Brazil and Germany today joined forces to press for theadoption of a U.N. General Resolution that promotes the right of privacy on theinternet, marking the first major international effort to restrain the NationalSecurity Agency's intrusions into the online communications of foreigners,according to diplomatic sources familiar with the push.
The effort follows a German claim that the American spy agencymay have tapped the private telephone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel anddozens of other world leaders. It also comes about one month after Brazilianleader Dilma Rousseff denounced NSA espionage against her country as "a breachof international law" in a General Assembly speech and proposed that the U.N.establish legal guidelines to prevent "cyberspace from being used as a weaponof war."
Brazilian and German diplomats met in New York today with asmall group of Latin American and European governments to consider a draftresolution that calls for expanding privacy rights contained in the InternationalCovenant Civil and Political Rights to the online world. The draft does notrefer to a flurry of American spying revelations that have caused a politicaluproar around the world, particularly in Brazil and Germany. But it was clearthat the revelation provided the political momentum to trigger today's move tothe United Nations. The blowback from the NSA leaks continues to agonize U.S.diplomats and military officials concerned about America's image abroad.
"This is an example of the very worst aspects of the Snowdendisclosures," a former defense official with deep experience in NATO, told The Cable, referring to former NSAcontractor Edward Snowden. "It will be very difficult for the US to dig out ofthis, although we will over time. The short term costs in credibility and trustare enormous."
Although the U.N.'s ability to fundamentally constrain the NSAis nil, the mounting international uproar over U.S. surveillance has securityexperts fearful for the ramifications.
"The worst case scenario I think would be having our Europeanallies saying they will no longer share signals intelligence because of aconcern that our SigInt is being derived from mechanisms that violate theirprivacy rules," said Ray Kimball, an army strategist with policy experience onEuropean issues. He stressed that he was not speaking for the military.
Although the Germans have not indicated such a move is in theworks, they do have a game plan for making their surveillance complaints heard.The International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights was written in 1966and came into force in 1976, decades before the internet transformed the waypeople communicate around the world. A provision in the international covenant,Article 17, says "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawfulinterference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawfulattacks on his honor and reputation." It also states that "everyone has theright to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."
"The covenant was formulated at a time when the internet didn'texist," said a diplomat familiar with the negotiations. "Everyone has the rightto privacy and the goal is to this resolution is to apply those protections toonline communications."
Brazil and Germany are hoping to put the resolution to a votein the U.N. General Assembly human rights committee later this year. The draftresolution, which has not been made public and which is still subject tonegotiation among U.N. states, will seek to apply the those protections toonline communications. "This is not just about spying," said the diplomat. Thisis about ensuring that "privacy of citizens in their home states under theirown home legislation."
"It calls on countries to put an end to violations of thatright," the official said. "People have to be protected offline and online."
According to the latest internal NSA memo leaked to The Guardian, the list of targeted nations is even longer, whichcould give this U.N. effort additional momentum. The NSA monitored the communications of 35unnamed "world leaders," whose phone numbers were given to the intelligenceagency by a U.S. government official, according to the report. The agency hasbeen collecting phone numbers, email addresses, and residential addresses offoreign officials from the people in the U.S. government who are in touch withthem. The U.S. official, who is not named, personally handed over 200 phonenumbers about the people he or she was in touch with.
It's hardly a secret, or a surprise, that the NSA spies onforeign governments, including those friendly to the United States. Two formerintelligence officials told The Cable thatcontact information like this is a regular source of intelligence for the NSA.And the memo acknowledges that the agency looks for officials' contactinformation in open sources, such as the Internet.
But the revelation that U.S. officials are facilitating spyingon the people they do business with to this extent has created the impetus forU.N. action, a first-of-its kind development.
"There's a mixture of hypocrisy and feigned outrage alongwith real objections here," said a former senior intelligence official. "Idon't know where the line is. The idea that political leaders are out of boundsfor foreign intelligence is amusing. But on the other hand this business abouttrusting allies is a big thing. My guess is there's a real annoyance here" onthe part of foreign allies.
Merkel was so outraged by the news that her phone had beenmonitored that she called President Obama to discuss it. The White House issueda carefully worded statement, assuring that the German leader'sphone would not be tapped now or in the future, but not saying whether it hadbeen.
It's not clear whether the NSA is still collecting informationfrom the address books of U.S. officials. The memo was written in 2006. But atleast at the time, such collection was a regular occurrence.
"From time to time, SID [the agency's signals intelligencedirectorate] is offered access to the personal contact databases of U.S.officials," the memo states. It doesn't specify who those officials are, orwhere in the government they work. But, the memo goes on to say, theinformation provided by the one U.S. official was sufficiently helpful that theagency decided to go around asking for more such contacts from the NSA's"supported customers," which include the Departments of Defense and State, aswell as the White House. (None of them are listed by name in the memo.)
"These numbers have provided lead information to othernumbers," the memo states. In the case of the one U.S. officials, the 200numbers included 43 that previously weren't on the NSA's radar.
"This success leads S2 [part of the signals intelligence directorate]to wonder if there are NSA liaisons whose supported customers may be willing toshare" their contacts, as well. "S2 welcomes such information!"
Apparently, though, success was measured not so much in secretslearned but just in having the data itself. The memo acknowledges that analysts"have noted little reported intelligence from these particular numbers, whichappear not to be used for sensitive discussions."
From this we might conclude that NSA's targets are not fools.Why would anyone in the senior ranks of a government or military have sensitiveconversations or discuss classified information over the phone number or emailon his business card? But, the NSA seems to have concluded, what could it hurtto find out?
Time will tell. In a statement, a spokesperson for Merkel saidshe told Obama that tapping her phone would represent a "grave breach of trust"between the two allies. "She made clear that she views such practices, ifproven true, as completely unacceptable and condemns them unequivocally."
With the latest news from the U.N., it appears the U.S. mightbe in store for more than just a slap on the wrist.