The Cable

Guess What, NSA? U.N. Bureaucrats Will Be Scrutinizing Your Cyber-Snooping for Years.

The United Nations' campaign to rein in the U.S. National Security Agency's ability to conduct mass surveillance of electronic communications is just getting started.

The U.N.'s human rights chief on Wednesday, July 16, charged that the mass surveillance and interception of electronic communications by the United States, Britain, and other governments threatens to erode long-established human rights and privacy protections.

The move sets the stage for ongoing efforts by key governments, including leading critics of U.S. surveillance practices like Brazil and Germany, to continue to press for greater constraints at the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Council in the fall. Such U.N. initiatives and resolutions, which are routinely renegotiated each season, can be the subject of debate for years and years, providing a regular avenue for criticizing American espionage on the world stage.

In a report titled, "The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age," Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said that the mass collection of electronic communications, including telephone metadata of the type routinely sucked up by the NSA, poses a threat to a range of existing human rights protections, including the right to freedom of expression, opinion, privacy, and peaceful assembly.

Pillay concludes that existing safeguards have failed to protect individuals' privacy. For instance, judicial review bodies set up by governments to protect individuals from unreasonable privacy intrusions "have amounted effectively to an exercise in rubber-stamping."

Mass surveillance is "emerging as a dangerous habit rather than an exceptional measure," she said. "The very existence of a mass surveillance programme … creates an interference with privacy. The onus would be on the State to demonstrate that such interference is neither arbitrary nor unlawful."

Pillay's report does not directly accuse the United States of violating individuals' privacy rights through its sweeping collection of electronic communications. Still, it notes that international concerns over such activities have amplified following revelations by former U.S. contractor Edward Snowden, first published by the Guardian and the Washington Post, suggesting that the NSA and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters, "have developed technologies allowing access to much global internet traffic, calling records in the United States, individuals electronic address books and huge volumes of other digital communications content."

Pillay acknowledged that there are legitimate reasons for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to collect electronic communications. But she said that a "disturbing" veil of secrecy around the practice of government surveillance has made it all but impossible to hold people accountable for abusing such practices. "Surveillance is not an abstract phenomenon," she told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday. "It can result in damaging or even lethal actions. In some states, people identified as dissidents by digital surveillance have been targeted for further investigations -- and in several cases, credible allegations indicate that they have been tortured or otherwise abused."

The U.N. General Assembly commissioned the 16-page report last December at the urging of Brazil and Germany, which are waging a broad campaign to curtail the NSA due to disclosures that the U.S. surveillance agency has spied on the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, as well as Brazilian government officials and oil executives.

A spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations declined a request for comment on the report. Germany, where anti-American feelings are spiking due to revelations of new U.S. spying efforts there, applauded Pillay's findings.

"The search for a needle in a haystack cannot justify massive surveillance of personal data," Germany's U.N. envoy, Harald Braun, told Foreign Policy in an email. "The report is an important step towards better protection of the right to privacy in the digital world -- a goal we will continue to promote internationally."

The report's release sets the stage for a series of follow-on measures at the U.N. aimed at increasing the pressure on the United States and Britain to place limits on their electronic espionage. In September, the U.N. high commissioner will also discuss the report at a panel on the sidelines of the Human Rights Council session. The U.N. General Assembly is expected to discuss the report's findings later in the year and possibly follow through with the adoption of a new resolution. Experts say the General Assembly may establish a special post for a U.N. special rapporteur to advocate for stricter rules protecting online privacy, or ask the U.N. Human Rights Council to take steps designed to address online privacy concerns.

In the report, Pillay called on governments to conduct a major review of their national laws in order to strengthen human rights protections, noting that "weak procedural safeguards and ineffective oversight" have "contributed to a lack of accountability for arbitrary or unlawful interference in the right to privacy."

"Digital communications are vulnerable to electronic surveillance and interception -- and it has become evident that new technologies are being developed covertly to facilitate these practices, with chilling efficiency," Pillay told reporters at the press conference, which was in Geneva, where the report was released. "In this technological era, people are increasingly reliant on digital media in their political, economic, and social lives. It is fundamental that the human rights they hold offline should also be protected online."

Pillay noted that existing treaties underscore the right to privacy. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for instance, states that "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his [or her] privacy, family, home or correspondence." The United States, however, has challenged the notion that the right to privacy applies to the extraterritorial activities of foreign spies.

The U.N. official criticized governments for engaging in the "de facto coercion of private-sector companies to provide sweeping access to information and data relating to private individuals without the latter's knowledge or consent." She warned in the report that any company that complies with such demands "risks being complicit in or otherwise involved with human rights abuses."

Photo via U.N. Photo/ Paulo Filgueiras

National Security

Congress Deeply Skeptical of Funding for Syrian Rebels

The Obama administration's new plan to break the stalemate in Syria is running into bipartisan opposition in Congress, raising fresh doubts about whether military aid promised to the Syrian rebels will arrive anytime soon, if at all.

The White House last month announced plans to provide moderate members of the Syrian opposition with $500 million worth of weapons, equipment, and training. Freeing up the money requires authorization from Congress, but after classified meetings this week, key lawmakers speaking to Foreign Policy -- including many Democrats -- remain deeply skeptical of the White House's plan. That spells trouble for Barack Obama's administration, which is trying to build support for the program as a part of the fiscal year 2015 defense appropriations and authorization bills under consideration in the House and Senate.

At issue is the degree to which the United States should try to aid Syria's beleaguered rebels. The CIA is currently providing training and small arms to rebels in Jordan who have been vetted for potential ties to extremists while Washington allows Persian Gulf countries to provide anti-tank missiles. The new Pentagon program would supplement or replace the CIA program, which has been criticized as too modest to make an impact on the battlefield, where Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad has been steadily reclaiming lost territory. The money for the new program is contained in a supplement to the administration's "overseas contingency operations" (OCO) budget request. That money has long been used to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But lawmakers in both parties, including an array of Democrats, cited a slew of objections to the funding measure, including concerns about arming radical jihadists, further embroiling the United States in a distant civil war, and writing the White House a blank check subject to only modest congressional scrutiny.

Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur said funding for Syrian rebels should not be funded in the OCO budget, which is "not subject to the same rigorous oversight."

"I am concerned about any operation not funded in regular accounts, but rather through contingency funds," she said in a statement.

Kaptur, a member of the House's Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, received a classified briefing on the program on Tuesday, July 15, from top Pentagon officials, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James Winnefeld. Other influential Democrats expressed misgivings about the administration's request as well.

"It's difficult for me to see this accelerating the end of the war in Syria," Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the Appropriations and Intelligence committees, told FP in an interview. "I think the burden is on the administration to demonstrate why this is going to help the situation and not risk just dragging us in further. I consider myself among the skeptics."

Republicans were even more critical. "I am not satisfied, convinced, or even confident that arming moderates in Syria is the right course of action or a dollar well spent," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told FP on Tuesday after attending the same classified briefing as Kaptur.

"Considering that the Department of Defense couldn't explain how the funds for fiscal years 2013 and 2014 were used, it makes me feel very uneasy to give them even more money, especially since it isn't clear how these supposed moderates are vetted," said Cole.

Another member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), told FP that it would be unwise to trust the rebels with such a large sum of funding and support. "How can we truly identify who these people are, and assure the American people that their alliances will not change?" he said in a statement.

That congressional opposition is making representatives of the Syrian opposition in Washington nervous.

On Tuesday, the Syrian opposition's envoy to the United States, Najib Ghadbian, wrote a letter to congressional appropriators urging them to approve the program. "We are asking our friends in Congress to authorize and appropriate the proposed Department of Defense train and equip program for moderate vetted Free Syrian Army units," wrote Ghadbian. "The United States has real national security interests at stake as the Free Syrian Army continue to lead the fight against international terrorist elements like the Islamic State."

A spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, Oubai Shahbandar, called the Pentagon plan "crucial" to combatting both President Assad and Sunni extremist groups in the region. "We view Assad and ISIS as two sides of the same coin," he said Wednesday.

However, even early supporters of the Syrian rebels in Congress are beginning to back away from demands that the Obama administration ramp up military support in the conflict.

"It would've been a good plan two and a half years ago. I'm not sure it's a good plan today," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said in an interview.

Citing a "whole host of problems" with arming the rebels, Rogers said there had been an alarming influx of Sunni extremists into Syria and faulted the White House for having no clear plan on how to manage the future course of the conflict. "I don't feel comfortable, not even close, with where they're at," he said, referring to the Obama administration.

To be sure, there are lawmakers who support greater military intervention in Syria today, even if they had hoped the assistance would've come sooner.

On Wednesday, Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he'd still support the plan, but he lambasted the administration for failing to forcefully sell it to Congress.

"I want you to sell this successfully, so you need to sell it," he said during a committee hearing on Wednesday. He noted reservations about funding the rebels that are coming from members of the Senate Appropriations Committee as well.

Privately, multiple GOP aides accused the administration of purposefully botching the meetings with Congress because it never wanted to further intervene in Syria in the first place. "It doesn't feel like the administration even wants this," said a congressional aide.

Whatever the case, the shifting sands in the Syria debate is frustrating longtime backers of the rebels, such as Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"I think people who say, stay out of it, a plague on all their houses, are making a terrible mistake," he said in an interview. "It's not hopeless. They can still be helped and they can still emerge as the preeminent rebels in Syria."

But one thing is clear: Many members of Congress, including those of influence, are nowhere near the point of saying yes to more military engagement in Syria. Even worse for the White House, members of the president's own party are among those most reluctant to give Obama what he wants.

Kate Brannen contributed to this report.

Photo via Getty Images