White House to crack down on Internet snooping


The brokered peace deal in Syria may be faltering, but the White House isn't waiting to add new sanctions on the Assad regime.

According to the Washington Post, the President is set to issue an executive order today, which will allow the U.S. to impose sanctions on foreign nationals--not nation-states--found to have used cell phone tracking technology, internet surveillance tools and other technologies to locate--and detain--protesters and civilians.

The move comes in the wake of a series of widely publicized accounts involving Syrian security forces use of Western-made surveillance technology to track, locate--and in many cases kill--dissidents who previously thought of themselves as immune from the kind of blanket surveillance commonplace in authoritarian regimes. The connection only came to light when about 54 gigabytes of log files were released to the public by Telecomix--one of the companies implicated in the accounts--released them in October 2011.

A separate bill pending in the Senate, S. 2034, would also impose sanctions on imports of surveillance technology to Syria--including contractors who do business in the country. The Syrian Human Rights Accountability Act of 2012, was introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and sponsored by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), although the full chamber has yet to take up the proposal.

While both the White House and Senate proposals impose sanctions on persons who are found to be responsible for, complicit in censorship, surveillance, and human rights abuses in the Levant-based country, the President’s executive order would take effect immediately, while S. 2034 would not kick in until 90 days if the bill becomes law--enough time for Syrian security forces to tidy up any bloody messes far from the prying eyes of the U.S. authorities.

The President isn't stopping there. In addition to the executive order, the Washington Post reports that President Obama has also authorized a first ever National Intelligence Estimate by the CIA and other intelligence agencies focusing specifically on the issue of genocide around the world.

"This unprecedented direction from the President, and the development of a comprehensive strategy, sends a clear message that we are committed to combating atrocities, an old threat that regularly takes grim and modern new forms" Samantha Power, the National Security Council's senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights said in a statement.

Power--the author of A Problem From Hell, a study of genocide in Rwanda, Yugoslavia and elsewhere--will also serve as chairwoman of the Atrocities Prevention Board, a newly created panel that was announced by the administration in August.

Previous attempts by the President to address genocide have not come without some criticism. When the President decided to intervene in Libya last year citing human rights abuses by Ghadafi loyalists in Misrata and other cities, Republicans derided the move as attempt to distract the public from his unpopular approval ratings at home. The "wag the dog" theory didn't gain much traction when U.S-led NATO air-strikes on Tripoli and other Ghadafi strongholds weakened the North African despot's hold on the country, and the matter was quickly forgotten when Ghadafi was killed by Libyan rebels in August 2011.

What is different about the Libyan uprising then--and the Syrian crackdown on dissidents now--is that the U.S. policy toward Syria is currently seen by both conservatives and human rights activists as feckless, inefficient--and more likely to do harm than good.

"For the United States to sit idly by and watch this wanton massacre is a betrayal of everything we stand for and believe in" Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said in a speech last week.

Obama--who has publically called for the removal of Bashar Al-Assad and imposed economic sanctions against Assad's government--has not been shy about his disapproval of the Syrian crackdown. Yet as of press time, nearly 11,000 people have been estimated by human rights groups to have been slaughtered at the hands of the Syrian regime.  Many more have fled to Turkey, Lebanon--and even Iraq--to escape the violence there.

According to The New York Times, Syrian troops have reportedly fired at refugees crossing along the Turkey-Syrian border--killing civilians inside Turkey's borders and further angering Syria's former partner in the region. As calls for military intervention escalate, the pressure on the United States to respond--as it did in Libya--is growing.

According to Power, the new Atrocities Prevention Board will hold its first session Monday afternoon--the first-time a panel has officially met to discuss the issue of genocide.  Power and other senior administration officials are expected to meet with representatives from over 200 NGOs, university chapters of anti-genocide groups like Amnesty International, and other individuals.

As memories of Srebrenica, Sarajevo, the Great Lakes refugee crisis in Rwanda and the current famine in Somalia loom large in the minds of seasoned activists all eyes are on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to make sure that the inaction that composed most of the White House's response to genocide in the 1990s and early 2000s--never happens again.  

"This won't make genocide go away," Power insists. "but it does give us a new set of tools and should prevent presidents from ever saying again that they don't have options to prevent mass killings."

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