Truman National Security Project

Learning from Anthony Weiner’s Experiences before St. Petersburg: Snowden and the G-20

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By Carter Page | 8.6.13
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“Shame is an ornament to the young; a disgrace to the old.”

-Aristotle

A host of critical issues for the global economy will be on the agenda when G-20 heads of government including President Barack Obama gather at the 2013 Summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia on September 5. While the impact and intrigue of Anthony Weiner’s online activities have captured the attention of observers in the U.S. and beyond, American policy makers would benefit in not further highlighting other debatable internet protocol decisions from the recent past in the run-up to this meeting.

In preparation for next month’s Summit, the Russian government recently organized a series of expert seminars for government officials and leading private institutions regarding energy sector policy issues. I had the privilege to participate in the sessions in Geneva on May 28th and in Paris on July 5th. The vast disparity in tone heard throughout many side conversations at the two meetings is instructive for several decisions that Washington now faces. The earlier meeting in Geneva occurred just a few days before reports emerged about U.S. spy programs with the breaking news on the Edward Snowden affair.  Although I heard no comments from Russian attendees about this issue, officials from other governments and companies across Asia, Europe and Latin America were quite vocal in the latter meeting.

While things remained normal in May, many representatives from the largest states and corporations worldwide expressed significant concerns regarding U.S. government surveillance policies in July once details of the NSA Prism program were brought to light.  Coincidentally, part of these disclosures have included reports of eavesdropping at the 2009 G-20 summit in London.  Although largely undertaken by the UK spy agency GCHQ in 2009, these programs were reportedly also partially financed by the US intelligence community.  The further disclosure of the XKeyscore program last week is unlikely to improve the sentiment of leading governments toward the U.S. prior to the Summit.

Just as the 2013 New York City mayoral race has been tainted by tawdry stories of online indiscretions, the U.S. also risks its own drop in global standing at the G-20 depending on future behavior. While many specifics vary, the commonalities are extensive including questionable decisions by American leaders regarding internet activities and intense media interest in incidents that risk distracting from more important events – the New York election and the G-20 Summit.

For better and for worse, the differences between the NSA internet revelations and the activities of Anthony Weiner are also extensive.  Decisions on intelligence collection in the U.S. apparently have a broader relevance to society rather than just Anthony Weiner’s family, his sexting partner Sydney Leathers and a narrow range of individuals.  While candidate Weiner eventually admitted his mistakes, the U.S. government has defended its own internet decorum as seen in recent statements by the Administration and congressional action to continue the program’s funding.

The Russian government’s recent outreach to the private sector in preparation for the G-20 included many U.S. Fortune 500 companies and reflected a desire to improve global standards in the energy sector. The issues on the agenda have included potential alternatives that can have a material positive impact on the environment. This appears to stand in contrast to the U.S. government’s lack of transparent efforts to engage in a similar dialogue with U.S. businesses regarding its surveillance techniques. Instead, the efforts to gain custody of Edward Snowden have remained a primary focus of immediate attention surrounding this matter.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has recently suggested that the U.S. government is, “evaluating the utility” of a Russian-American summit in Moscow as part of President Obama’s September Russia visit for the G-20 Summit.  Any decision by the U.S. to further disrupt relations with Russia on the basis of Edward Snowden as some have suggested would be tactically dubious, especially when many G-20 leaders and their constituencies have taken issue with the U.S. intelligence community’s recently revealed internet programs. Such efforts to further emphasize these matters would be equivalent to new statements by Anthony Weiner that raise the level of attention to the mistakes he himself made online. Just as the New York candidate has shown some wisdom in his attempts to move on to core policy issues and take steps to avoid future online indiscretions, the Obama Administration could benefit from following a similar shift in focus.

Carter Page is a fellow at the Center for National Policy.