News flash: The NSA is spying on China

Edward Snowden says the US spies on China and Hong Kong. A surprise to no one. That's practically the whole point of funding spy agencies.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/REUTERS
A boy with a Chinese national flag in front of the Monument to the People's Heroes at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Edward Snowden, the young National Security Agency contractor with the Electronic Frontier Foundation sticker on his laptop, said he leaked details of the government's domestic surveillance operations out of a sense of patriotism and concern over intrusive government overreach into private citizens lives.

But his odd choice of flight to Hong Kong, which may have an independent judiciary but is nevertheless tied to US rival China, has now been matched with revelations about the NSA's spying programs against the People's Republic. 

That the NSA collects signals intelligence against China is hardly surprising, since gathering that kind of information against US rivals and potential rivals is explicitly the NSA's job. The famously secretive intelligence agency is up front about its mission, right on its web page:

The National Security Agency is responsible for providing foreign Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) to our nation's policy-makers and military forces. SIGINT plays a vital role in our national security by providing America's leaders with critical information they need to defend our country, save lives, and advance U.S. goals and alliances globally.

SIGINT is intelligence derived from electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets, such as communications systems, radars, and weapons systems. SIGINT provides a vital window for our nation into foreign adversaries' capabilities, actions, and intentions.

NSA's SIGINT mission is specifically limited to gathering information about international terrorists and foreign powers, organizations, or persons. NSA produces intelligence in response to formal requirements levied by those who have an official need for intelligence, including all departments of the Executive Branch of the United States Government.

In that third paragraph you'll find the reason Mr. Snowden has given for violating the terms of the top secret clearance he was given to work on NSA's computers. In his estimations, the US government was not limiting itself to foreign powers and persons, but was collecting vast amounts of data on US nationals as well. While that is hotly contested by the Obama Administration, the NSA, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a number of politicians and others agree with Snowden (the ACLU for instance).

But talking about the NSA's targeting of China is unlikely to win much support for Snowden, and it's hard to see how the "whistle-blower" sobriquet could possibly apply. Spying on China is practically the whole point of having an agency like the NSA. And while China spies vigorously on the US government, in turn, having specific information put out in public by a rogue NSA employee at a time when the US government has been complaining about Chinese hacking designed to steal details of US weapons systems is inconvenient to say the least.

China's state controlled press has been having a field day with the latest revelations. The LA Times rounds up Chinese media reaction this morning

The English-language China Daily ran a large cartoon of a shadowed Statue of Liberty, holding a tape recorder and microphone instead of a tablet and torch.

In an editorial dripping with indignation, the Communist Party-run Global Times demanded an explanation on behalf of the Chinese government.

"Before Snowden is silenced, Washington owes China an explanation of whether the U.S. as an Internet superpower abused its power over our vital interests,’’ Global Times opined.  

In Hong Kong, the pro-Communist Party Takungpao newspaper added:  "If the U.S. is the true defender of democracy, human rights and freedom like it always described itself … President Obama should sincerely apologize to the people from other countries whose privacy was violated.’’

Snowden, who is seeking asylum in Hong Kong against an inevitable US government extradition request, told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that the US has run extensive SIGINT operations against targets in China, and revealed some details. The paper reports that Snowden believes "there had been 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the mainland" since 2009. The paper says Snowden claims NSA targets included "Chinese University and public officials, businesses and students in the city" of Hong Kong.

The US has an extradition treaty with Hong Kong, though legal experts there say any effort to extradite him, particularly if it includes him seeking asylum on human rights grounds, could take years to wind through the courts. Snowden called the US government "hypocritical" for spying on what he deems civilian targets in foreign countries and painted the US government in thuggish terms.

“All I can do is rely on my training and hope that world governments will refuse to be bullied by the United States into persecuting people seeking political refuge,” he told the paper.

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