Last night's NSA scoop by the UK Guardian? Child's play. The Washington Post has published a truly shocking story exposing the largest government domestic program in American history. If you are reading this right now, you have been affected by PRISM, a top secret operation begun in 2007 that has expanded "exponentially" during the Obama administration. This isn't the plot of a futuristic thriller. This is the US government at work, here and now:
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time. The highly classified program, code-named PRISM, has not been disclosed publicly before. Its establishment in 2007 and six years of exponential growth took place beneath the surface of a roiling debate over the boundaries of surveillance and privacy. Even late last year, when critics of the foreign intelligence statute argued for changes, the only members of Congress who knew about PRISM were bound by oaths of office to hold their tongues...The technology companies, which participate knowingly in PRISM operations, include most of the dominant global players of Silicon Valley. They are listed on a roster that bears their logos in order of entry into the program: “Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” PalTalk, although much smaller, has hosted significant traffic during the Arab Spring and in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Dropbox , the cloud storage and synchronization service, is described as “coming soon.” Government officials declined to comment for this article.
The Post describes the current program as President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program on powerful steroids, with Bush's successor -- who was fiercely critical of that effort -- presiding over PRISM's vast expansion:
The Silicon Valley operation works alongside a parallel program, code-named BLARNEY, that gathers up “metadata” — address packets, device signatures and the like — as it streams past choke points along the backbone of the Internet. BLARNEY’s top-secret program summary, set down alongside a cartoon insignia of a shamrock and a leprechaun hat, describes it as “an ongoing collection program that leverages IC [intelligence community] and commercial partnerships to gain access and exploit foreign intelligence obtained from global networks.” But the PRISM program appears more nearly to resemble the most controversial of the warrantless surveillance orders issued by President George W. Bush after the al-Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Its history, in which President Obama presided over “exponential growth” in a program that candidate Obama criticized, shows how fundamentally surveillance law and practice have shifted away from individual suspicion in favor of systematic, mass collection techniques. The PRISM program is not a dragnet, exactly. From inside a company’s data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes, but under current rules the agency does not try to collect it all.
Beyond providing the government with the ability to "pull out whatever it likes," how potent is PRISM?
Even when the system works just as advertised, with no American singled out for targeting, the NSA routinely collects a great deal of American content...Firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities, is what drove a career intelligence officer to provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to The Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer said.
That quote is chilling. Let me stipulate this: Our intelligence agencies face an extraordinarily difficult and stressful task each and every day. They are responsible for the safety of 300 million people. One mistake can costs lives. I appreciate their efforts and understand that measures must be employed that are both totally secret, and at times unpleasant. But where must we draw a line? President Obama just gave a major speech about "balancing" the government's national security obligations with protecting citizens' rights and civil liberties. He was very outspoken about this as a Senator and candidate, routinely upbraiding the Bush administration for what he deemed to be excesses and abuses. And yet here we are. The Post's thermonuclear bombshell notes that PRISM accounts for one out of every seven intelligence reports President Obama receives in his daily briefings. One of the defenses we've heard of the NSA/Verizon phone records tracking program is that it only logs "meta-data," or patterns, but does not monitor actual content. Not so with PRISM:
Important point: Unlike Verizon metadata PRISM surveillance "can include the content of communications." bit.ly/16NXdAc— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) June 6, 2013
This morning, I expressed doubts that the NSA operation was limited to Verizon customers. Sure enough, it was not -- not by a long shot:
NBC News has learned that under the Patriot Act, the gov't has been collecting records on every call made in America— Jesse Rodriguez (@JesseRodriguez) June 6, 2013
In light of this information, how can one possibly interpret what you're about to see as anything but a lie from President Obama's DNI, James Clapper? Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked Clapper in March if the NSA was collecting any type data on millions of Americans. Clapper's reply (the relevant Q&A starts at the 6:10 mark):
I don't know what to say. There are obvious jokes to be made about Democrats' moronic "Republican overreach" talking point bursting into flames, or how the president will read about this in tomorrow's newspaper like the rest of us. But this feels too serious -- too downright creepy and unsettling -- to joke about at the moment. The principles and rights at stake speak for themselves. Perhaps the current government isn't misusing these immense and expanding powers. I hope that's the case. But in light of the IRS abuse and revelations of spying on journalists, what are citizens to believe? What is acceptable to keep the country safe, and what is an existential threat to our liberty? Also, the fact that we're even learning about any of this constitutes an historic national security breach. Are the leakers' motives pure (ie, authentic whistleblowers), or is something else at play?
This cascade of leaks is probably the result of Obama kicking the intelligence community in the nuts so many times.— Gabriel Malor (@gabrielmalor) June 6, 2013
Go back and read the president's recent national security speech at NDU, and his commencement address at Ohio State exhorting graduates to "reject" the cynical voices who warn of government tyranny. What timing. What a month.
UPDATE - Some of the internet companies are denying knowledge of PRISM, but aren't commenting much further. Some people are getting a little skeptical:
There are so many unusual things about this story. Mere $20M cost. Chintzy powerpoint. Odd language in powerpoint. Tech company denials.— Joseph Weisenthal (@TheStalwart) June 7, 2013
UPDATE II - NBC confirms PRISM's existence with two sources, but they claim the program is a data collection operation, not a data mining one. How does that make any sense? Allahpundit asks, "They’re collecting the data but they’re not mining it?" Another source tells USA Today that "no US citizens" are "targeted" under PRISM. Hmm...
UPDATE III - A senior administration official tells Politico that PRISM only "targets" foreigners. National Journal's Ron Fournier isn't impressed with this clarification. The original WaPo story quoted a source familiar with the program who said that even when PRISM is working perfectly, it collects "a great deal" of American content.
UPDATE IV - DNI Clapper blasts the disclosures as "reprehensible" and harmful to national security. He says both the Washington Post and Guardian stories contain "numerous inaccuracies," stating that PRISM cannot be "intentionally used" to target anyone inside the US.