PRISM Leak: We Just Learned How Our Leaders Really Feel About Our Rights


In the wake of recent disclosures over the National Security Agency's (NSA) secret programs to spy on American citizens, the reaction of Congress has been interesting. Last week, the Guardian broke the story on two secret programs: The first, that the NSA had ordered Verizon to hand over the phone records of all its customers, and the second, that internet companies, through a secret program known as PRISM, are collaborating with the NSA by allowing it access to data on its customers. This expansion of surveillance to potentially cover every American citizen's phone and internet activity has been met by Congress with broad support. Some lawmakers, such as Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), have spoken out, but they are the few exceptions. Most of Congress, especially the senior leadership, is strongly supportive, with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) remarking that Americans ought to "calm down." What has gotten them riled up is that the programs were leaked to the public. Ironically, it isn't the NSA's trampling of privacy that has Congress so upset; it's that those efforts are no longer anonymous.

During a press conference on the NSA phone records program, Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, remarked that "this is nothing particularly new." Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the current chairperson, stated that the program was lawful under the PATRIOT Act. On ABC's This Week, Congressman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, defended the both the phone records and PRISM programs, insisting that "The National Security Agency is not listening to Americans' phone calls and it is not listening to Americans' emails." He went on to decry that these programs were disclosed; "If you tell our adversaries and enemies in the counterterrorism fight exactly how we conduct business, they're not going to do business the same way ever again. It makes it difficult."

All of this is arguably true, or at least has a certain logic to it. For instance, it is reasonable to assume that any would-be terrorist watching the news would adjust his tactics based on his knowledge of American counterterrorism measures. And as far as we currently know, the NSA has not been reading the content of American emails or recording their phone conversations. In regard to phone records, the NSA has instead been collecting what is known as "metadata," i.e. the length of the phone calls, the recipients, etc. To actually listen in on a call requires a warrant. Of course, it should be noted that the NSA has not let that requirement stop it in the past.

PRISM digs a little deeper in that the NSA can access the contents of one's emails, chat logs, or other content if they are deemed suspicious. But the NSA insists that most of the information gathered will never be examined and that PRISM is primarily aimed at foreign traffic, though most of the internet's infrastructure is based in the U.S. But the fact that any American could potentially have his online activity examined is troubling and somewhat Orwellian.

The most significant comment was Chambliss's statement that these programs are "nothing particularly new." And he's right; rather than just focus on these two programs, Americans should instead consider them as part of a broader historical pattern of shrinking anonymity that goes back at least to the post-9/11 era, when the PATRIOT Act was first passed. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (a favored organization of the Guardian's source, Edward Snowden), released a handy timeline showing how the NSA's culture against domestic spying dissipated after 9/11. But 9/11 is not the only factor; one can also point to older examples, such as COINTELPRO, when the FBI monitored, infiltrated, and harassed political dissidents (including Martin Luther King, among others) within the United States. Therefore it may be more accurate to say that 9/11 accelerated this trend but did not start it. The reporter who broke these stories, Glenn Greenwald, says that this is part of a larger goal by the United States to destroy privacy all over the world by creating a system where no communication cannot be intercepted by the U.S. government. In fact, agreements that would enable this kind of global dragnet already exist. Overall, history shows that the sphere of anonymity has already shrunk considerably, giving a new meaning to the term "Leviathan" that Thomas Hobbes could not have dreamed of. How far it will continue depends on the will of the American people.