It's Been a Year Since Snowden, and Nothing's Really Changed

Is the administration blind to the real and tangible harm the NSA surveillance program is doing to America’s credibility?

It's been a year since we woke to media reports on June 5 that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been sweeping up the phone records of everyone in the United States. The news was a shock -- but as it turns out, it was also only the beginning. In the following months, we've seen a mountain of other revelations: of breathtaking data hauls that collect billions of Internet communications from around the world, gag orders that bar companies from warning their customers of privacy violations, spying on world leaders, and even systemic efforts by the U.S. government to break and undermine commercial encryption software.

What we've seen far too little of over the past year is any real change. In the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, the United States has denied some of the allegations, and disclosed -- under pressure -- a tiny bit of information about some of its programs. But very little has been done to rein in the surveillance itself. The few proposed reforms we have seen have been so watered down that none come close to adequately restraining the government's capacity for mass electronic surveillance.

But first, a brief review: In the past year, we've learned that not only is our telephone data collected, our Internet communications are also under watch. Stunning amounts of data are being collected under the government's interpretation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). U.S. Internet companies turn over the content of communications like texts, emails, videos, and chat messages under Section 702 of FISA, which authorizes the warrantless collection -- inside American borders -- of communications containing "foreign intelligence information," a term defined to include essentially anything about the foreign affairs of the United States -- so long as at least one person on the end of the communication is located outside the country.

According to a recently disclosed 2011 FISA court opinion, roughly 250 million Internet communications were acquired under Section 702; as of April 5, 2013, there were 117,675 active "targets." Those targets, by the way, don't have to be individuals. Under guidelines previously secret but disclosed by Snowden, they can be "facilities" or "places," too -- meaning each target can potentially rope huge numbers of people into the dragnet. All of this collection has been happening under gag orders that prevent the companies from speaking publicly about it or informing their customers in any meaningful way.

In addition, the government has been making ample use of so-called National Security Letters (NSLs) -- a form of administrative subpoena that gives the FBI and other agencies the power to compel companies to produce, without judicial approval, many of the same records, such as telephone and email subscriber information, that require a FISA court order under other laws. This NSL authority was expanded after September 11, 2001, under the Patriot Act; today, the FBI issues nearly 60 NSLs per day -- all of which place the companies that receive them under gag order. 

At the same time that the United States has been forcing companies to turn over data here in the United States at the front end, it has been reportedly collecting their customers' information without their knowledge, by tapping into the main global communication links of Google, Yahoo!, and other companies overseas. The administration is reportedly relying on Executive Order 12333, which authorizes surveillance activities outside the United States, in order to tap into these lines, and is collecting millions of records daily, including metadata, text, audio, and video -- an effort that Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt called "outrageous." It has intercepted packages of technology equipment en route to customers in order to install malware or backdoor-enabling hardware before the equipment reaches its destination, and has been systematically undermining encryption standards and creating backdoors in commercial encryption software.

Finally, in one of the most recent disclosures, in March, we learned that under a program called "Mystic," the NSA records "every single" telephone conversation taking place in an unnamed country. Later reports would reveal that the recording was actually taking place in two countries -- the Bahamas and Afghanistan -- and that Mystic is also collecting metadata in other countries such as Mexico, the Philippines, and Kenya.

This is likely still just the tip of the iceberg. The reporting thus far has only covered about 1 percent of the documents Snowden turned over to reporters, according to the editor of the Guardian. Just a few weeks ago, Glenn Greenwald, who was first to report on the Snowden documents, said many more stories were still to come

What has changed as a result of a year's worth of revelations? Not much. The best of Congress' reform proposals, the USA Freedom Act, is focused on ending the bulk collection of American phone records, not the mass collection and indiscriminate surveillance practices abroad that affect far more people, and include the collection of the actual content of Internet activities and phone calls, not just metadata. This is presumably because lawmakers believe their constituencies are concerned more about their own privacy rights than those of foreigners. But this shortsighted approach ignores the broader global economic implications and backlash that will inevitably result from failing to pay due respect to others' rights outside U.S. borders.

And even the USA Freedom Act was recently so watered down by pressure from the White House, which holds the threat of veto power, and the powerful intelligence community, that it's not clear if even it will actually modify anything. The weakened version, approved by the House last month, changed, among other things, the definition of terms to allow for collection of much more data than what was proposed in the original bill. It is now up to the Senate to restore some of the original bill's stronger provisions.

In January, President Barack Obama announced some measures that would restrain U.S. surveillance practices abroad. These measures were a step in the right direction: They announced plans to put limits on the retention and dissemination of collected data, and to apply these limits equally to all persons, regardless of nationality. However, not only did the White House not explain how or when these measures would be put in place, more importantly, it did not put any real limits on the collection of the data to begin with. The administration seems to have the impression that mere collection of data is not in and of itself a problem and that, with these reforms, which speak only to how the data will be used and shared, it is on the path to redemption. In sum, most of the collection will continue unabated, and the privacy rights of the millions of people who are not Americans will continue to be routinely and indiscriminately invaded.

Prior to these disclosures, the United States was considered a world leader in promoting Internet freedom. It made it a signature part of American foreign policy and spent millions of dollars supporting new tools to protect the digital privacy of human rights activists globally. But the last year has deeply undermined global trust in U.S. leadership in this area, not to mention its commitment to the rule of law and transparency in government.

If this trust continues to erode, it will have huge ramifications for U.S. business and foreign-policy interests. Technology companies are already losing billions of dollars and overseas customers who want their data stored away from the snooping eyes of the U.S. government. Studies estimate a loss of between $35 billion and $180 billon to the U.S. cloud computer industry over the next three years. And U.S. diplomats are now at a distinct disadvantage when negotiating economic and foreign-policy agreements abroad. The leaks have dealt a blow to America's standing when criticizing countries with repressive regimes, who threaten fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and association -- rights that Washington purports to hold dear. Hypocrisy does not sell.

It's time for both the president and Congress to wake up to the damage these programs wreak on U.S. prestige and security and get serious about meaningful reforms. We need reforms that will end mass collection of personal data -- not just for Americans, but for millions of people around the world accused of no wrongdoing.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


Vladimir Putin's Impotent Eurasian Union

Why the Russian president’s dream of 'near abroad' linked to Moscow might be less than the sum of its parts.

It was never meant as a return to the Soviet Union. When Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, first called for a Eurasian Union just over 20 years ago, he envisaged a grouping of individual states with individual interests coming together for the economic benefit of one another. Nazarbayev, an iron-fisted autocrat and the only president an independent Kazakhstan has ever known, cited, seemingly without irony, "the will of the people to integration" as he tried to justify the reintegration of independent states the Soviet Union's demise had left behind.

On May 29, Nazarbayev witnessed this goal finally come to fruition. Sort of. Alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Nazarbayev signed the founding treaty of the Eurasian Union (EEU) in Astana, paving the way for the transition from their current customs union to the full-fledged EEU on Jan. 1, 2015. Putin called the signing an event of "epoch-making significance."

But Putin has a way of mangling rhetoric and reality. While the EEU seeks to rejoin the post-Soviet space in economic agglomeration -- and has even received interested partners from Vietnam to Syria -- it stands far from the goal Nazarbayev once held, and even further from what irredentist Putin would hope.

Rather than launching a wholesale effort at post-Soviet reintegration, the EEU has rapidly morphed into something far more degraded -- and has faced substantive pushback from states watching Putin attempt to shift the EEU into another vehicle for Russia's revanchism, displayed so obviously in Crimea. Where the concerns on the EEU were originally economic -- the benefits are discernibly slanted toward Moscow -- events in Ukraine have displayed that the Kremlin's neo-imperialism is back. "The original purpose of the Eurasian Union was to become a dominant regional economic organization, with a legal architecture controlled by Moscow," said Alexander Cooley, a political science professor at Barnard College. But Crimea ended up illustrating that Putin would much rather have something to "effectively lock countries into Moscow's political and economic orbit."

Modeled on the European Union's economic constructs, the new union will represent a market of 170 million, and will boast a total GDP of nearly $3 trillion. The EEU will serve as the maturation of the current customs union shared by the three nations, and will allow further economic integration -- increased free movement of goods, streamlined trade regulation, unified macroeconomic policy -- between member states. And the EEU has potential to keep growing. If Putin somehow manages to woo the remaining post-Soviet (non-Baltic) nations, the EEU's market could jump to some 300 million members and just under $4 trillion in combined GDP.

But that swell is far from plausible. Even before the EEU became official, members had many doubts about its benefits. Kazakhstan, Central Asia's most dynamic economy, has failed to procure the expected benefit from membership in the customs union, and the EEU looks to continue the trend. Involvement with the current customs union has continued to delay Kazakhstan's accession to the World Trade Organization, with the WTO citing "discrepancies" surrounding the external tariffs that will continue under the EEU. Meanwhile, Russia joined the WTO on its own, rather than as the bloc originally proposed. More worrying for members is what the World Bank found in a 2012 study: Membership in the customs union has, as a result of the external tariff, "depressed real wages by 0.5 percent and depressed the real return on capital in Kazakhstan by 0.6 percent." This will "[lead] to a loss of productivity gains in the long run" -- a finding shared by the European Union's Institute for Security Studies. By being forced to trade more with union member states, and less with nonmembers -- increasing "costs to businesses and consumers of imports," as the World Bank noted -- Kazakhstan is forced to forego technologically advanced goods and services, and is required to rely that much more heavily on Russian supply. As one Kazakh analyst puts it, the union has been "like letting a [Kazakh] schoolboy and a [Russian] professional boxer into the ring."

The economic problems with the union go deeper. Kazakhstan has already seen substantial devaluation and record-setting oil setbacks in 2014 -- unrelated to the union -- and as Russia's economy slows due to Western sanctions, it will likely drag Kazakhstan with it. And Astana's not the only one taking a hit. According to Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov, Russian fiscal support for the other two EEU member states could soon jump more than $30 billion, or five times its current rate, should all trade restrictions be lifted. For an economy sliding into recession and facing sanctions and capital flight, watching allies suck up much-needed funds is likely a difficult sight in Moscow. Moreover, says economist Aitolkyn Kourmanova, "Without direct subsidies, the Central Asian countries will not perceive any significant advantage to integrating with the [EEU]."

The events in Ukraine have cast an even darker pall over the Eurasian Union's formation. Where Nazarbayev once envisioned the EEU to be a coalition of equals, Moscow's neo-imperialism now appears the driving force for its enactment. "Suddenly, the concerns are no longer purely economic -- now, they're political," says Luca Anceschi, a Central Asian Studies lecturer at the University of Glasgow. These concerns haven't only come forth in EEU negotiations -- since Crimea, Astana has proposed increased penalties for those calling for separatism, and cut timetables for ethnic Kazakhs seeking citizenship. Meanwhile, nationalistic, anti-Russian protests -- the kinds seen rarely (if ever) in Kazakhstan -- have been growing in numbers.

This response is, on the whole, not that surprising. Northern parts of Kazakhstan have historically been part of Russia -- and more than 60 percent of Russians believe parts of neighboring countries "really belong to Russia." As one Kazakhstani, an ethnic Russian, recently asked me, "Do you really consider [Kazakhstan] a country?" In response to Putin's imperialistic push, Astana has increasingly cited the preeminence of its territorial sovereignty in EEU-related matters, and Nazarbayev has repeatedly called on slowing the integration process. "I am ... not a supporter of quick decision-making," Nazarbayev recently observed. "We all have to understand that we are not making a sparkling snowman here that would melt in the face of economic and geopolitical changes."

Putin's Crimean adventurism has effectively dampened any momentum the EEU once maintained. Russian calls for potential common passports and currency have fallen flat. The possibility of a Eurasian Parliament, first proposed by the Russian Duma in 2012, failed to find any traction in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Lukashenko recently noted that he would "fight" anyone attempting to challenge Belarus's sovereignty. "Even if it is Putin," he added.

It's not only Kazakhstan and Belarus taking issue with the EEU and with Moscow's neo-imperial push. Kyrgyzstan, which seems a natural fit to join the EEU -- remittances from Russia account for over 30 percent of the country's GDP, and over 35 percent of its imports come from EEU member states -- has delayed decisions on its pathway to membership multiple times. Armenia has seen protests against the union and, despite being one of the few countries to publicly support Russia's Crimean annexation, just witnessed Moscow double its offer of tank supplies to Yerevan's decades-long enemy, Azerbaijan. It's little wonder that Armenia has opted to continue talks with the EU about a postponed Association Agreement, which the country had appeared to swap for EEU membership only a few months ago.

But even if Armenia or Kyrgyzstan suddenly reversed course and rushed to join the EEU, their stunted economies would add little muster. For the EEU to really stand as any kind of consequential geopolitical pole, it would, in end, require the membership of Ukraine, whose industrial heft and 46-million-strong population represent the greatest economic force in the former Soviet Union after Russia. But events in Ukraine over the past six months all but preclude the country's potential recruitment. Kiev isn't exactly enthusiastic about joining a union with a government propping and propagating the civil war rumbling through Ukraine's east.

Ukraine's (non-)role in the EEU shares strong parallels with that other grand attempt at post-Soviet reunification: the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Rising from the refuse of the collapsed USSR, the CIS was meant to stand as a regional successor. But without Ukraine's wholesale participation -- Ukraine was only an associate member, and officially exited the group this month -- the CIS offered little more than photo ops and empty handshakes.

And that, it seems, is what the EEU now stands to offer: plenty of spectacle and ceremony, but with little to actually show. The association will be far from the goals either Nazarbayev or Putin once carried. The ghosts of the Soviet Union and an imperialist Russia surround the EEU -- but the organization will carry an impotence of the Kremlin's own doing.