Politics

Snooping Story Becomes A Talking Point For Autocrats

“The United States is no exception,” says Putin’s man in New York.

Obama arrives in California ahead of talks with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Nick Ut / AP

The revelation that the National Security Agency has been conducting secret large-scale surveillance of Americans’ telephonic and electronic communications is already becoming a talking point for regimes from Moscow to Beijing who are eager to dismiss Washington’s criticism of their own practices.

“How can the US give China a hard time for cyber spying after today’s stunning revelations about something called “PRISM”, which allegedly for the past seven years has allowed the intelligence community to see whom every one of us is talking to…and by some accounts actually look over our shoulder as we type this?” asked Chris Nelson, an Asia policy expert, in his nightly Nelson Report email list. “Sure sounds like something to be very, very, very worried about. As Pogo said, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.’”

The concern about how America’s domestic policy will play internationally isn’t a new one: During the Cold War, American racism was a frequent Communist target, and American liberals made that propaganda argument part of the case against segregation. Now the subject — civil liberties — is different, but the dynamic with countries the U.S. regularly accuses of foreign and domestic surveillance is the same.

Slate’s Will Dobson Friday imagined Chinese president Xi Jinping’s response when President Obama brings up hacking at the leaders’ meeting this weekend: “So, let me get this straight, Barack. You’re mad at us for spying on American companies online while you’re stealing every single thing my people do on Microsoft, Google, Skype, and Yahoo? Really? Are you $%� kidding me? … Or, maybe we can think about this differently? I know we are a police state and all, but we don’t have anything like this PRISM thing? Can you guys give us some pointers?”

The White House waved off the notion that evidence of the U.S. government spying on its own citizens will weaken Obama’s position in discussions with Xi.

“This is a pretty good illustration of type of conversation we want to have about respecting civil liberties and protecting the constitutional rights of the people that you govern,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Friday when asked if the NSA spying undercut the president’s message with Xi. “What the president did, was he put in place a very strict oversight regime, one that he strengthened when he took office…one that constrained his own ability, constrained his own authority. I think that is a testament to the strength of our system of government.”

But new revelations that the White House has been ordering plans for cyber-attacks on other countries have particular bearing on the hacking debate with China.

“An intelligence source with extensive knowledge of the National Security Agency’s systems told the Guardian the US complaints again China were hypocritical, because America had participated in offensive cyber operations and widespread hacking – breaking into foreign computer systems to mine information,” the Guardian writes in its new story about Obama’s cyber warfare directives.

“We hack everyone everywhere,” the Guardian’s source told them.

The news of the surveillance could also weaken intermittent American attempts to press Russia on human rights abuses.

Nikolay Pakhomov, of the pro-Kremlin Institute of Democracy and Cooperation think tank in New York, said the U.S. could no longer claim a moral upper hand when it comes to surveillance issues, and defended the United States’ approach.

“Almost all countries in the world are currently confronted with a dilemma on how to protect public security without curtailing public freedom,” Pakhomov said. “Almost all of them choose security over freedom, knowing that they will receive public support.”

“The United States is no exception,” Pakhomov said. “The Obama Administration continues policies started by Bush Administration. Because of that the US is in the same motley group of countries (‘old’ democracies, ‘new’ democracies, and non-democracies) which choose protection of security over freedom.”

And the revelations could come into play in the regional propaganda war with Iran.

“Certainly the regime will utilize that and a lot of people will point out we should have our own house in order,” said Trita Parsi, the president of the National American Iranian Council, which has argued for rebuilding diplomacy with Iran. “If you talk about the general population in Iran, there is a segment that doesn’t care if the U.S. is pure or not — their beef is with the Iranian regime.”

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