Inside Story

The diplomatic cost of US surveillance

As Washington reviews its intelligence gathering operations, what do revelations mean for relations with Europe?

Last Modified: 31 Oct 2013 12:35
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The US Congress is calling the country's intelligence chiefs to account.

Recent revelations about the way domestic and international data is gathered have threatened to put the White House at odds with the spymasters. 
The Barack Obama administration has now indicated it supports reform of the intelligence surveillance systems, but James Clapper, the national intelligence's director, defended the way in which intelligence is gathered.

Clapper says a fundamental part of his duties is to monitor world leaders and he assumes other countries do the same. In addition, he says there is nothing underhanded about the US' surveillance operations.

"We do not spy on anyone except for valid intelligence purposes. We’ve made some mistakes, usually technical or human error. When we discover them, we correct them," Clapper said. 

I think the Europeans will finally wise up to the fact that they don't have to be subservient to the United Sates anymore, particularly since they have witnessed what's going on with NSA eavesdropping.

Ray McGovern, former CIA intelligence analyst

But that was not enough for at least one committee member.

Democrat Representative Jan Schakowsky said: "Why did we not know that heads of state were being eavesdropped on, spied on? The reason it is important is it is a policy issue which has broad implications that could put the US in a difficult position."
In Washington, talk is still centred on the eavesdropping on world leaders and the collection of phone data of US citizens, rather than the more general surveillance of the word's phone and internet communications revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, President George W Bush issued a secret order authorising the NSA to carry out mass sureveillance without court approval.

The Obama administration has also used what its critics say are questionable interpretations of the law to justify the same programmes.

The controversial Patriot Act was signed into law to protect against further attacks. But it also gives the National Security Agency (NSA) power to spy on Americans, without probable cause and even if they are not suspected of having links to a foreign power.

There are also courts set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to provide some oversight.

But since 1978, they have rejected only a handful of the thousands of requests for surveillance made by the NSA and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). That has led to the perception that the so-called FISA courts are a judicial rubber stamp rather than a meaningful check on the NSA's power.

Organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have tried to challenge the constitutionality of the NSA's programmes. But the US government has used its 'state secrets' privilege to block those cases.

So, as the Obama administration starts reviewing intelligence gathering operations, will it also address the concerns of Washington's allies?

To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Mike Hanna, is joined by guests: Ray McGovern, a former CIA intelligence analyst; Glenmore Treaner-Harvey, the editor-in-chief of the World Intelligence Review; and John Laprise, a professor at Northwestern University in Qatar, focusing on White House use of information technology for national security purposes.

"It's really hard to believe that the heads of state of Europe were unaware of this, I mean if their intelligence services were competent they would be well aware of the NSA's capabilities. The other alternative is that they knew about it and simply weren't informing heads of state which would be problematic in itself."

John Laprise, professor at Northwestern University in Qatar


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