PRISM Surveillance Scandal: Ultimately, You Asked For This


A few days ago, Obama took to the podium to defend the recently publicized intelligence-gathering programs PRISM and Boundless Informant. As usual, he argued eloquently and persuasively that the programs were legal, not invasive, highly controlled, and that they could almost never be used against American citizens or residents. He cites federal-judicial and congressional oversight of the programs, as well as the personal integrity of those personnel responsible for executing the programs. The most interesting nugget in this brief defense, in my opinion, was his frank admission that Americans do, in fact, have to concede some of their privacy in trade for the security that the programs offer: "But I think it's important to recognize that you can't have 100 percent security, and also then have 100% privacy, and zero inconvenience. [Inaudible] We're going to have to make some choices, as a society."

During this briefing, Obama asserted that he has two specific commitments: to keep Americans safe, and to uphold the Constitution. If there does exist a hierarchy between these two duties, it is here very subtle. But Obama has been more overt regarding these two specific charges. As Micah Zenko points out in the opening paragraph of his Foreign Policy article, Obama has stated specifically that his "first job, [his] most sacred duty ... is to keep the American people safe." The main thrust of Zenko's article is that this claim, that the president's first duty is to ensure the safety of Americans, is categorically false. Zenko argues that, according to the oath of office, the president has his priorities flipped; that the first duty of the president is to uphold the Constitution.

In my mind, this is a rather open question. The wording of the oath of office prescribes executing the office of president sequentially before upholding the constitution. So, if one were to submit that the office of president implies, firstly, protecting American citizenry, Obama would not have his wires crossed after all. Like any religious text, it comes down to interpretation; and the character of interpretation follows the character of those interpreting. 

It is perhaps easier to view this issue in a legal sense. The president has repeatedly asserted that PRISM and Boundless Informant are legal. It seems that the key question regarding this legality is whether or not they are exercises of unreasonable search and seizure that violate the Fourth Amendment. What constitutes "reasonable"? This is a complex question. If the priority is security at any price, then the programs don't seem unreasonable. If privacy is the priority, the programs may well be unreasonable and, thus, illegal. This solution simply threads back into the last one, and provides no answers. 

It comes down to the old, hackneyed question of security versus liberty. Are Americans willing to trade privacy for ostensible safety? Based on polling data, it appears that they are. Privacy is sacred for a reason. The U.S. is not an especially corrupt country, so perhaps many Americans do not yet understand the value of privacy. No doubt, many believe they are behaving correctly and have nothing to fear. That may sound ridiculous, but I've heard that line almost verbatim. 

Ultimately, the government and current administration are only exceeding their mandates if the public believes they are. As Obama stated plainly: "We're going to have to make some choices, as a society." This is a question for the public to answer, and may the public reap what it sows.