported that amongst those countries targeted by the operations were France, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea and India. EU embassies and missions both in Washington and New York were also reported to be under surveillance.
On 10 July, it was revealed by Brazil’s O Globo newspaper that the NSA had ran a continent-wide surveillance programme. At the time, the newspaper had cited leaked documents which indicated that at least until 2002, the NSA had ran the operation from a base in Brasilia, seizing web traffic and details of phone calls from around the region. The newspaper further indicated that US agents worked with Brazilian telecoms firms in order to eavesdrop on oil and energy firms, foreign visitors to Brazil and major players in Mexico’s drug wars. By September, specific claims that the emails and phone calls of the presidents of Brazil and Mexico had been intercepted were revealed. This prompted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to cancel a state visit to the US, the first high-profile diplomatic move since the scandal unfolded.
By mid-August, documents leaked to the Washington Post revealed that the NSA broke US privacy laws hundreds of times every year. Later that month, the Washington Post reported that the US IC had a “black budget” for secret operations, which in 2013 had amounted to US $53 billion.
After fleeing to Hong Kong, Edward Snowden confirmed to the South China Morning Post that the NSA had led more than 61,000 hacking operations worldwide, which included many operations in Hong Kong and mainland China. He indicated that targets in Hong Kong had included the Chinese University along with public officials and businesses.
Amidst ongoing debates in the United States pertaining to possible military action against Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned America and its allies against taking one-sided action in Syria. Ahead of the G20 Summit, which is set to begin in Saint Petersburg on Thursday, the Russian President also indicated that he would not exclude Russia from agreeing to a possible US-led military strike on Syria, as long as it was proven that Syria’s regime had carried out the August 21 attack. While the G20 summit is suppose to concentrate on the global economy, it is highly likely that the Syrian crisis will dominate the discussions amongst global leaders.
Speaking during a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press and Russia’s state Channel 1 television, Putin’s remarks come just one day after members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed on a draft resolution backing the use of US military force. According to the draft resolution, the operation would be restricted to a “limited and tailored use of the United States Armed Forces against Syria,” and ban the use of any ground forces. The measure, which will be voted on next week, sets a time limit of sixty days on any operation.
While US President Barack Obama has called for punitive action in response to an alleged chemical attack that was carried out on the outskirts of Damascus on 21 August, President Putin stated on Wednesday that any military strikes without the approval of the United Nations would be a form of “an agreession.” The Russian President further noted that while his country had not ruled out supporting a UN Security Council resolution that would authorize the use of force, it would have to be proved “beyond doubt” that the Syrian goverment used chemical weapons before such a mission would be launched. In relation to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, Putin noted that it was “ludicrous” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Russia, would use chemical weapons at a time when it was gaining ground against the rebels. However the Russian President did specify that “if there is evidence that chemical weapons were used, and by the regular army…then this evidence must be presented to the UN Security Council. And it must be convincing,” adding that Russia would “be ready to act in the most decisive and serious way” if there was clear proof of what weapons were used and who used them but that at the moment, it is “too early” to discuss what Russia would do if America took action without a UN resolution. During the interview, Putin also confirmed that Russia has currently suspended delivering further components of S-300 air defence missile systems to Syria, adding that “if we see steps are taken that violate the existing international norms, we shall think how we should act in the future, in particular regarding supplies of such sensitive weapons to certain regions of the world.
Ahead of next week’s vote in Congress, on whether to back President Obama’s push for military strikes in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared on Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in order to promote the Obama administration’s case. During his discussions, Kerry indicated that there was evidence “beyond any reasonable doubt” that the forces of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime prepared for a chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. He further indicated to senators that while the President was not requesting that America go to war, “he is asking only for the power to make clear, to make certain, that the United States means what we say.” US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and top US military officers Gen. Martin Dempsey also appeared before the Senate panel. While a number of high profile officials, including Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger support Obama’s call for military action in Syria, the latest opinion polls in the US indicate that public opposition with respect to US involvement in the conflict is growing, with six out of ten Americans opposed to missile strikes.
Internationally, France, which is due to debate the issue on Wednesday in Parliament, has also strongly back the US plan for military action. On Tuesday, French President Francois Hollande stated that “when a chemical massacre takes place, when the world is informed of it, when the evidence is delivered, when the guilty parties are known, then there must be an answer.” While Hollande is under no obligation to obtain parliamentary approval for action, with public opinion deeply sceptical of military strikes, many lawmakers have called for a vote on the matter. While UK Prime Minister David Cameron had also backed the military action, the British parliament had voted against a resolution on military action. With the UK against the military action, the US is seeking other allies.
While the world debates possible military action in Syria, the conflict, which began in March 2011, has resulted in more than 100,000 people thought to have died since the uprising aginast President Assad. On Tuesday, the UN refugee agency indicated that more than two million Syrians were now registered as refugees, indicating that a further 4.25 million have been displaced within the country.
Russia – US Relations
After returning to the Kremlin for a third term as president last year, relations between Russia and the US have dramatically deteriorated as the two nations have disagreed over a number of issues which have included the Syrian crisis and human rights. Tensions peaked this summer after Moscow gave asylum to US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, which prompted President Obama to cancel his planned bilateral visit to Moscow ahead of the G20 summit. While Putin did admit that he was disappointed by Obama’s decision, he did note that the move was not a “catastrophe” and that he understood that some of Moscow’s decisions did not sit well within the US administration.
Although no official bilateral meeting is planned to take place between Obama and Putin at the G20 Summit, a White House official indicated on Wednesday that the two presidents are expected “to have an opportunity to speak on the margins of the various meetings of the G20.”