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As world leaders respond to the US surveillance leaks with mounting alarm, Obama faces increasing tensions both internationally and domestically. Whistleblower Ed Snowden has perhaps effectuated the most consequential security leak in our modern history, and Obama and his team now have some serious damage control on their hands.
Snowden revealed to the Guardian Newspaper last week that NSA had developed the top secret program PRISM, which enables authorized personnel to gather information including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, directly from internet giants such as Google, Facebook, Skype, Apple, Microsoft, etc.
The companies targeted have all denied giving the US government "back door access" to their information content.
The US Congress is split over how to handle 29-year-old Snowden, who is currently seeking refuge in Hong Kong, and how to contain this fragile situation which will undoubtedly affect US relations around the world. Some members believe that the young whistleblower should be extradited immediately back to the US, but there are other members, including senior politicians in both of the main parties, that question the US surveillance programmes, and whether they have crossed a boundary.
Chair of the US national intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, while expressing her disapproval of Snowden's actions, denouncing it as an "act of treason," has nevertheless set orders for NSA to "review how it limits the exposure of Americans to government surveillance."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed to consider an asylum request for Snowden, although Snowden's first choice was Iceland due to its "shared values" on internet freedom.
White House Correspondent Ed Henry stated that Obama and company are "certainly facing pressure, and I think that part of the pressure is: why wasn't there more transparency?" The president in an address on Friday repeatedly stressed that he "was more transparent, and was providing more oversight than George W. Bush did on these surveillance programs, because Congress was in the loop." However, Democratic congressmen such as Keith Ellison claimed not to be informed, as well as top Republicans like Kevin McCarthy.
The answer from the White House is that "Congress knows generally about a lot of this; the Patriot Act and the renewal of the Patriot Act was debated out in the open… but law makers in both parties have argued that they were not informed about the details.
Damned if they do, damned if they don't
Henry also explains that the administration's broader defense is that this matter is one of finding the right balance: "at the end of the day," remarks Henry, "they feel like they're going to be whacked if they're not tough on surveillance and there's another major terrorist attack in the US. And people are going to say, 'Why weren't you doing a better job of surveillance?'"
"They feel like they are damned if they do, damned if they don't," remarks Henry.
White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the NSA yesterday. "It is entirely appropriate for a program to exist to look at foreign data and potential foreign terrorists" he states, "but there are procedures in place… that provide oversight to these programs, and there are briefings that happen consistently in terms of members of Congress, and continual oversight by the judiciary as well as by the executive branch."
He continues, "we need to strike the appropriate balance between our national security interests and our interests in privacy. The fact that upon coming into office he (Obama) assessed – and his team assessed – programs that existed, and in some cases enhanced oversight. He believes that with the oversight that exists and the implementation of the programs, that the balance has been appropriately struck."
However, according to Carney, Obama says that this is still "an absolutely appropriate topic for debate."
Obama's administration is not the only one to be treading in deep water. The documents released by Ed Snowden also showed that GCHQ (part of the UK's Intelligence and Security) also had access to the PRISM program. William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, made a statement yesterday evening claiming that they had always worked within the legal framework:
"It has been suggested GCHQ uses our partnership with the United Sates to get around UK law, obtaining information that they cannot legally obtain in the UK. I wish to be absolutely clear that this accusation is baseless. Any data obtained by us from the US involving UK nationals is subject to proper UK statutory controls and safeguards."
The European response to the leaks is in general one of concern. Deputy European Commission Chief Viviane Reding stated that "a clear legal framework for the protection of personal data is not a luxury or constraint but a fundamental right."
The Italian federal data protection commissioner Antonello Soro also expressed his disaproval to such data prying, saying that it is "contrary to the principles of our legislation and would represent a very serious violation."