An Unacceptable Message

Posted: August 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

downloadCrisis management is an important component of most organizations, including contemporary government. Policy makers must understand how to effectively supervise operational aspects of the crisis communication process. To do this, the government must quickly address what went wrong openly and honestly with the public, as well as with the media. Furthermore, it must account for its actions and implement well-organized strategies for improvement. The recent news coverage surrounding Edward Snowden’s decision to flee to China for leaking National Security Agency (NSA) documentation may be a relevant illustration of how the current U.S. administration chooses to manage crisis.

Edward Snowden, 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA, admitted to being the source behind the leaked classified documents concerning the NSA’s surveillance programs. Snowden–who is currently seeking asylum–revealed the existence of top-secret U.S. government surveillance programs that collects records of domestic telephone calls in the United States, as wells as monitor online activity abroad–including various high-level targets in China. Snowden, who was currently living in Hong Kong, is hoping to avoid extradition to the United States. According to Woolf (2013), Snowden said that he chose Hong Kong because they have a strong-willed determination to free speech and they are not prosecuted for political opposition. Moreover, he believes that Hong Kong is in a position to counter the demands of the U.S. government.

According to Rickard (2004), reacting quickly to a crisis situation is crucial in order to minimize damage and the United States government wasted no time in reacting to the media about its concerns about the leaks. The U.S. government made it clear that Snowden be returned immediately and was pressuring the Chinese Government to honor the U.S.’s request to extradite Snowden. Government officials contended that when Snowden stole and distributed these highly sensitive documents, he broke the law and needs to be punished. As a result, he is now charged with espionage for divulging secret U.S. surveillance information (Yip, 2013).

However, Chinese rights advocates, political activists, and one of China’s leading newspapers–The Global Times– were pressuring the government not to return Snowden to America, arguing that Snowden uncovered some deeply disturbing information and should be protected the same way a corporate whistleblower would; furthermore, allowing the extradition to take place, would send an unacceptable message that China openly supports U.S. secret surveillance activities (Saul, 2013).

In a bid to protect the U.S. government’s reputation, account for its actions, and try to build support for their position, The Obama administration and U.S. intelligence community responded to the media concerning growing questions, nationally and internationally, about the secret operations of the NSA and whether the agency was infringing on American civil liberties. However, the hopes to build credibility and trust may prove unsuccessful as it appears that the U.S. government has not been completely honest. U.S. officials have now admitted that NSA has and continues to collect the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans, as well as gather data from various countries abroad. In the post era of 911, the reality of this new surveillance environment is now becoming more evident, and to some, seemingly more justifiable (Adams, 2013).

It is critical for an organization to state its position and to focus on the benefits of its actions to the people (Rickard, 2004). Obama, top legislators and national security officials tried to achieve this premise in the hopes to counteract the allegations against them. They stated that these surveillance platforms are required in deterring and stopping terrorism activities. They have adamantly specified that internet communications of U.S. citizens and residents were and are not targeted sources. In an attempt to reassure the American people, Obama stated that the U.S. government is not listening to individuals’ phone calls. Furthermore, U.S. government officials stressed the point that the law permits the collection of data as long as the federal court approves it. The U.S. government’s justifications for these actions are fairly straightforward–the loss of some privacy is a relatively small price to pay if U.S. government is to uphold its obligation to provide and secure the safety of its citizens (Carter & Cratty, 2013).

If an organization’s objectives are to provide an environment for open discourse, it is always advisable that the government–or any institution for that matter–listen to the concerns of the public, take them into consideration, and reply to them accordingly (Seeger, 2006), but according to various news outlets, it appears that the U.S. government has not entirely followed this line of reasoning. It has failed in its responsibility to share this information with the public for reasons unknown. Although U.S. government officials have staunchly defended phone and internet surveillance programs, they have offered nothing in the way of an explanation as to the agendas behind these actions. The Washington Post says that it is still unclear why the phone surveillance programs were kept hidden from Americans until now. Now that this information has come to light, many people are questioning why the U.S. government needs mass amounts of personal information on its citizens in the first place. There might be a sound liberty and safety argument for the implementation and use of these surveillance programs; however, the government has yet to offer clarification as to why Americans have not been provided the opportunity to asses if the security benefits of these programs are worth the loss of some liberties (Editorial Board, 2013).

In addition to the China’s request for clarification of these surveillance activities, Chinese officials have also demanded an explanation for Snowden’s allegation that the U.S. has hacked computers in Hong Kong and China. The U.S. government however, refused to respond to the allegations that it had hacked into some main Chinese telecoms companies to access text messages. Furthermore, U.S. authorities have refused to provide an explanation concerning reports that it attempted to monitor activities at one of China’s top universities, as well as hack into the Hong Kong headquarters of Pacnet (Yip, 2013). In place of offering up an explanation, the U.S. government has decided to focus its comments on Honk Kong’s responsibility to uphold its commitment to international extradition laws.  According to U.S. officials, failing to do so could obscure the bilateral relations between the two countries.

Not wanting to jeopardize its relationship to the US, China has chosen not to provide any specific comments on the position it is taking with regards to Snowden, or if it plans to get involved with the extradition process. However, the Chinese government did respond to its apparent displeasure with the United States hacking allegations. Furthermore, the Chinese government is troubled that the U.S. authorities have failed to give any explanation or offer any apology. The Chinese government stated it would discuss this matter further with Washington (Li & Wu, 2013).

Finally, after carefully weighing its options, the Chinese government made the decision not to extradite Snowden to the U.S. and allow him to leave Hong Kong because U.S. authorities made a mistake in their request in that it did not fulfill the appropriate legal requirements. According to Chinese officials, China does value its relations the U.S.; however, deporting Snowden to the U.S., would have been an unpopular move in China (Chan, 2013).

The Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S. government denounced China’s assertion that the U.S. did not meet all the legal requirements between the two countries. A press secretary for the Whitehouse stated that the U.S. government places no credibility in the claims by the Chinese government and that the decision not to extradite Snowden was a deliberate act by Hong Kong. And because China deliberately violated an international extradition pact, it could place serious strains on the relationship between the China and the U.S. (Serrano & Loiko, 2013).

According to Wee (2013), China was quick to refute this allegation saying that the U.S. had no reason to question why Hong Kong did not extradite Snowden to the U.S. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said that the U.S. should respect China’s decision as it handled the situation according to the law. Ultimately, authorities from China and the U.S. agreed that this back and forth rhetoric would subside as neither country would wish to have any long lasting damage to their relationship. Furthermore, a return to normalcy will help to alleviate further concerns over the existing crisis (Rickard, 2004).

The U.S. decision to hide facts about the use of surveillance programs to collect data on its citizens, as well as hack into communication technologies abroad may have ultimately damaged its reputation. It is crucial for any contemporary institution in crisis to understand how to appropriately handle potentially damaging situations. This involves identifying problems and then developing and executing a plan of action to deal with them. Institutions should act with integrity, be held accountable, and create and maintain a partnership with the public and the media if it hopes to minimize the consequences of the crisis and ultimately, uphold its credibility and reputation.


Woolf, N. (2013, June). Edward Snowden: The NSA whistleblower unmasks. Newstatesman. Retrieved from:

Saul, H. (2013, June). Chinese state media warns against extradition of Edward Snowden. The Independent. Retrieved from:

Adams, P. (2013, June). US confirms Verizon phone records collection. BBC News. Retrieved from:

Editorial Board. (2013, June). The government needs to explain about the NSA’s phone data program. The Washington Post. Retrieved from:

Li, G. & Wu, V. (2013, June). Hong Kong rally backs Snowden, denounces allegations of U.S. spying. Reuters. Retrieved from:

Wee, SL. (2013, June). China and U.S. war over Snowden, but no lasting damage seen. Reuters. Retrieved from:

Chan, K. (2013, June). Snowden’s HK exit shows Chinese anger over spying. Yahoo news. Retrieved from:

Serrano, R., & Loiko, S. L. (2013, June). U.S. slams China in Edward Snowden case as mystery swirls. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved form:,0,1154437.story

Yip, B. (2013, June). U.S. pressures Hong Kong to extradite Edward Snowden. CBC News. Retrieved from:

Seeger, M. W. (2006). Best practices in crisis communication: An expert panel process. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 34(3), 232-244.

Rickard, M. (2004). Public relations & media toolkit. The Ontario Trillium Foundation, 1-33.


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