Monday, October 28, 2013

How to Lose Friends, Influence, and People

Remember the glory days of George W. Bush, when we were all up in arms about the Patriot Act and its assault on our rights to privacy? Seems quaint now. Privacy is officially an illusion these days, a truth revealed by Edward Snowden. And it's not just Americans that the United States is spying on, it's the whole world--including our closest allies.

Those revelations have understandably made the international community incredibly upset. Bugging Andrea Merkel's phone? Eavesdropping on 60 million Spanish citizens... in a month? Reading the President of Mexico's emails? This is how we treat our friends?

Imagine if your buddies found out you were spying on them. How would they suddenly regard you? No wonder the U.S. was so determined to get Snowden into custody... it's not that he was a traitor, it's that he knew that we had betrayed the trust of those we count on most in the international community. Now that the cat's out of the bag, the question is, will our relationship with our international friends be forever damaged?

You don't undo decades of history is a single swoop, but the relations we've shared with our allies through two world wars and a bevy of international conflicts were already strained by the arrogance of George W. Bush's administration. The revelation that the Obama administration did nothing to stop these surveillance programs from overreaching is a debacle that threatens international cooperation on a host of other issues. How can we expect the world to respect the freedom of individuals when our own government has shown itself to be a bunch of hypocrites?

How can we take China to task for its lockdown on free speech and its abuses of human rights, when our own government has gathered the personal, private information of millions of innocent people? How can we stand as a beacon of hope and freedom to the world when our government has shown a blatant disregard for individual privacy?

We can't defend this. Not on the grounds that we were only targeting terrorists. Leaks have revealed that to be untrue. If you're targeting terrorists, target terrorists. Don't collect millions of phone records and THEN decide who looks like a terrorist.

After 9/11, the international community rallied behind us. For the first time in human history, the majority of the world was on the same side in battle. A battle against international terrorism. These revelations have fractured that. They smack of Cold War-era mistrust. They isolate us from the rest of the world.

Obama claims he had no idea... which doesn't absolve him, and in fact, drops him a few more levels in my esteem. The buck stops with the President, period. For him to claim ignorance over a spying program of this scope and size is either unbelievable or frightening. He's either lying-- which in this case, is a best case scenario-- or he's admitting that our military intelligence complex, given broad powers in the wake of 9/11, has become some Orwellian nightmare... beholden to zero oversight, paranoid even around its friends, and wildly inefficient. Don't defend bugging our allies' phones and scooping up the communications of millions of people-- question whether those resources wouldn't be better spent on people and places we know to be trouble.

The NSA has so far failed to reveal any real intelligence coups these programs have made. The oft-repeated figure of 54 plots thwarted isn't accurate, given statements from those who have reviewed the classified material. More importantly, none of the phone calls or emails gathered by the NSA program from our allies' governments led to the discovery of any terror plots.

In the coming months, Obama has a lot of 'splainin to do. If the United States is to regain respect as an international leader, it must earn back trust. I'm not sure how you do that unless we restore oversight to the intelligence gathering process and repeal the parts of the Patriot Act which give our government the right to spy on people who have never been accused of a crime.

If we seek out the terrorists we know, we'll find the ones we don't. If we look at every innocent person, all we do is waste time, goodwill, and the cooperation of our friends. We're a strong, great nation-- but if we don't change our behavior, we'll end up alone.

Here's hoping wisdom prevails.

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