Angered by NSA abuses, will Europe commit to meaningful counter-measures?
Despite earlier threats from European officials to delay trade negotiations with the United States over the latest revelations of spying on French and German leaders (which have followed earlier revelations that that the NSA has tapped the telephone lines and computer networks of EU offices in Brussels, New York and Washington), German Chancellor Angela Merkel today offered assurances that U.S.-EU trade talks would go forward without interruption.
Although she said she was skeptical of efforts to delay those negotiations, she expressed tepid support for temporarily halting a program that gives U.S. intelligence agencies access to information about the financial transactions of suspected terrorists routed through the SWIFT clearing house in Brussels. SWIFT, or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, is an industry-owned co-operative that facilitates international financial transfers within the global banking community, consisting of banks, securities broker-dealers, and regulated investment management institutions.
Merkel’s cautious support for restraining U.S. access to SWIFT follows allegations that the NSA has been gaining unauthorized access to the international financial messaging system, which could have major ramifications for the operation of the global financial system.
“Claims that the NSA has tapped the computing infrastructure of the SWIFT system and consequently has access to information about more than 90% of the world’s international banking transactions has huge implications for financial institutions and the individuals who bank with them,” writes Caroline Wilson of Privacy International.
The European Parliament has asked the U.S. to explain its actions and to reveal whether the NSA’s actions are breaching a U.S.-EU agreement that sets forth various rules the U.S. must follow when obtaining and processing financial data stored in the EU. The pact came about in 2010 because of allegations at the time that the U.S. was seeking direct and virtually unrestrained access to Europeans’ SWIFT data.
“If the NSA is obtaining SWIFT messages outside of the rules set forth in the 2010 US-EU Agreement, such action imperils further the relationship between the two parties, and violates the privacy rights of millions of Europeans,” notes Wilson.
In response to the latest allegations, the leaders of Germany and France today proposed creating a new agreement on cooperation among their intelligence services and those of the United States, in the wake of a new report alleging that the National Security Agency had monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders.
Noting diminished trust in the United States, Merkel pledged that she and French President Francois Hollande would rapidly forge a new pact to ensure more transparency for U.S. intelligence operations in Europe.
What is unclear though is why these leaders would expect the U.S. government to adhere to the rules of a “new pact,” when it is obvious that it has been brazenly flouting numerous existing pacts for years. Besides violating the 2010 agreement on SWIFT, the United States appears to be violating a host of international laws, including the 1961 Vienna Convention which states that “the official correspondence” as well as “the premises” of diplomatic missions “shall be inviolable.”
The individual’s right to privacy is also enshrined in numerous human rights conventions including in Article 12 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers, and Article 16 of the UN Convention of the Protection of the Child. It is also guaranteed by Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
At a hearing in the European Parliament on Oct. 14, NSA surveillance initiatives were the subject of legal scrutiny which included the participation of a judge who has served in the European Court of Human Rights for 15 years, a former United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, and a London-based international law professor. All of them agreed that the scope of the surveillance constituted violations of both European and international laws and treaties.
Martin Scheinin, former UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, said that the NSA spying represents a “massive interference with the privacy rights of EU citizens and others.” The surveillance amounted to “an unlawful or arbitrary interference with privacy or correspondence, and this conclusion follows independently from multiple grounds,” he said.
In response to the allegations of massive U.S. law-breaking, German prosecutors have launched a legal investigation, and officials in Berlin said the scandal could disrupt counterterrorism collaboration between the United States and the European Union.
This is also a point that independent U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders made in a letter to Barack Obama on Thursday. Sanders, who is cosponsoring legislation that would significantly rein in the surveillance activities of the NSA and other intelligence agencies, wrote to Obama that the U.S. actions could undermine cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
“The strained relations with our allies as a result of wholesale NSA eavesdropping have impacted our ability to work with these countries in combating terrorism and advancing common economic goals,” Sanders said. “Clearly, in the complex and difficult world we now find ourselves, it is imperative that we try to improve our relations with friendly countries, not exacerbate them.”
European leaders from across the continent have also been vocal in their opposition to the U.S. surveillance activities. If it’s true that Merkel’s cellphone has been tapped, “it is exceptionally serious,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at an EU summit this week.
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt called it “completely unacceptable” for a country to eavesdrop on an allied leader. “We want the truth,” Italian Premier Enrico Letta told reporters. “It is not in the least bit conceivable that activity of this type could be acceptable.”
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said, “We need to re-establish with the U.S. a relationship of trust, which has certainly suffered from this.”
But despite the current grandstanding of European leaders, it should be remembered that the whistleblower who shared all the revelations of U.S. spying – former NSA contractor Edward Snowden – has been largely abandoned by the governments that are now expressing shock over the NSA’s abuses.
When Snowden was seeking refuge from the U.S. government fearing persecution and torture, ten EU countries immediately indicated that they would deny the whistleblower’s political asylum requests, with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle saying that Snowden’s request would be reviewed by German authorities “according to the law,” but he “could not imagine” that it would be approved.
After the United States received a tip that Snowden may have been on a plane carrying Bolivian president Evo Morales, who was flying home from a Moscow summit via Western Europe, European governments fell over themselves to do the bidding of the United States, with France, Spain and Portugal all refusing to let Morales’ plane through their airspace.
The plane was forced to land in Austria, where it remained grounded for 14 hours as the authorities determined that Snowden was not on board.
Morales called the rerouting of his plane a violation of national sovereignty and a provocation to all of Latin America, urging European countries to “free themselves” from the undue influence of the United States. The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, later described the measure by certain EU countries to ground Morales’s plane as “ridiculous and unacceptable.”
It is against this backdrop of acquiescing to U.S. power that the current admonitions of European leaders should be considered.
Snowden himself has been one of the most articulate advocates for greater action by the international community to protect privacy and hold the U.S. rogue superpower accountable.
In a prepared statement to the European Parliament on Sept. 30, Snowden argued that surveillance is one of the greatest challenges facing human rights today, and appealed for help in protecting the whistleblowers who bring these abuses to light.
“If we are to enjoy such debates in the future, we cannot rely on individual sacrifice, we must create better channels for people of conscience to better inform not only trusted agents of government but independent representatives of the public outside of government,” he said.
Snowden, who is currently living in Moscow after being granted temporary asylum by the Russian government, said that public debate on mass surveillance should not have to rely on the persecution and exile of people willing to leak information to the public.
A mass rally is being held in Washington on Saturday in support of Snowden and calling on the NSA to halt its mass surveillance activities. Under the banner, “Stop Watching Us,” thousands of Americans of all political stripes will demand investigations of the NSA’s illegal spying and to “hold accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible for this unconstitutional surveillance.”