Inspecting the PRISM

Covergence Corner

Inspecting the PRISM

By Peter Bernstein, Senior Editor  |  July 30, 2013

It took less than a day for the imbroglio in the U.S. over the National Security Agency (News - Alert) compelling Verizon (via until June 5 a secret court order) to turn over phone records to explode. As predicted, this became the top news item for days to come, which meant it was only a matter of time before there would be more information, either purposely leaked or uncovered by a now totally engaged investigative news community, about NSA best/worst practices. 

The Washington Post reported that a top-secret program called PRISM, authorized by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, has allowed the U.S. intelligence community to gain access to the servers of nine Internet companies for a look at what I like to call, “e”verything. The story cited slides it obtained of the PRISM program showing that NSA can directly mine data from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google (News - Alert), Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. This led Twitter to brag about not being on the list.

The companies listed above predictably denied, in almost identical language, that they have provided any government organization “direct access” to their servers. In Washington-speak, during the Watergate years this became known as the “non-denial denial.” In other words, they are not saying they are not sharing data with the NSA and it seems likely that this all stands on the definition of what really constitutes “direct access.” Hint, hint – it is probably semantics. 

Other predictable developments included pronouncements from various quarters, politicians as well as noted talking heads and intelligence “experts”, about the value of both the phone record info and PRISM. It has been noted almost ad nauseam at this point that much of President Obama’s daily intelligence briefing is based on information gleaned via PRISM.

Finally, and again predictably, the intelligence community and its allies are outraged that their supposedly secret activities have been exposed and there are promises that those who have leaked this information will be pursued and held accountable for what the government sees as creating a real threat to national security. (As we all now know, the Guardian reported whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA’s data mining activities and, at last look before press time, the young man was hanging out in Hong Kong, apparently to avoid extradition.)

In a move to assuage some of the anger over both surveillance programs yet make a point to those who like to expose such things, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had said he would be declassifying details about the phone call program, which he characterizes as legal, limited and necessary to detect terrorist threats. (And, indeed, the Obama administration in mid June presented a document listing terrorist threats that were uncovered and prevented due in part to the PRISM program.) Clapper said every three months, a court reviews the phone records issue and that records are only culled when facts show a terrorism connection. This tracks with the defense that has been put up that since the program is using the data to spot trends based on excessive calls to non-U.S. citizens who are targets of interest the public need not be concerned that their calls are being listened to unless they are doing something that rises to the level of being suspicious.

Some members of Congress are vowing to change the phone records program, which interestingly enough, they voted to authorize out of fears concerning the lack of boundaries as to what constitutes virtual voyeurism versus legitimate intelligence work. 

Clapper also admonished those who think they are doing us a public service by bringing such programs into the sunlight to, in essence, stop aiding the enemy. This is a classic stance that seems at odds with the world today. In fact, it can be argued that the current revelations could be useful in sending a message to our foes about the lengths our intelligence community is willing to go.  

The intelligence community will do what it does best, i.e., remain suspicious of everything and push for maximum information. The executive branch looks to that community for its advice based on its expertise and the facts are that we need them to stay in character. 

However, if the FISA court is going to rubber stamp requests, its value and judgment should be cause for concern. The U.S. has a system of checks and balances for a reason. It is the role of Congress to provide oversight. Assuming the respective intelligence committees in the House and Senate knew about the phone initiative and PRISM, based on what they are and are not saying, indicates a failure to question all of this. That is very troubling. It seems time for the intelligence committees to obtain more intelligence and act more intelligently and responsibly.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi