The latest revelation to come from the documents obtained by Edward Snowden may not be the kind that gets average Americans angry, but it shows the true breadth of the U.S. government’s electronic spying apparatus, a web of surveillance that covers the entire globe. In today’s Post, Ellen Nakashima and Barton Gellman explain how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has given the National Security Agency permission to spy on almost every country in the world:
The United States has long had broad no-spying arrangements with those four countries — Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand —in a group known collectively with the United States as the Five Eyes. But a classified 2010 legal certification and other documents indicate the NSA has been given a far more elastic authority than previously known, one that allows it to intercept through U.S. companies not just the communications of its overseas targets but any communications about its targets as well.
The certification — approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and included among a set of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden —l ists 193 countries that would be of valid interest for U.S. intelligence. The certification also permitted the agency to gather intelligence about entities including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
These documents offer yet another demonstration that although the explosive growth of the government’s intelligence apparatus after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was justified largely on the grounds of stopping terrorism, much of what that apparatus does has nothing to do with al-Qaeda. Which is fine — the United States faces many different kinds of challenges, and the threat of terrorism is only one (and, truth be told, a relatively minor one, but that’s a topic for another day). What we should be aware of, however, is that the global scope of our intelligence activities can create serious problems for us around the world when we want to build trust or tamp down anti-Americanism, even when we aren’t invading anybody.
I suspect that when most Americans hear that we’re spying on people’s phone and e-mail conversations in almost every country in the world, they think, well, that’s just what we have to do — we’re the United States. As citizens of the global hegemon, we take certain things for granted, like the fact that our soldiers will be stationed in dozens of countries around the globe, or that everyone everywhere should speak English. Even in the World Cup, where the United States is usually an afterthought, all referees are required to pass an English test. (In advance of today’s match with Belgium, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has complained that an Algerian ref working the game might be able to talk to the Belgian players in French. Sacre bleu!)
But we should be aware that if you live in another country and you hear that the United States might be reading your e-mails — or that, in what seems to be a test run for later application in other places, the NSA is recording the audio of literally every cellphone conversation in the Bahamas — you’re going to be uncomfortable, to say the least, about the reach of U.S. power. I’m not talking about violent, flag-burning anti-Americanism, but about a far more common feeling, widespread even among people who like American music and movies and share many of our values. It’s the feeling that the United States treats the rest of the world like its subjects, people whose liberties and sometimes even lives can be swept aside whenever we find it in our interest.
Most Americans probably think that as long as our government isn’t recording their phone calls or reading their e-mails, then it can do whatever it wants to people in other countries. President Obama is obviously sensitive to that perspective; his public comments on this topic usually contain assurances that Americans won’t be targeted, as though that’s the only privacy concern that matters. To us, it may be. But we shouldn’t be surprised when people in the rest of the world get resentful.