United States / NSA

An Unexceptional Spy

In September, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff stood before the UN general assembly to deliver a scathing condemnation of U.S. intelligence policy. In response to new leaks that showed that the NSA was not only collecting information on U.S. citizens, but also eavesdropping on the private communications of Brazilians, Rousseff branded the U.S. an international criminal. “A sovereign nation can never establish itself to the detriment of another sovereign nation,” she said. “The right to safety of citizens in one country can never be guaranteed by violating fundamental human rights of citizens of another country.”

Rousseff’s comments bring attention to the actions of the NSA outside of the domestic sphere, calling into question Washington’s strong orientation towards American exceptionalism. When information about the NSA’s extensive data collection program first emerged in June, U.S. policymakers responded that international spying was commonplace and necessary to the preservation of a country’s power. The Snowden leaks have so far revealed NSA involvement in Germany, Egypt, Sweden, and most recently, Mexico and France–all American allies–and China. Petrobas, Brazil’s state oil corporation, is among the groups that the NSA gathered private information on.

Not only is it becoming more difficult for the U.S. to justify the collection of trade secrets in the name of domestic security, but it also draws distinct parallels to other cases–it was only a few months ago that the U.S. accused China of corporate espionage and indicted a Chinese firm on these charges. Unsurprisingly, Washington’s attitude when the role of the spy and its target was reversed was a far cry from “well, everyone does it.”

This hypocrisy is the product of a U.S. attitude that we have more authority to violate the rights of other countries than they do ours. When details of the NSA’s domestic surveillance program first appeared in popular media, the public was divided on the necessity and constitutionality of such measures, with some arguing that Americans had elected their government officials to represent them in making these choices in the name of national security. Nonetheless, this dialogue was very much present in the American consciousness, culminating in a failed but still close legislative measure to defund the NSA’s domestic phone data collection program.

A similar debate on the NSA’s international activity has been conspicuously absent. Americans seem all too willing to accept Washington’s logic that such activities, when not directed at them personally, are justified in the name of security.

Another leak in September disclosed that the U.S. shares unfiltered data from the Prism program with Israel. This is a privacy concern not only for U.S. citizens but also for citizens of other states that are vulnerable to the NSA, and throws into question the validity of the U.S.’s inflated authority not only to collect information but also to share it (the U.S. is part of an intelligence sharing network consisting of five Western countries that Israel does not belong to). Citizens of foreign countries who are susceptible to privacy violations perpetrated by the NSA have no voice in the matter, and certainly didn’t elect the U.S. policymakers to represent them in making these choices for their “protection.”

The Israel leak received remarkably little attention from the mainstream media. The New York Times managing editor responded to criticisms of this lack of coverage by saying that “it wasn’t a significant or surprising story… this one was modest and didn’t feel worth taking someone off greater enterprise.”

The idea that such a story could fail to be anything less than a scandal and a revelation should only increase the suspicion with which we view U.S. authority over the rest of the world. If the press is unwilling or unable to share information of this magnitude with the public, the force that can counteract abuses of power by the United States by calling attention to them, the NSA’s behavior can be increasingly taken for granted and become frighteningly normal.