The press has been salivating over the NSA’s “PRISM” program for days, and honestly, I’m a bit perplexed. What’s the big deal? You mean we’re actively attempting to use the Internet to ferret out terrorist’s plans? Holy Shit! Stop the presses!
Why is this so shocking? Does the United States public actually want our intelligence community to remain in the 1970s? Maybe sit in a back room playing gin rummy, praying someone walks through the door with the diabolical plan in his grip? I think not.
What’s shocking to me is that once again a major news outlet decided to publish a classified program resulting in serious harm to United States’ national security. The bigger outrage should be that they did so for no other reason than to sell papers.
Ask the average American, “Do you think our government should read the email of terrorists to prevent attacks?” and, outside of some whackos that don’t have a stake in the fight, the answer will be a resounding “Yes”. That’s exactly the purpose of PRISM. How did the press think this would happen? Do they believe that the terrorists only use domain names like “Jihad.net” or “Infidelkiller.com?” No. They use Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo. They talk on Skype and post videos to YouTube. The U.S. intelligence community would be irresponsible if it ignored this fact.
The inference from the Washington Post article is that the NSA is sucking up domestic emails willy-nilly on a fishing expedition and now can “watch your ideas form as you type.” That the NSA is actually reading everything you have ever thought. That works out well for selling newspapers, but there is no proof of this. Yes, there is a potential for abuse, something that is scary and worth a look, but that potential existed way before the Internet or PRISM. Right now, your local police department has the ability to listen in on your phone calls. To “tap your phone” in Hollywood parlance. Are you concerned about this? Do you whisper in code on every phone call? No? Why not? The potential is there, after all. Don’t you worry about your Sherriff’s department reading your drunken texts?
You don’t worry because there’s a system in place to prevent that from happening. Someone has to convince a judge that you’re a drug dealer or member of the mafia before he or she will sign off on a warrant to invade your privacy. Exactly like PRISM.
When an expert mentions this fact in an interview, defending the program, the press immediately returns with, “We can’t depend on the goodwill of the government. Just look at the IRS to prove that.” And they’d be absolutely correct, with a critical distinction: The IRS operated without checks in place. The PRISM revelation and the IRS scandal are completely different. One, to make the stories analogous, instead of the IRS report being about a selective targeting of conservative groups for political purposes, the headline would read, “The IRS has procedures in place to review non-profit applications.” That, of course, wouldn’t be news. The story was that it had used those review procedures to abuse its power. Yet the prism “revelations” from the Washington Post are exactly that: “NSA has procedures in place to track terrorists on the Internet.” There is no report of abuse. Just the existence of a program.
This brings up the second reason the two stories are not the same: The IRS operates in a vacuum, its only oversight an internal panel, basically left to its own devices. The NSA, on the other hand, like the intelligence community writ large, has massive oversight precisely to prevent the very abuses people are worried will happen. PRISM, like every other sensitive intelligence operation, is briefed to both the house and senate intelligence committees on a regular basis. This isn’t done out of goodwill, it’s done as a matter of law, and lying to the committee will put you in jail. Rand Paul is currently going berserk (ever notice how it’s always the representative that’s NOT read on to a program that stands up shouting?) ranting about the encroachment on the fourth amendment without any evidence that it’s occurred, while the chairman of the house intelligence committee, Rep. Mike Rogers – no Obama supporter to be sure – stated unequivocally that the program not only followed all constitutional provisions but also stopped at least one terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Yet for some reason we all choose to believe the press and the man ranting, instead of the person who is actually read on to the program’s strictures to prevent abuse.
One thing a lot of people are barking about is the reported proviso that the NSA only needs a fifty-one percent confidence level that a target is foreign before they’ll start raping everything associated. That, of course, is pretty bold, and if it’s true, I would be the first to stand up and say PRISM should be shut down. But, unlike apparently everyone else on TV, I don’t read a news report and immediately think it’s gospel. I’ve seen the inner workings of the beast, along with the reporting of that process, and have shown on a few blogs how misguided the press can be.
At the end of the day, I don’t know anything more about PRISM than you do, other than what the Washington Post has revealed. But I do know what I’ve dealt with in the past. A war story might be illuminating here:
A long time ago in a land far, far away, an organization was tracking a terrorist. It had no locational data, no name, and no photo. What it had was phone transcripts, which definitely showed this guy was going to kill some people. Maybe Americans, maybe other people. The organization locked on to his cell number via the NSA and started to build a picture. Where was he? What were his intentions? Who else was he talking to?
One day, the terrorist called a US phone number, and the NSA quit listening. The organization screamed at them to continue, but they said they couldn’t listen in on a telephone call to a US citizen. The organization answered, “He’s probably not a US citizen! He’s just on a US number! Come on!” They said, “You need to prove that to us.”
The organization relinquished and waited on the target to call someone else, outside the US. They waited for two days and got nothing. This from a guy who was talking on the phone all the time. They called their NSA brethren to see if there might be a reporting problem, and it turned out there was. The NSA said, “You have to prove the target himself isn’t a US citizen or a green card holder before we’ll start listening to that handset again.”
At the time, the organization couldn’t believe it. The man was actively talking about killing people and because he’d called a US number they were now being frozen out? On the off chance he was a green card holder? Really? It turned out the organization was naïve about the laws of our land. No matter how they pleaded, the tap was not turned back on. They were told they had to prove the target wasn’t a green card holder or a US citizen to continue. Note, they didn’t have to prove by 51% that he was foreign. They had to prove 100% that he WASN’T a green card holder or US citizen. No light between the gap, and the NSA wasn’t going to do the work to make that happen. It was up to the customer. At the end of the day, because the organization was in a land far removed from the US, and had no identity of the guy other than a kunya, he dropped from collection. Because he might have been a US green card holder, and the organization had no way to prove differently. I have no doubt in my mind that the terrorist continued killing people, probably US citizens. This was before PRISM, but after 9/11, when we were on heady ground about stopping terrorism and the press was screaming daily about the loss of civil liberties.
Given that experience, I have extreme doubts that the NSA is now milking everything I type on the Internet with some weak claim of 51%. Do they have the capability? Probably so. Do they do that? Not that I’ve ever seen. I don’t worry about it, and I’m one that should, given what I know. I don’t worry about it anymore than I worry about storm troopers from a SWAT team crashing my door in just because they can. Yeah, the capability is there, but I don’t fear it.
The DNI, James Clapper, stated that the Washington Post article had numerous inaccuracies, and, given what I’ve seen, I have no problem believing that. As I’ve said before, when it comes to national secrets, the press is quick to stir up a controversy for sales, but long on proving those controversies real. To me, the real story here isn’t that the United States Government is reading the emails of people that are out to kill us, it’s that the press chooses to report the secrets in the first place.
There’s a new term coming in vogue on such reporting. Before, people like this were called “traitors”. Then, they became “leakers”. Now, they’re “whistleblowers”. That dilutes what’s actually going on. They ARE traitors. Serpico, the man who exposed corruption in the NYC police department, is a whistleblower. The man who leaked our involvement in STUXNET, or the man who talked about our ability to penetrate al Qaeda in Yemen are traitors. Period. Saying they’re “whistleblowers” is like saying a tax increase is “raising revenue”. They’re all words designed to mask what’s really going on and to give the reporting press the ability to sleep at night.
Make no mistake, the Washington Post looked at what they had and said, “This will sell papers for another year!” They got the slides, and thought – nay, prayed – that after publication the administration would investigate them for disclosing classified information. Basically poking the government in the eye after the other leak investigations in an attempt to keep the reporting going. Giving them more righteous indignation and playing a game with national security in the name of profits. Never once thinking of how this would harm America.
Nobody in the United States profited from this story, except the Washington Post. Well, nobody who cares about national security, that is. There is one group that profited, and they’re here right now. They’re terrorists that are plotting in our homeland, and now they know our reach. A guy in a basement, diligently talking to his master, crafting his strike, now changes communications methods on this news report. Believe me, terrorists do react to what our press puts out. One only has to look at current news to see that. Last February the Associated Press found an al Qaeda document in Mali that delineated how to avoid our UAVs. In the first paragraph the author – a terrorist – discusses the press disclosure of our classified drone bases, saying “My expectations have been assured by the New York Times leakage…” Way to go, Gray Lady.
Truthfully, if you were going to prove the NSA was sucking up American data without any oversight, you would have to look no further than Boston. If the PRISM net was so wide and deep, and included so many Americans, how on earth did the Boston bombing occur? Surely that would have been stopped, given the massive, omnipotent power of the NSA, right? Maybe it wasn’t caught because those guys were AMERICAN CITIZENS and GREEN CARD HOLDERS. Maybe, just maybe, we had to do such a giant police investigation precisely because the PRISM restrictions actually worked, protecting the fourth amendment as it was designed.
I’ve railed on this before, but this leak is the capstone for me. The others were guys talking in backroom bars, giving up secrets in whispered conversation. The traitor here actually passed top secret information. A product that in the cold war would have garnered an enormous payout from the USSR. Traitorous things. Oh wait, the guy didn’t profit, so we should give him a pass. Really? The impact to national security isn’t what the traitor earned from his escapades, it’s what damage he inflicted. Make no mistake; the Washington Post understood what they were getting. Here’s a slide from its website. Take a look at the classification level at the top left or bottom right of the slide.
For those uninitiated, I’ll break it down for you:
Top Secret: The highest level of classification in the United States Government.
SI: Special Intelligence, reserved for compartmented personnel who have an active need to know.
ORCON: Originator Controlled. In other words, you couldn’t even use the information in this brief unless it was cleared by the person who made the brief. The real world version of “For Your Eyes Only”
NOFORN: No foreign personnel allowed access to this information. Oops. Guess that wasn’t an issue with the Post.
So you get an idea of how classified this briefing was, I’ll juxtapose it. At one time I was training for the “inevitable” clash between North and South Korea. The OPLAN for that was called 5027. Its classification, the total plan for our defense of the Korean Peninsula, was SECRET//REL CAN, UK, ROK, NZ, AUS. In other words, it was releasable to any country that spoke English as well as South Korea, as long as the person viewing it held a clearance of secret. Makes sense, but it was/is our defense of the peninsula. A pretty close hold item. PRISM was much higher than that. Actually one of the highest security classifications I’ve ever seen. Giving this to the Washington Post is no different than passing OPLAN 5027 to North Korea, or doing a dead drop for the USSR in 1980. Whoever did it, I hope he burns in hell, and I support any effort to find him, even if it means more papers sold for the Washington Post.
At the end of the day, there is no proof of wrongdoing in the use of PRISM, only a detailed description of an architecture that everyone in America assumes is happening anyway. The oversight for these programs would boggle the average American’s mind, but ultimately, they’re secret, and so they stir up controversy. Yes, they have the potential for abuse, but no more so than any other investigative organization in today’s world, from the local cop to the FBI. If you think PRISM is an outrage, then you should be railing right now about the penetration of Paula Broadwell’s email trail that brought down General Petraeus. That happened without PRISM. That happened with a court order requested by the FBI. That happened just like anything PRISM would do. The digital world is a reality. It’s where you communicate, it’s where terrorists communicate, and it’s where we need to focus, but we do that within constitutional constraints. Unlike the IRS, there’s already an oversight infrastructure in place, and it works.
What sickens me is the loss of confidence in our nation’s defenders by this salacious story. It doesn’t matter what James Clapper or Mike Rogers say, people will choose to believe the press when that body is routinely so far off from reality it’s disgusting. I’ve shown in the past how this affects national security, but here, with this “story”, there’s nothing. A report about an architecture that anyone with a brain would figure was happening anyway, only now it’s been defined. It’s the difference between knowing an opposing team has created a playbook or actually having the playbook.
The terrorists are thinking human beings and will react accordingly. When the next bomb goes off and people start looking for heads to blame within the intelligence community for “failing to prevent it”, I’d suggest walking over to the Washington Post instead.
They shouldn’t be hard to find. They’ll be the ones making money reporting on the death and destruction.
UPDATE – JUNE 8
The Director of National Intelligence has released a white paper explaining authorities of PRISM, which pretty much says exactly what I say above with respect to oversight, and restrictions on targeting US citizen’s communication. You can read it HERE. However, if you’d prefer to believe a high school dropout who claims that – as an information assurance contractor in the NSA (basically a computer security guard) – he had the authority to read the President of the United States emails, given to him by the head of the NSA, that’s certainly your right. Just remember that he worked for Booz Allen for a whopping three months, and that he contacted the Guardian reporter BEFORE he was hired. Yeah, there was no agenda there.
Some other news organizations have begun taking deep breaths, calming down enough to judge the Post and Greenwald’s story on its merits, and finding some startling inconsistencies. Example here.