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Published on November 21st, 2013 | by Bilawal Atwal
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The Snowden leaks have raised an influx of debates across the spectrum. This article considers seven controversies that arose from these revelations.

Seven Controversies from the Edward Snowden leaks

During the summer, the world was left in shock and awe after the revealing leaks from whistle-blower Edward Snowden. His leaks concluded what some had been arguing for decades; that the US assiduously enforces a controversial and somewhat unlawful surveillance throughout the world. It began in early June, when the Guardian newspaper revealed that the US National Security Agency (the NSA) had tapped and collected tens to hundreds of millions of American’s telephone and e-mail communications. Since then more leaks have fathomed on the surface anchoring arguments against US and British espionage institutions enacting a realist foreign-policy, one which would be accepted during the Cold War but not in our globalised 21st century. This article looks at seven controversies that have emerged from Snowden’s leaks, whilst the first part considers four controversies.  It was ultimately concluded that the objective of the United States National Security Agency was to eliminate privacy around the world, the American writer who helped expose the NSA’s far-reaching surveillance powers argued. While this is left to be disputed, this article assesses controversies that arose from the Snowden leaks.

1. NSA tapping telecommunications of the American public.

The American Bald Eagle was meant to be the ultimate representation of freedom. Not represent the freedom to spy on everyone.

The first controversy from the Snowden leaks follows the information pertained for the use of the American population. The stark revelation disputes the common notion across America that the Declaration of Independence is undertaken and underpins any governmental work by their government. The connotations arising from the US intercepting these emails and telephone records are those of a totalitarian state. One which the ideology of democracy would have no basis, yet it was a democratic state that had carried this through; and not just any democratic state, THE democratic state within International Relations. With a state grasping a tremendous sphere of influence globally, such as the US, the revelation becomes one shrouded in controversy within the international stage and amongst the populous within the United States.  At the end of June, the Guardian newspaper published the secret court order directing telecommunications company Verizon to hand over all its telephone data to the NSA on an “on-going daily basis”.  NSA also tapped into the servers of nine influential internet institutions including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to track online communication in a surveillance programme known as Prism. This controversy was the first of many to be revealed in the leaks from Snowden. Documents leaked to the Washington Post in mid-August suggested the NSA breaks US privacy laws hundreds of times every year. The papers revealed that US citizens were inadvertently snooped on for reasons including typing mistakes and errors in the system, reported that US spy agencies had a black budget for secret operations of almost $53bn in 2013.

2. GCHQ working with the NSA by tapping and collecting the private information of the British public.

After the Guardian’s initial revelations determining the huge covert surveillance operations carried out by the US, it had then been revealed about the same controversial methods of surveillance occurring within the United Kingdom and more specifically by GCHQ. GCHQ had been enforcing similar methods enacted by the NSA, and then sharing this same vast amount of information with them. GCHQ was able to boast a larger collection of data than the US, tapping in to 200 fibre-optic cables to give it the ability to monitor up to 600 million communications every day, according to a report by the Guardian newspaper. The information from internet and phone use was allegedly stored for up to 30 days to be sifted and analysed. Despite this, GCHQ did not technically break the law however the morality in mistrust of information is under scrutiny. The normative implications that arose from this controversy paint’s a Britain that is a police state from a George Orwell novel but alas is the reality of the surveillance programmes in a post 9/11 Britain.

3. Intercepting world leader’s private communications

Germany US Allies Spying

Here’s Angela Merkel, looking as gorgeous as never. Why would her private phone need to be hacked? What “illegal” practices would she be discussing over a mobile phone. It seems that the NSA projected Merkel as an amateur teenage coke dealer opposed to the leader of an influential European state.

The third controversy in this list paramount’s a general consensus amongst South America that the US has espionage forces investigating and veering into international political opponents that could pose a threat to the US democratic regime. This isn’t a democratic form of diplomacy. Before addressing the structural limitations in enforcing a successful and diplomatic foreign-policy via intercepting their communications, it’s imperative to discuss the actual world leaders that were intercepted. The German government summoned the US ambassador on 24 October – a very unusual step – after German media reported that the NSA had eavesdropped on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. The allegations dominated an EU summit, with Mrs Merkel demanding a full explanation and warning that trust between allies could be undermined. After controversial, unlawful and immoral surveillances in Germany by secret police, regardless of it being under Nazi or communist rule, has made the German population and Merkel sensitive regarding privacy issues. However this controversy was exacerbated when it was revealed that the NSA had actually monitored calls of 35 different world leaders after gaining vital information from the US government.  NSA had also spied on European Union offices in the US and Europe. The US had spied on EU internal computer networks in Washington and at the 27-member bloc’s UN office in New York. This controversy undermines the international arena, as the heavyweight of it has broken trust and ultimately undermined any foreign-policy relations with these leaders who were targeted. This is a crisis of International Relations, instead picturing a realist Cold War stage where national interests pertain above foreign policy.

4. The tapping of populous within other states.

The failure of diplomatic foreign-policy within International Relations was anchored by the US monitoring other world leader’s private communications. However this went a step further when it was revealed that the US and the UK were not only intercepting world leaders but the general populous within other states. This anchored the misuse of the US’ global sphere of influence as it had the freedom and power to monitor these communications and did so without any permission from these states. This mass illegitimate surveillance occurs across a variety of populations.  After fleeing to Hong Kong, Edward Snowden told the South China Morning Post that the NSA had led more than 61,000 hacking operations in Hong Kong and mainland China. While, GCHQ and NSA eavesdropping on Italian phone calls and internet traffic was reported by the Italian weekly L’Espresso on 24 October. Latin America had the biggest outcry towards these revelations. US allies Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Chile had joined other Latin American nations in demanding answers from Washington over spying allegations; spying targets included oil and energy firms, Venezuela’s military purchases and information on Mexico’s drug wars. It was not just the general population that were tapped-up in this illegitimate surveillance operation, but also embassies. A total of 38 embassies and missions have been the targets of US spying operations. Countries targeted included France, Italy and Greece, as well as America’s non-European allies such as Japan, South Korea and India. The file allegedly detailed “an extraordinary range” of spying methods used to intercept messages, including bugs, specialised antennae and wire taps. Despite the military and political deterrence from the US, it is not the sole single international institution that overarches International Relations. Yet, it dictates its’ foreign-policy throughout this manner.

5. Misuse of the Terrorism act

David Miranda

Hmm, that’s strange… I don’t remember my terrorists taking selfies of themselves. Yet according to our government this man is a danger to national security. Imagine the panic if he starts twerking on an award show. Maybe then this would be on the front page in this dwindling society enforced by a failing species.

One of the more significant controversies is the on-going misuse of the terrorism act in the UK. The terrorism act was already riddled in controversy from the get-go, as it allowed British Intelligent services to carry out controversial methods of detaining possible terror suspects with a lack of concrete evidence or information. This includes using methods such as extraordinary renditions and coercive interrogation on potential suspects. However after the Snowden leaks were published by the Guardian newspaper, one of the biggest controversies spawned from these revelations is the misuse of the terrorism act by the British government. This was anchored by the detaining of David Miranda.  The detention of the partner of a former Guardian journalist has triggered fresh concerns after it emerged that a key reason cited by police for holding him under terrorism powers was the belief that he was promoting a “political or ideological cause”.  This justification appeared to be without foundation and threatened to have damaging consequences for investigative journalism. In other words; it appears that a journalist, who was about to release information detailing an illegitimate surveillance programme where the general population are targeted, is detained under the terrorism banner. This raises controversies that underpin the inherent flaws and structural inconsistencies of having a terrorism act with no concrete definition on terrorism. How does David Miranda, a Guardian journalist, promotes or is a terrorist? The argument that does flourish clarity is the misuse of the terrorism act for national interest, and a revelation that would hinder the already declining reputation of the British government. This is the same country where democracy is promoted, yet making a sound with your mouth that could offend another person gets you thrown into a cage. The double standards from the US and the UK is not inferred but concluded via this controversy and potentially via the leaks on a whole.

6. Exaggerated positives by the US and British governments

The debate of western states exaggerating situations for the reason of enacting goals that are underpinned by national-interest has been waged on for decades but one that has grown through wider discussion over the last thirteen years. This was the cornerstone to the detrimental flaws that plagued the Iraq war as Tony Blair and George Bush had exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his potential “weapons of mass destruction”. This is a common theme in Western politics and on a wider scale across International Relations. The use of soft language, or foreign-policy vocabulary, by these states is an example of this. Through this, they eliminate any mainstream attention by labeling certain practices with vocabulary only an academic would adapt and understand. Examples of this are anchored through the definitions of “Extraordinary Renditions” which is ultimately kidnap based on suspicion, not evidence, and another example is calling torture “Coercive Interrogation”. This theme has continued towards the Snowden leaks; as both the British and the US governments have been exaggerating the positive outcomes of enforcing this controversial intelligence programme and also exaggerating the catastrophe of this controversy becoming available to the public. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, argued that “People may die as a consequence of what this man did” while the US argued that the revelations assist terrorist activity. But this is a weightless argument, and the leaks are ultimately insignificant in practical assistance for terrorists. The British government argued that the leaks can cause “real and serious damage” to national security; but with no real explanation how. These weak justifications used by these governments for preventing more leaks and why it was imperative for security reasons to carry out these illegitimate practices on its people just fuel the negative attitude towards these revelations, not just from the international arena but also from some of the general public.


Insert generic opinionated comment about Edward Snowden here. Well, I for one think that the mole on his neck is quite divine, if we could forget about all the tyranny, illegitimacy and corruption for just one moment.

7. The treatment of whistle-blowers.

The final controversy considers the treatment of whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden, and even to some extent Bradley Manning, within this controversy. While the leaks are more symbiotic with the treatment of Edward Snowden, the treatment of Bradley Manning assists in extending arguments towards the controversial “witch-hunt” perpetrated by these governments. The lack of mainstream attention to the trial, the harsh conditions that Manning was imprisoned in and the excessive punishments enforced by the military court in the Manning leaks infers a totalitarian method of silencing those who speak against crimes carried out by that state. This isn’t the concrete reason behind this detainment, however it could be inferred through this manner, similar to how the US declared Manning a War Criminal. Yet all he was doing was exposing the crimes and hypocrisy within the military. And Snowden’s case is no different. How do you justify criminally charging a government contractor for revealing an alarming truth that the public has every right to know? Snowden’s leaks significantly raised public awareness about a government threat to our freedom. Charging Edward Snowden with espionage when he was exposing these Western states of committing espionage is absolutely ludicrous. This also correlates with the mistreatment of David Miranda. Detaining him and declaring the man a terrorist. At the end of the day what they’ve actually said is that this person is a threat to national security because he may be involved in disclosing information about national security. And because he’s doing that from a political or ideological motive, it equates with a definition of terrorism. It’s not terrorism in its essence or what we the public see as terrorism. Yet the mistreatment is an immoral perceived reaction by these states, and some could even perceive Edward Snowden as a hero.

To conclude; the realist strategy of foreign-policy adopted by the heavyweights on the international arena signifies the lack of pursuit for international diplomacy and projects the sceptical approach of foreign-policy relations riddled with national interests. As more revelations continue to expose themselves in the coming months, some key debates are raised. What will be the eventual outcome of these leaks? How will these revelations affect the practice of foreign-policy within International Relations? Should both governments and intelligent agencies be charged for this conduct? And as more leaks are revealed; what will be the public and mainstream reaction? These queries will clarify in the coming months and will symbiotically all reveal themselves in due time.

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About the Author

Bilawal Atwal

Bilawal Atwal has a BA in International Relations from the University of Leicester.

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