POLICY ALERT- Disclosures on U.S. Surveillance Prompt Reactions from Asian Powers
Earlier this month, The Guardian UK reported on classified U.S. intelligence gathering operations that collected information on phone records and other internet user data around the globe. Edward Snowden, a former contractor working for CIA, revealed himself as the source of these reports, provoking a diverse set of reactions within the U.S. and international press. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from China, India, and Russia on these disclosures.
While China’s foreign ministry declined to comment directly on Snowden’s case due to diplomatic sensitivities, Chinese media outlets expressed a range of views on the story.
Some praised Snowden as a whistleblower exposing the ‘hypocrisy’ in U.S. criticism of China’s cyberspace activities:
- “Snowden’s revelations have almost overturned the image of the U.S. as the defender of a free Internet,” wrote the Global Times. The China Daily also shared this view.
- Xinhua columnist Xu Peixi called PRISM – one of the NSA internet surveillance tools – “thebleakest moment yet in the history of the Internet.” Xu added that Snowden “offers us a rare chance to reexamine the integrity of American politicians and the management of American-dominant Internet companies” such as Google, which provided the NSA with data on its users.
- The Chinese military’s official newspaper, the People’s Liberation Army Daily, termed PRISM“frightening” since it refuses to accept the privacy of non-U.S. citizens. The editorial added that”U.S. intelligence agencies are habitual offenders with regards to network monitoring andespionage.” Global Times also pushed its leaders to “explicitly demand a reasonable explanation from the U.S. government” on its monitoring operations against China. The editorial declared that “China is a rising power, and it deserves corresponding respect from the U.S.”
Several stressed that these reports may hamper efforts to improve Sino-U.S. relations:
- In Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, Wang Xiangwei wrote that a top foreign policy adviser to the Chinese leadership hinted “Beijing would handle the Snowden case discreetly and had no interest in turning the event into a political case.”
- Global Times argued that “diplomatically, Snowden has cast a shadow over the new Sino-US relationship right after the Xi-Obama meeting. The sooner the incident is wrapped up, the better the ties between the two countries will be.”
Others defended the surveillance operations as appropriate intelligence gathering tools:
- In a letter to the South China Morning Post, Oren Tatcher and Sheung Wan contended that PRISM is a “perfectly legitimate program of self-defense” and that critics “don’t seem to understand” the “nature of electronic intelligence gathering.”
- China Daily opined that President Obama should work to “convince the American people as well as global Internet users that the spying is a must and helps in a direct way to safeguard public safety from clear and present dangers.”
Finally, several debated the appropriate course of action for dealing with Snowden:
- “The optimal solution” would be for China to “provide necessary assistance for Snowden to go to a third country,” wrote Wang Xiangwei.
- Xu Peixi argued that “China, despite the fact that it does not have a good reputation as far as Internet governance is concerned, should move boldly and grant Snowden asylum.” Global Times conceded that “China’s growing power is attracting people to seek asylum in China. This is unavoidable and should be used to accumulate moral standing.”
According to Snowden, India is the fifth most tracked country by American intelligence agencies, which used a tool called Boundless Informant to collect over 12 billion pieces of metadata from India. New Delhi’s External Affairs Ministry’s official response: “We are concerned and surprised about it. We will find it to be unacceptable if Indian laws relating to the privacy of information of Indian ordinary citizens have been violated.” Indian media outlets commented on the story.
The Hindu offered praise for Snowden:
- Snowden must “take a bow” and “be lauded for his decision to bear scrutiny and criticism from fellow citizens, the curtailment of whose freedoms he saw as unacceptable.”
Others said these disclosures offer lessons for India and its own privacy protections:
- According to editorials by The Times of India, the leaks provide “important lessons for democratizing states like India where the potential for the wanton abuse of laws protecting people’s privacy is great.” The paper called on Parliament to “make the safeguards regime [against these programs] more robust and foolproof.”
- In an op-ed for The Economic Times of India, Pranesh Prakash wrote that Indian citizens should be concerned that “the U.S. government refuses to acknowledge non-Americans as people who also have a fundamental right to privacy.”
- Pratap Bhanu Mehta warned in The Indian Express that these NSA programs will “legitimize other liberal governments who clamp down on the rights of their citizens. India, never the most exemplary state in this respect, has seen a major regression on civil liberties in the last few years, justified in much the same terms.”
Edward Snowden’s current predicament prompted Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder and current resident of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, to suggest that India grant Snowden asylum. “It was because of Snowden that India came to know how U.S. was snooping on them,” he stated in an interview with the International Business Times.
Commentary in Russia was generally sympathetic towards Snowden:
- In an interview with Russia Today, President Vladimir Putin stressed that Snowden revealed “nothing we didn’t know before,” adding that surveillance is “becoming a global phenomenon in the context of combatting international terrorism,” and that “such methods are generally practicable. As long as it is exercised within the boundaries of the law that regulates intelligence activities, it’s alright. But if it’s unlawful, then it’s bad”
- Andrew Soldatov, editor of Argentura.ru, disputed Putin’s remarks on the legality of government surveillance in a Moscow Times editorial. “What Putin failed to mention is that Russian and U.S. laws governing wiretapping differ substantially.”
- Russia would consider granting asylum to Edward Snowden if he were to ask for it, said President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov. While Peskov did not indicate whether Moscow would accept Snowden, pro-Kremlin lawmakers spoke in favor of the idea:
- Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, wrote on Twitter: “Promising Snowden asylum, Moscow takes upon itself the defense of people persecuted for political reasons. By tapping telephones and conducting surveillance on the Internet, the U.S. security services have violated the laws of their own country. In this sense Snowden, like Julian Assange, is a rights defender.”