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UN to Investigate 'Unqualified Secrecy' of US, UK Spy Agencies

UN special rapporteur Ben Emerson: NSA and GCHQ 'are swimming against the international tide'

Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Ongoing revelations regarding the vastness of the U.S. and U.K.'s international surveillance apparatus, made public by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, are cause for grave international concern says a United Nations special adviser who announced Monday the launch of a special investigation by the world body.

Announced in a Guardian editorial, UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights Ben Emerson said he will be launching a full investigation into the surveillance powers of both the NSA and GCHQ, assessing issues of privacy and national security he says are at the "apex of public interest concerns," to determine whether or not they surpass international law.

Emerson writes:

There are at least five legal and political issues arising out of Snowden's revelations on which reasonable opinion is divided. These include whether Snowden should enjoy the legal protection accorded a whistleblower who reveals wrongdoing; whether his revelations have weakened the counter-terrorism apparatus of the US or the UK; whether, conversely, they show the need for an overhaul of surveillance powers on both sides of the Atlantic (and even an international agreement to protect partners like Germany); whether parliament has been misled by the services about the extent of intrusive surveillance; and whether the current system for parliamentary oversight of the intelligence and security services is sufficiently robust to meet the international standards laid down by my predecessor at the UN, Martin Scheinin.

In his Guardian piece, Emerson defends the role of the news organization—who many in politics and conservative media have attacked for their complicity in "aiding" terrorists—in the release of the leaks. He writes:

I have studied all the published stories that explain how new technology is leading to the mass collection and analysis of phone, email, social media and text message data; how the relationship between intelligence services and technology and telecoms companies is open to abuse; and how technological capabilities have moved ahead of the law.  [...]


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The astonishing suggestion that this sort of journalism can be equated with aiding and abetting terrorism needs to be scotched decisively.

Emerson adds that he will be seeking a "detailed explanation" from leaders of the spy organizations regarding claims that the leaks have threatened national security saying, "When it comes to assessing the balance that must be struck between maintaining secrecy and exposing information in the public interest there are often borderline cases. This isn't one of them."

He goes on to cite the many ways that the disclosures have already prompted political intervention with promises to review the many abuses of the countries' intelligence programs including new guidelines on internet privacy, which were recently adopted by the UN general assembly.

Emerson continues:

If they wish to pursue an agenda of unqualified secrecy, then they are swimming against the international tide. [...]  In this instance the balance of public interest is clear.

Following his inquiry, Emerson says he will make a series of recommendations to the UN general assembly next year.


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