by Dr. Shen Dingli

January 22, 2014 (TSR) – On Friday, US President Barack Obama made his first substantive speech on the surveillance programs of the US National Security Agency. Although he seems to have accepted a few recommendations of the NSA Review Panel, his proposed reforms of the United States’ global surveillance fall far short of being satisfactory, as the White House has failed to address a number of issues.

In his speech, Obama made it clear that the US government will continue to collect the communication data of American and foreign nationals, including the interception of communications by foreign government leaders.

shen-dingli-smallThe rampant US surveillance targeting foreign nationals and leaders, in the name of American “national security”, by intercepting their phone calls, e-mails and text messages – even by setting up data collection centers on foreign territory – are challenges to the national security of the targeted countries.

Obama has argued that other countries are applying double standards when criticizing the US’ snooping, as other countries have employed similar intelligence policies against the US. But in reality no other country is as paranoid as the US. To try and deflect some of the disapprobation that its all-pervasive spying has generated, the US has been deftly reflecting it back at others.

Even after Edward Snowden‘s first leaks, the US was still routinely accusing China of being a threat to the US’ cyber security. However, as Snowden has continued to show the extent to which the US is netting data, the entire world is now aware that it is the US’ cyber penetration into the realm of others that is the real threat.

The US has tried to justify its actions by claiming that such eavesdropping is essential to fight terrorism, and it has evoked the sense of vulnerability engendered by the terrorist attacks on US soil since Sept 11, 2001. Clearly, it is Washington that is applying double standards. This is hardly conducive to forging constructive interaction between the US and China, which needs to be founded on mutual trust and collaboration to flourish.

And despite the changes Obama promised in his speech, there is likely to be little change in the overarching framework and substance of the US’ domestic surveillance programs.

It is clear from Obama’s speech, that how to avoid the abuse of power by NSA and other intelligence agencies in the designing and implementing of their eavesdropping programs, and how to regulate and evaluate the application of their need to know, have not been addressed.

Although most Americans support the nation’s anti-terrorist war, there are many that question how that war is being conducted. However, given the public support for anti-terror efforts, Congress has been inclined to unconditionally support the NSA and there has been little attempt to rein in its power. The failure of the check-and-balance mechanism built into the US political system has resulted in a monster that will be difficult to control, even if the will to do so exists.

Not only do the NSA surveillance programs need major revamping, the entire US political system needs looking at. For a long time, the US political system has been unable to allow sensible debate so as to avoid making major mistakes. It is increasingly unable to respond to the domestic and international challenges the US is facing. On the one hand, the two sides have stark differences on budgetary and fiscal matters, which threaten not just the US economy but also the global economy. On the other hand, the US executive branch and congressional chambers attained, with ease, their mistaken consensus to launch a “preemptive” war against Iraq in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which has undermined global security.

Their agreement on the necessity for eavesdropping reveals the US to be a hegemonic imperialist. As history has often indicated, the uncontrolled expansion of the US empire is hardly sustainable and its extending into cyberspace will incur widespread resistance. The double standards the US applies, including in the cybersphere, will invite reciprocation, which in turn will go against the US’ intentions.


Dr. Shen Dingli, a physicist by training, is a professor of international relations, the Associate Dean of Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies and Director of Center for American Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai. He is also the founder and director of China’s first non-government-based Program on Arms Control and Regional Security at Fudan University. He is Vice President of Chinese Association of South Asian Studies, and Vice President of Shanghai Association of International Studies.  He received his Ph.D. in physics from Fudan in 1989 and did arms-control post-doc at Princeton University from 1989-1991.



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