Former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) via video Monday that the US National Security Agency has spied on human rights organizations.
Though Snowden didn’t name the specific groups targeted, he responded “Without question, yes, absolutely” when asked if groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were included among the targets.
The NSA released the following statement in regards to Snowden's latest claim: "While we are not going to discuss specific targets, the President’s Policy Directive on these matters makes clear that the United States does not collect signals intelligence for the purpose of suppressing or burdening criticism or dissent, or for disadvantaging persons based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. Signals intelligence is collected exclusively where there is a foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purpose to support national and departmental missions and not for any other purposes..."
The allegations arrive two years after the US Supreme Court dismissed an ACLU lawsuit on behalf of human rights organizations that said they were being secretly watched under the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The Supreme Court countered that the groups lacked evidence for making such a claim.
Because 2008 amendments to FISA gave the government the ability to classify all targets of surveillance, it was (and is) impossible to prove that the groups included in the lawsuit had been spied on.
The ACLU has responded, in part, by creating a free database of leaked NSA documents on their website.
Senior Internet Researcher Cynthia Wong of Human Rights Watch says the lawsuit argued, “it was likely that our communications had been monitored especially given the work we do around counter-terrorism and the staff we have in the Middle East.”
“Given what Snowden said today, it raises questions about whether that lawsuit should have been dismissed,” Wong said, “If what he said is accurate, it’s an example of the kind of behavior the US itself has condemned all over the world when other governments do it. The State Department has made protecting human rights defenders a major priority in recent years, so this is flying directly in the face of very closely held American values around freedom of expression.”
While Snowden did not provide any documented proof of the spying on US human rights workers, his allegations were enough to rankle Amnesty International as well.
“When these concerns were raised before the US Supreme Court, they were dismissed as being ‘speculative’. Snowden’s latest revelation shows that these concerns are far from theoretical – they are a very real possibility,” Amnesty International’s Senior Director of Law and Policy Michael Bochenek said in a press release.
Bochenek also said that intercepted communications, if leaked to other governments, “could put human rights defenders the world over in imminent danger.”
That concern is especially harrowing in light of the shooting of two European UN workers in Somalia on Monday.
No One Can Escape the NSA’s Dragnet
After news surfaced last year (via documents release by Snowden) that the NSA had spied on Google networks as well as players of the Angry Birds game, it started to become clear that no one can escape the NSA’s dragnet.
NSA whistleblower and fugitive Edward Snowden appeared via a Google Hangout at South by Southwest on March 10.
But not everyone thinks Snowden has the documentation this time.
Former NSA General Counsel Stewart Baker told VICE News he’s calling the whistleblower’s bluff.
“Edward Snowden has played fast and loose with the truth many times, claiming or implying that he could wiretap the President from his desk, that he didn’t trick his coworkers into giving up their passwords, that the US engages in commercial espionage against German companies and that he’s only interested in exposing mass surveillance programs,” Baker said.
“None of those things has turned out to be true,” Baker said, “So I think we’ll have to see whether he can actually back up this latest claim.”
If the spying can be documented, though, it wouldn’t be the first time the government spied on human rights organizations and activists.
“Both at home and abroad, the U.S. intelligence community has a long and sad history of targeting political dissent as a security threat,” said MIT PhD candidate and FOIA activist Ryan Shapiro.
Shapiro noted the NSA’s unfortunate history of monitoring Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress to assist South Africa’s Apartheid government.
“These new Snowden revelations further confirm the U.S. intelligence community’s unwavering allegiance to a myopic vision of national security that places corporate profits and crass military alliances above human rights and civil liberties,” Shapiro said.