WASHINGTON – Last week the National Security Agency’s newly uncovered PRISM surveillance program, intended to manager foreign intelligence from electronic service providers, elicited anger that millions of Americans’ communications had been swept up in a comprehensive dragnet. News of the PRISM program came at the end of a breakneck week of national security reporting at The Guardian, where columnist Glenn Greenwald took a step from his legacy of punditry and opinion-oriented content to reporting.
The Guardian and The Washington Post, who both revealed the existence of the PRISM program Thursday, declined to release all 41 slides of the top-secret PowerPoint presentation they had obtained.
Barton Gellman, co-author of the Washington Post story, told The Internet Chronicle Friday, “We put up the [slides] we thought we should. Much of the document seemed to us to be classified for good reason.”
“We’re not engaged in a mindless, indiscriminate document dump, and our source didn’t want us to be,” Greenwald told Buzzfeed Saturday. “We’re engaged in the standard journalistic assessment of whether the public value to publication outweighs any harms.”
In a statement released in response to massive public outcry, Thursday Google CEO Larry Page was adamant that the company has not granted the NSA any “back door” to his company’s servers, adding that Google had not heard of any program called PRISM until Thursday. However an additional slide in a top-secret PowerPoint presentation, fed to The Guardian and annotated by reporter James Ball, suggested that the PRISM program enabled data “collection directly from the servers of … Google,” among other computing giants, such as Microsoft and Yahoo!. In accordance with Gellman and Greenwald’s claims to the press, some of this additional slide is blacked out.
People briefed on the negotiations between the media giants – speaking anonymously, as law prohibits them from acknowledging the very “existence” of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requests – seemingly expanded on Page’s claims on Friday. It was then that The New York Times‘ Claire Cain Miller relayed her sources’ claims that, in the cases of Facebook and Google, some consensus had been reached between corporate and public partners on the construction of digital drop boxes, intermediary locations where the corporations would not offer carte blanche to the NSA but – after having in-house attorneys review government requests – they could leave requested information.
“[T]he government would request data,” wrote Miller, “companies would deposit it and the government would retrieve it.”
Earlier last week government officials and politicians finally came clean about vast collection by the NSA of millions of Americans’ telephonic metadata. The telephone metadata – or logs of involved telephone numbers and call lengths – was turned over by Verizon, the telephone provider for a plurality of citizens. That revelation, and subsequent admissions, flies in the face of several statement by public officials.
Among those statements is one by NSA Director and Army Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute in July of 2012. Replying to a question from Fox News Channel’s Catherine Herridge, Alexander said, “We don’t hold data on U.S. citizens.” [Link, offsite, to Chronicle-clipped C-SPAN program.]
During a March 12 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked National Intelligence Director James Clapper about the scale of any NSA dragnet. Fast-forward to 6:42 in the video, following, for this exchange.
Ron Wyden: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
James Clapper: Clapper: No, sir.
Wyden: It does not?
Clapper: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect but not wittingly.
On May 4, 2012, Sens. Wyden and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) sent a letter asking the NSA inspector general, I. Charles McCullough, “how many people inside the United States have had their communications collected or reviewed.” McCullough replied in his own letter that “an [inspector general] review of [that] sort suggested would violate the privacy of U.S. persons.”
In 2007, then Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) expressed outrage that the Bush administration had engaged in spying “on citizens who are not suspected of a crime.” Critics of the Obama administration have claimed that this amounts to hypocrisy on the part of the president.
During a March 2012 hearing of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, Representative Hank Johnson (R-Ga.) asked Alexander if the NSA routinely intercepts American citizens’ emails, to which Director Alexander replied, “No.” Video follows.
The Washington Post however reported Friday that, from PRISM’s Web terminal at NSA Headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., NSA analysts key in “selectors” intended to determine with at least half accuracy a given target’s “foreignness.” The Post obtained analyst training materials that specifically address how analysts are to report any given “accidental” collection, but those materials add that that collection on citizens is “nothing to worry about.”
On Saturday Atlantic staff writer Conor Friedersdorf raised troubling questions about the implications of the NSA’s newly revealed and utterly vast collection of telephone metadata and “incidental” private, domestic media content. Even assuming the best of intentions and utmost integrity out of domestic law enforcement, should a foreign government make its way into NSA databases, he wrote, that “could enable blackmail on a massive scale, widespread manipulation of U.S. politics, industrial espionage against American businesses;, [sic] and other mischief I can’t even imagine.” Added Friedersdorf: “What if [China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Saudia Arabia or a successor to al-Qaeda] breached the database’s security without our even knowing?”
Claims of Lives Saved by the Surveillance Panopticon
A “U.S. intelligence official,” speaking on condition of anonymity to CBS News, said that the PRISM program “thwarted” a 2009 attempt to bomb the New York City subway system, an attack that could have killed hundreds of people.
“U.S. government sources” made similar statements to Reuters’ Mark Hosenball Friday. Hosenball’s source addressed statements Tuesday afternoon by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), although the Guardian and Washington Post stories that broke the existence of PRISM were not released until that evening.
The New York Times similarly reported on Friday that PRISM “yielded concrete information.” The Times‘ Eric Schmitt, David Sanger and Charlie Savage, relying on an anonymous “senior intelligence official” source, wrote Friday that a September 2009 email from an address “being monitored by the vast computers controlled by American intelligence analysts” allowed the analysts to locate the would-be bomber in Aurora, Colo.
The anonymous intelligence official added that Zazi was located “through an e-mail correspondence that we had access to only through” PRISM.