President Barack Obama appeared to have good news on Jan. 17 for foreign citizens appalled by months of revelations of U.S. surveillance overseas. The United States, he assured them in his much-awaited speech on new controls on snooping by the National Security Agency (NSA), is “not spying on ordinary citizens who don’t threaten our national security.”
The bad news is that the policy changes he announced ensure no such thing. While Obama promised not to spy on friendly foreign leaders or for commercial gain, the NSA is still allowed to monitor the communications of ordinary foreigners overseas for a wide range of “foreign intelligence” purposes.
That is ominous because, among other reasons, although Obama noted that other countries have “relied” on U.S. intelligence to protect their people, he described no legal safeguards or limitations on what intelligence the NSA shares, or swaps, with its foreign counterparts.
This is particularly disturbing when one considers the foreign states with which the NSA may be sharing intelligence. The security agency’s seemingly unfettered ability to swap intelligence with foreign countries that have deplorable human rights records, for instance, threatens not only the privacy but the physical safety of those countries’ citizens.
One stark example is Colombia, where I investigated and reported on widespread atrocities — including massacres, targeted killings and rape — committed during that country’s internal war among left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups and government security forces from 2004 to 2010. Since 2000, the U.S. has poured more than $6 billion in largely military aid into Colombia, through an aid program known as Plan Colombia. Mostly administered by the State Department, it was aimed at combating the country’s drug trade.
In February 2009, a huge scandal broke out over revelations that Colombia’s intelligence service, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), had engaged in widespread illegal surveillance. The targets were not suspected terrorists or drug lords, but prominent journalists and human rights activists. They also included Supreme Court justices who had made heroic efforts to expose collusion between dozens of members of Congress and the country’s ruthless drug-running paramilitaries, which had slaughtered thousands in gruesome massacres and targeted assassinations. Many of them were critical of the administration of Colombia’s then-president, Alvaro Uribe, and viewed the surveillance as politically motivated.
The revelations were particularly chilling because parts of the DAS had worked with the paramilitaries. There was even evidence that the DAS had given the paramilitaries kill lists of trade unionists and other targets, whom the paramilitaries then murdered.
Wanting to avoid U.S. entanglements with the Colombian intelligence service — and send a message to Colombia about the need for reform — the U.S. Congress cut all State Department–administered aid to the DAS. (Colombia closed the DAS in 2011, replacing it with a new intelligence agency.)
Problematically, those cuts did not affect substantial covert assistance that the CIA and NSA were providing — and have apparently continued to provide — to Colombia, funded through a multibillion-dollar “black budget.”
The secret budget is a black hole for U.S. taxpayers. Documents that the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden gave to journalists revealed some details about overall U.S. intelligence spending; the “black budget” for fiscal year 2013, for instance, was $52.6 billion. But we do not fully know what that means for specific countries. It is impossible to tell what programs or agencies — whether the DAS, military intelligence or the police — U.S. taxpayers have funded in Colombia. Nor do we know how the NSA and CIA interact with Colombian intelligence agencies, or what information they share. Even most of Congress — outside of specific committees that oversee portions of these classified budgets — is in the dark about the details.
In my years of travel to Colombia, I was always careful about what I said on the phone or via email. I figured that Colombian intelligence might try to listen in on my calls or track my contacts. But I presumed — naively, perhaps — that the U.S. would never seek to acquire such communications.
Now we know, though, that the NSA has a much vaster capacity to collect communications than most of us had suspected, and that it was using it on a massive scale — including to spy on humanitarian organizations.
So those activists, journalists and judges in Colombia have good reason to wonder: Was the NSA, back in 2008 or 2009, scooping up the content of their calls and emails? And if the DAS asked — or if it told the NSA that an activist’s communications were in fact important to counterterrorism or counternarcotics investigations (which would not be surprising, as DAS officials had at times portrayed activists as linked to guerrillas) — would the NSA have shared it? People in other countries with abusive intelligence services may understandably have similar fears.
It is possible, of course, that U.S. intelligence agencies are simply not close enough to many of their counterparts abroad to routinely share such sensitive information with them (outside the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing community, consisting of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Some of the Snowden documents point to intelligence sharing with Israel, and the U.S. certainly cooperates closely with intelligence services in various countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia in the name of fighting terrorism. But, given the secrecy cloaking these programs, we simply do not know what the U.S. may be sharing, or with whom.
Obama has promised that the NSA will not use the information it collects “to suppress criticism or dissent.” But whatever we might think of the NSA’s motives, we know that it does not work alone. And its foreign counterparts — as the many victims of abusive Colombian security agencies can attest — may be anything but harmless.