Yet another secret revealed by former U.S. intelligence worker Edward Snowden on Oct. 24 has become the latest in a flurry of blows to rock the U.S. According to a story carried by U.K. newspaper The Guardian, which previously aided Snowden in exposing the U.S. surveillance scandal, the National Security Agency has tapped the phones of prominent political figures in at least 35 countries. The PRISM affair has now reached another turning point, forcing Washington onto the defensive morally, politically and diplomatically.
If the whole affair, begun this June, seemed to have still been "under control" during the past few months, it is because, according to the leaks by Snowden, the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies primarily monitored the emails, conversation records, videos, pictures and other private correspondence of U.S. citizens, making the episode a fundamentally "domestic problem." But the information published by The Guardian on the Oct. 24 has sparked global controversy; the U.S. has not only had its image tarnished, but now faces the uncomfortable prospect of justifying its actions to the affected nations.
The worsening of the scandal comes in several parts. First, according to leaked information, the targets of wiretapping were foreign officials, including the leaders of several "heavyweight" nations. Second, an overview of the affected countries shows that the targets of wiretapping were not limited to countries of poor standing with the U.S., but also included its allies. It is said that before kicking a dog you should first consider its master; America's maltreatment of even its friends is untenable whether measured on grounds of legality, amity or rationality. One can just imagine the flailing remonstrations of the ambassadors called to task over the matter. Third, if the story is confirmed as fact, then U.S. wiretapping on foreign nations is systematic and broad in scale, rather than sporadic and specific. In other words, the U.S. is trampling roughshod all over the international "rules of the game."
The scandal is heating up, but has not yet reached a boiling point, as the published information has yet to be verified. From The Guardian's report, it is not yet certain whether Snowden was the one to release the information, and even if it was indeed Snowden, verification of the facts will remain difficult. Furthermore, similar leaks have suggested that phone monitoring operations straddled both the Bush and Obama administrations. Could the president(s) have been unaware of the wiretapping of foreign officials by intelligence agencies, or did he give the order himself? These uncertainties all await the further release and verification of information. If the story is genuine, however, Washington will have quite a bit of trouble explaining itself. Of course, it is also possible that no definitive conclusion will be reached in the end.
But regardless of the outcome, the harm done internationally to U.S. relations by these events is all too obvious. Germany's Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador for discussions on the Oct. 24; although, the details of that meeting have not been made public, the link to U.S. surveillance activities was clear. The German people are cautious and prudent in action, and such a rare diplomatic move is indicative of the current level of displeasure in Berlin. With this, how can the other nations involved simply let the matter drop?
The worsening of the scandal and painfully awkward position of the Obama administration and U.S. intelligence agencies are but temporary miseries to be endured, but there are longer term effects that will be felt in two areas. First is the damage done to U.S. relations with the rest of the world. If the U.S. reaped the benefits of its hegemonic status in international politics, the economic world order and setting the rules of the game ever since World War II, it had all been done more or less overtly. But the wiretapping revelations are an entirely more sordid affair; the victimized nations will find it difficult to forgive such underhandedness.
Second is the irreparable damage done to the moral authority of the U.S. The U.S. has long been seen as a leader in international politics, institutions and justice, but in recent years, the more brutal Mr. Hyde lurking within has come to light in the political and economic arenas. Now "PRISM-gate" has been blown wide open; despite the inherently clandestine nature of intelligence and spy operations between countries, this time the U.S. has landed itself in the proverbial mire, planting the face of the "big brother" of international morality squarely in the muck. Thinking back upon how the U.S. media published a spate of stories on so-called Internet hacking incidents several years prior, and how stern and self-righteous former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in her chastisement of other countries for "violating the rules" of the Internet, all that comes to mind now is: What a joke.