It’s the kind of story one might expect to see in a Hollywood spy thriller: a former undercover CIA employee named Edward Snowden is now on the lam somewhere in Honk Kong after leaking evidence to the Guardian Newspaper of the US Government’s use of vast quantities of telecommunications information – internet, phone and credit card records – to spy into the lives of both foreign and domestic persons.
But truth can be stranger than fiction, and the accusations, while perhaps not surprising to those within the intelligence community, have fueled an outcry from privacy advocates and conspiracy theorists alike who worry that the US government is abusing its power. In response, the White House has been clarifying the scope of the National Security Agency’s activities while defending the tactics as an essential component of the ever-evolving fight against terrorist threats to national security.
From a public relations perspective, however, it’s been a difficult past several weeks for the Obama administration. On top of the Snowden disclosures, the administration has also been trying to control the damage caused by recent allegations of politically targeted investigations by the Internal Revenue Service against conservative groups, accusations that Attorney General Eric Holder possibly committed perjury regarding his role in the Department of Justice’s potential prosecution of a Fox News journalist, as well as the trial of U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, who disclosed in 2010 top secret State Department Cables to Wikileaks. Overall, the weight and timing of these scandals have caused an observable shift in public opinion regarding trust in the US Government and the misuse of power.
The privacy concerns are also having an effect abroad, especially in Europe where data privacy is much more controversial than in the US. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue in blunt terms when President Barack Obama visited Berlin this week, and in Brussels, senior European Union officials said that they would question their American counterparts about any spying done by the NSA on EU citizens during trans-Atlantic ministerial meetings in Dublin last week.
It also hasn’t been a stretch for some in the blogosphere, including Tom Fox, to draw similarities between these privacy scandals and the world of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In a recent post, Fox expressed concern that the revelations of the US surveillance programs will lead other countries to toughen their data privacy requirements, making life more difficult for compliance officers. And in a separate blog post, anti-corruption consultant John Batchelor worried that the government may be using these same information-gathering-techniques to mount evidence against foreign companies, altering the way in which Anti-Corruption and FCPA related laws are enforced and prosecuted.
In fact, it’s been suspected for years that the US Government spies on foreign competitors to pursue allegations of foreign bribery. Back in 2000, in a speech before the Foreign Press Center, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency R. James Woolsey told the audience point blank that the government spied on European company Thomson-CSF (now Thales Group) to determine if that company had paid bribes to the Brazilian government, and he said that the same was done of Airbus to determine if it had been bribing a Saudi official. “That’s right, my continental friends, we have spied on you because you bribe,” Woolsey announced. More…