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By Alison Lake
It’s been an embarrassing year for Americans, at home and abroad. This summer, former federal contractor Edward Snowden exposed the broad scope of U.S. government surveillance of its citizens and foreigners, then slipped from the grasp of law enforcement and holed up in Russia, a close friend to Syria. Meanwhile, Americans learned that their intelligence services had been collecting their communications on Facebook, Gmail and elsewhere.
Then came frantic diplomatic efforts by the United States to encourage Egypt’s military-led government to stop killing its people without acknowledging that leaders had seized Egypt’s government by coup. Soon after, a string of U.S. embassies closed around the world following a broad security threat from Al-Qaeda affiliates. This was followed by Obama’s dramatic backdown from his plan to punish Bashar Al-Assad for poisoning Syrians with chemical weapons, once Russia stepped in to help Syria and avert strikes.
Soon after, Congress bickered over the federal budget and Obamacare, reached an impasse and perpetuated an extended government shutdown. Countless important federal programs were put on hold and workers suffered without paychecks or assurance of a return date. President Obama canceled a long-planned trip to Asia, embarrassing the United States further with our Asian rival China. The federal government finally opened again for business and sent thousands back to their jobs when news broke that the United States had been spying on three dozen world leaders, including friends such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In response to this incredible revelation, Obama has claimed ignorance. How the National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on the phone calls of friendly world leaders for years without the knowledge of our president defies common sense. Whistleblower Edward Snowden has ultimately done the American public a favor by revealing the extent of our government’s reach in its spying operations, even while his actions have been harmful to national security operations. The United States must now answer to nations such as Germany, France, Brazil, Spain and other important allies to explain why it has been secretly listening to leaders’ phone conversations. In an international effort to curb the N.S.A.’s surveillance reach, 21 nations have gathered in the United Nations to to draft a General Resolution promoting the right of privacy on the Internet.
Arguably the United States cannot afford to offend its European and Latin American allies while it hopes to gather support for its various foreign policy objectives around the world, from the Israel-Palestine peace process to containing the war in Syria. In a positive move, Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy , D-Vt. introduced the Freedom Act on Tuesday, aimed at “fulfilling rights and ending eavesdropping, dragnet collection, and online monitoring.” The act is intended to “end bulk collection of Americans’ communications records…reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court” and increase transparency regarding data collection.
Intelligence gathering on rival and enemy powers is nothing new. The difference today is that technology’s broad reach facilitates easy spying like never before. The possibilities are expanded for governments to quietly gather data not just on suspicious parties but also on the American population. While the U.S. government’s aim of maintaining national security may be valid, it’s a little creepy and troubling that all of our online communications and networks of contacts can be scooped up by the N.S.A. for possible viewing and are being filed into databases right now. At least now we know this is happening, thanks to leaks of classified information.
The problem is that these policy mishaps and embarrassments and their subsequent damage control efforts are distracting the U.S. government from solving more important issues, such as mending its health care system, solving the budget crisis and exerting meaningful influence in foreign policy matters. In addition, these missteps damage America’s image worldwide, along with the ‘ideology’ of being American and its principles of freedom, democracy and capacity to lead. The United States, while evidently declining as a world power in its strength and influence, still has potential to do some good in its foreign policy and exert leadership in crises and trouble spots around the world.
It’s a shame when our government at home struggles with domestic policy and has become so sloppy in its cabinet oversight. Obama appears to have good intentions in his policy goals but has been ineffective in his efforts to fix the health care system, increase government transparency and reach out to foreign allies. The onus is now on Secretary of State John Kerry to make progress in the Middle East peace talks and on efforts to decrease Iran’s nuclear capability.
Sometimes when we citizens only see the broad strokes of a story and aren’t privy to the inside details, we can gain greater wisdom to the attitudes of our leaders. And unfortunately in this case, ineptitude and faltering leadership are more frightening than ill intentions and can open the door to abuse of power. Situations often need to worsen before they can improve. It’s time for the U.S. government to restructure its approach to intelligence-gathering and consider how its actions at home reflect on our image internationally.
Alison Lake is The Atlantic Post’s Director and Executive Editor, based in Washington, D.C.
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