Last week I wrote about the breaking story that the NSA has been monitoring phone records after obtaining a court order that allowed them to collect data from Verizon Wireless. As I noted, feelings on the issue are split. An editorial from the New York Times claimed that the Obama administration had “lost all credibility on the issue,” and that the government was clearly abusing its power. The Washington Post took a similar stance, but called for more information on the matter before the public jumped to conclusions. Over the weekend, more information came to light that might help us paint a better picture of what exactly the NSA’s telephone surveillance program entailed.
Most of the new information about the NSA’s PRISM program came from the whistleblower himself, Edward Snowden, and ex-CIA employee. Snowden is currently living in Hong Kong to avoid prosecution by the federal government for leaking the story. He provided The Guardian, the British news agency that first broke the story, with a 12-minute video interview that you can watch here. In the interview, Snowden claimed to have had the authority to spy on any American citizen, including the President. He claimed to have leaked the information because of some of the same concerns I voiced last week. In particular, he said that he did not want to live in a society that secretly monitors its citizens, especially those who have done nothing wrong.
So basically what we have learned is that between the CIA and NSA, the federal government had virtually unlimited power to monitor U.S. citizens, even those in the most powerful positions. It would appear that the government needed no probable cause of any kind to place surveillance on these people. I think it’s safe to say that most people’s initial reaction to any instance of government surveillance is outrage. As I said before, we are a freedom- and privacy-loving people. But it’s also important to look at all perspectives before jumping to conclusions.
First things first, the government is not in an enviable position. Charged with protecting over 300 million citizens, agencies like the NSA and CIA have a monumental task in detecting and thwarting terrorist attacks against the United States. Incidents like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon attacks showed just how susceptible we can be to terrorism without implementing a proactive approach. Because of this, there seems to be a general consensus that the government must have some type of surveillance and intelligence gathering programs. The trouble is in deciding just how extensive and intrusive these programs should be. If the government backs off on its surveillance programs and an attack occurs, the public will be outraged and ask why more wasn’t done to protect them. On the other hand, in situations like this where the government is perceived as having gone too far, the public is also outraged. The happy medium, if it exists at all, would be extremely difficult to find. So if the public is going to be outraged regardless of which stance the government takes, it makes sense to some extent that the government would take a proactive stance that might actually prevent attacks and prevent American deaths.
Second, we have to look at what the government was searching for in the records acquired from Verizon. So far, it appears that the NSA was not listening to individual phone calls or audio recordings. From what we know thus far the NSA was simply analyzing data for patterns that might uncover terrorist activity within the U.S., which most would consider a legitimate government concern. Nothing so far points to the government using the collected data for censorship purposes, or anything unrelated to preventing terrorism for that matter.
Having said that, I am not trying to convince anybody that the government did the right thing. Determining what the right thing even is in this situation is an extremely difficult task, and there probably isn’t a concrete answer. There is certainly a chance that the government may abuse its power any time it monitors its citizens, but we still don’t have all the facts to make a determination on whether or not they were. And, especially at a time when confidence in our government is so low, public outcry against the NSA is understandable and maybe warranted. Even so, when we look at this situation we have to keep it in perspective. One of the government’s many jobs, and more specifically the NSA’s job, it to protect the public from terrorist attacks, and so far it looks like that is what the PRISM program is intended to do. More facts are sure to come to light in the following days and weeks, and we might want to reserve judgment until then.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research