In theoretical international relations, the state is regarded as the central figure; an entity around which everything revolves, whether it is international politics or diplomacy. According to the neorealist school of thought, survival and security are the primary concerns for the state because the anarchic nature of geopolitics compels the state to survive by seeking security. Consequently, in order to minimize the possibility of any arising threat, states employ various techniques and tactics to ensure their security.
Surveillance and espionage remain the traditional modes of obtaining classified information, deceiving the enemy and subverting its advances. Classical strategists such as Sun-Tzu and Chanakya have hinted at such methods in their ancient writings. However, with the passage of time, these activities have systemically changed. In the world’s current factual matrix, deployment of human spies is not the only the means to carry out espionage because unprecedented technological advancement has facilitated more advanced means of spying.
The US, especially, tends to be more reliant upon technological techniques of intelligence collection. Hence, the National Security Agency (NSA) is responsible for managing ‘signal intelligence’ for the US and therefore mass surveillance programs such as ‘PRISM’ operate under the aegis of the NSA. Recently, ex-NSA agent Edward Snowden divulged to the world that the NSA has been collecting private data from technological giants such as Facebook, Google and Verizon. He also added that the US authorities carried such actions unlawfully. However, the US secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had already approved these programs under the Bush administration and the current Obama administration has sought the extension of such legal approval.
Interestingly, the state is never subjected to harsh criticism when it comes to conventional spying methods such as deployment of human spies or spying on an adversary state but Snowden’s revelations caused huge furor despite the fact that state has been carrying out such activities for its own security which is linked to the security of the individual living in it. At the very least, it is arguable that such steps are a ‘necessary evil’ and should be taken when threats are leveled against the state. Therefore, rising violence in America has compelled the authorities to take such measures. Equally, these surveillance programs have helped in preventing many attacks.
The critics of NSA surveillance programs cite the overstated argument linked to breaching the liberty of individuals. Snowden and many other critics often quote Benjamin Franklin’s saying:
Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
Ironically, this quote does not mean what it seems to say. The phrase ‘essential liberty’ is mostly taken out of context and does not really mean ‘civil liberties’ but, the right of self-governance. It was used in a letter to the Pennsylvanian governor in 1755 that Benjamin Franklin had written on behalf of the Pennsylvanian Assembly.
From a pragmatic perspective, there should be a balance between ‘liberty’ and ‘security’ because the former always comes at the expense of the latter or vice versa. Recently President Obama aptly remarked that:
You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.
He also said:
We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. … There are trade-offs involved.
In my opinion, the US has perfectly maintained that balance between individual liberty and state security.
Notwithstanding Edward Snowden’s claims, American society remains one of the most ‘free societies’ in the world and the government is trying to make it as secure as possible.
In my view, people like Edward Snowden have not only violated their oath and obligatory duty to maintain secrecy but they have also compromised national security. Inevitably, as a result, individual security is also compromised.
The author is a researcher at The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs and a student of the Department of International Relations, University of Karachi. The views in this post are his and not the Institute’s. He can be followed on twitter @belallashari