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UN counterterrorism official to investigate US, UK surveillance

UN Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism Ben Emmerson [official profile] on Monday stated that he plans to launch an investigation [Guardian op-ed] into the surveillance activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) [official websites]. Emmerson posed questions regarding the political and legal issues springing from the revelations of Edward Snowden [BBC profile] and the intelligence agencies' responses to them. These questions, which he called "too important for the UN to ignore," include whether Snowden should receive the legal protection given to whistleblowers who reveal wrongdoing, whether Snowden's revelations weakened the US or UK's counterterrorism system, whether parliament was misled about the extent of surveillance, and whether the current system of parliamentary oversight of the intelligence and security services meets international standards set by former UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism Martin Scheinin. The investigation, which is set to begin Tuesday, will reportedly lead to the compilation of a series of recommendations which Emmerson will present to the UN general assembly in 2014.

The revelations surrounding the US National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs [JURIST backgrounder] have sparked worldwide debate and controversy. US Senators announced new legislation [JURIST report] in September in a bipartisan effort to reform surveillance laws. Earlier that month the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] urged the Obama administration [JURIST report] to curb the FBI's surveillance powers despite the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's [official website] release of a previously classified opinion justifying [JURIST report] the need for the NSA's surveillance program. In August the Council of Europe [official website] expressed concern [JURIST report] over the UK reaction to the exposure of the US surveillance program. In June the ACLU in conjunction with the New York Civil Liberties Union [advocacy website] filed suit [JURIST report] against the NSA challenging its recently revealed phone data collection. Although the US president and top officials have defended the surveillance as a lawful counterterrorism measure, several US lawmakers have called for a review [JURIST report] of the government's surveillance activity in light of recent reports revealing phone and Internet monitoring. Lawmakers have also called for a criminal investigation into the activities of Edward Snowden [JURIST backgrounder], who came forward in early June as the whistleblower in the NSA surveillance scandal [JURIST podcast]. JURIST Guest Columnist Christina Wells argues that the broad provisions of the Espionage Act, under which Snowden is charged, raise significant First Amendment concerns [JURIST op-ed]. The scandal has drawn attention to the activities of the GCHQ as well as those of the NSA. Claims which stem from Snowden's revelations were filed [JURIST report] in the ECHR in October that allege that the organization's massive online surveillance programs, which are able to read the content of e-mails and social media messages, have breached the privacy of tens of millions of people across the UK and Europe.

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