PRISM Surveillance Scandal: Welcome to George W. Obama's America


The other shoe finally dropped. On the same day that Washington erupted in scandal over the revelation that the federal government had been secretly cataloguing all of Verizon's phone records (updated to phone records from most carriers late on Thursday night) for the last six years, news broke that Obama's surveillance programs sweep far more broadly than any of us had imagined.

In a late-breaking report from the Washington Post, a veteran intelligence officer leaked information concerning an immense internet surveillance program. Dubbed PRISM, this Top Secret intelligence operation started under George W. Bush and has been cataloguing information from a variety of the internet's largest companies, including Google, Facebook, Apple, and AOL, for over seven years.

Almost on cue, a bi-partisan amalgam of Senators came out to defend the initial reports of phone record monitoring. "I'm a Verizon customer. I don't mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist phone with somebody in the United States," said Senator Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), "I don't think you're talking to the terrorists. I know you're not. I know I'm not. So we don't have anything to worry about." On the other side of the aisle, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the news "routine," noting that every senator on the Intelligence Committee has been informed of this annually, as if that makes it all better.

The administration's response was the same meaningless platitude that the New York Times eviscerated in their latest editorial. "The program is subject to oversight," said the administration's statement, "[and] it involves extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted."

That oversight worked so well for the IRS and the Justice Department, right?

We can't allow this level of government overreach to just be another flash in the news cycle pan. We can't let this scandal erupt and then blow over. This is one of those rare moments in politics when the scandal du jour actually matters.

This isn't the NSA or FBI just listening in on the phone calls or reading the emails of terrorists. This is the Omega of the surveillance spectrum. Every silly email, every naughty picture, every worried discussion over health, or money, or careers is ripe for government cataloguing, sorting, and data mining, "unintentionally" to be sure, but that's hardly comforting. The promised "protections" against abuse are the same kind of internal oversight that allowed the Bush administration to spy on Americans and the Obama administration to target conservative political groups for increased scrutiny at will. On this subject, the government is running awfully low on "trust me" good faith.

But the real punch in the gut is that this is entirely legal. This isn't some unconstitutional conspiracy hatched by government spooks; this is a congressionally endorsed operation justified by the Protect America Act, a law that passed with bi-partisan support in both houses. That's right: the broad dragnet being leaked to the public now is comfortably nestled in a law that many civil libertarians have been yelling about for nearly a decade.

It is well past time for the American people to call for a rollback of the broad power seized by the government following September 11. The programs justified by laws like the PATRIOT Act and Protect America Act are no longer reasonable in light of claims that Al-Qaeda was "on a path to defeat" and that it was time to reset our terror policy. The expansion of government surveillance powers cannot be a one-way ratchet  it must be reigned in. It is time for Americans to call Obama's "most transparent administration in history" bluff and call for the repeal of broad surveillance enabling laws and require a truly transparent and accountable oversight system that can't simply hide behind the guise of "national security."

America was founded on principles of freedom and liberty. Embedded in those ideals is the promise of privacy and the right to keep one's affairs away from the prying eyes of government and other outside entities. The PRISM program is a national shame and an example of how far we've allowed our civil liberties to slide. Now is the time to reverse that trend.

Update: This scandal has gone global, and that's not a good thing: