SYNDICATED COLUMN: The PRISM Scandal: The Last Chance for America

Will We Resist a Massive Government/Corporate Conspiracy?

Turkey teeters on the brink of revolution — because the government wants to build a mall in the middle of a public square in Istanbul.

What will we do about the PRISM conspiracy?

With due respect to the Turkish protesters — with whom I agree — PRISM is a trillion times worse than Taksim Square.

PRISM is run by the NSA and FBI.

The charter of the National Security Agency, a spy agency created to collect foreign intelligence, specifically states that it is prohibited from “acquiring information concerning the domestic activities of United States persons.” Simple English. NSA isn’t even allowed to spy on Americans accidentally.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s self-professed mission is to “protect and defend the United States against terrorist and foreign intelligence threats, to uphold and enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and to provide leadership and criminal justice services to federal, state, municipal, and international agencies and partners.”

The NSA claims that its actions are “consistent with U.S. laws and the protection of privacy and civil liberties.”

Yet:

Not.

The darkest dystopian visions of the future — 1984, Brazil, Sleep Dealer — have come to chilling, horrific life. There can no longer be any illusion that the U.S. is a democratic republic. Everything we learned as schoolchildren was a lie. The U.S. government does not serve us. This is not a government by the people or for the people. The regime in Washington no more respects our rights as citizens, our dignity as individuals, than the North Korean dictators of Pyongyang. We eat better and watch better TV but where it counts, at essence, we are exactly the same.

The Washington Post and the British newspaper The Guardian have broken a startling blockbuster, perhaps the biggest story of our lives. “The NSA and the FBI,” writes the Post, “are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track one target or trace a whole network of associates.”

This is a government-big business conspiracy of the first order, so breathtaking in scope and ambition that it is scarcely comprehensible.

According to a classified PowerPoint presentation leaked by a patriotic intelligence officer said to be consumed with “horror at the capabilities” of the PRISM system, the U.S. government taps directly into the servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple. Google, the biggest Internet company on earth, controlling 16% of global Internet traffic, pretended to stand up to China’s clumsy attempts to censor the Web, but when the NSA came calling, they saluted, bent over and paid for lube.

Google could have litigated. They could have called a press conference. They could have leaked the threats. Instead, they turned over everything. Voluntarily. If you’re online, Google has given your “private” information to the feds. “Don’t be evil?” Ha.

If capitalism counts for anything, contracts have to be enforced. There is a universally understood implicit contract between Internet users and companies like Microsoft and Apple: they keep your data private to the best of their abilities. They might get hacked; a court may serve them with a subpoena. Stuff happens. But they’re not supposed to voluntarily give every bit and byte to the government just because they asked nicely. Because they want to be considered, in government parlance, “a trusted company.”

The government trusts them. But now, can anyone else?

These Internet giants had a choice. They could have told the government to take a walk. According to the Post: “Apple demonstrated that resistance is possible when it held out for more than five years, for reasons unknown, after Microsoft became PRISM’s first corporate partner in May 2007. Twitter, which has cultivated a reputation for aggressive defense of its users’ privacy, is still conspicuous by its absence from the list of ‘private sector partners.'”

PRISM exposes the horrifying, galling partnership between the biggest Silicon Valley corporations and an out-of-control security state. No one is safe in a society governed by such powerful elites colluding so closely.

It also belies previous official claims that anti-terrorism and other security-based intelligence-gathering operations are specifically targeted at likely threats. To the contrary, the U.S. government is plainly interested in — and has largely succeeded at — intercepting, collecting and analyzing every electronic communication in the United States, and presumably abroad as well.

For example:

“According to a separate ‘User’s Guide for PRISM Skype Collection,’ that service can be monitored for audio when one end of the call is a conventional telephone and for any combination of ‘audio, video, chat, and file transfers’ when Skype users connect by computer alone. Google’s offerings include Gmail, voice and video chat, Google Drive files, photo libraries, and live surveillance of search terms.”

Offerings.

That’s what they’re calling the emails we send each other. The photos we store in the “cloud.” Our video chats.

Everything we do online. Our entire online lives.

Offerings. They’re offering us up.

Yeah, of course, we knew they — the government — not our government, mind you — They — the others — the minions of the 1% — were spying on Americans at an epic scale that the Stasi spymasters depicted in the East German drama “The Lives of Others” couldn’t have dreamed of.

First came the 2001 USA-Patriot Act, which opened the door to officially-sanctioned law breaking in the supposed service of national security. In 2002 there was DARPA’s Total Information Awareness, the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 data mining operation, an attempt to “turn everything in cyberspace about everybody—tax records, driver’s-license applications, travel records, bank records, raw F.B.I. files, telephone records, credit-card records, shopping-mall security-camera videotapes, medical records, every e-mail anybody ever sent—into a single, humongous, multi-googolplexibyte database that electronic robots will mine for patterns of information suggestive of terrorist activity.” After an uproar, Congress defunded TIA — so its staff and activities simply packed up and moved to the NSA, where they continue to work today.

There was also AT&T’s secret room 641A, the site of “clandestine collaboration between one big telecommunications company, AT&T, and the National Security Agency to facilitate the most comprehensive illegal domestic spying program in history.” That story broke in 2007.

A few days ago, another sweeping violation of privacy came to light. This time, “the government has obtained phone numbers of both parties on every Verizon call, the call’s duration, location data and the time of day the calls were made.” That program is ongoing. (Were other telecommunications carriers involved? Probably. This is one of the few rubber-stamp FISA court warrants to come to light.)

It doesn’t take a genius to extrapolate from these stories to the massive scope of PRISM. But there’s a big difference between knowing the government is reading your emails and looking at your dirty pictures, and KNOWING they’re doing it. Now we KNOW.

So. What are we going to do about this?

Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Apple have all denied participation in PRISM. Maybe it’s all just a bad dream!

Probably not, though.

First: we need a full, independent investigation. Not by Congress. By someone we can trust. It’s hard to imagine who. Certainly not one of the big tech companies accused of betraying us.

Second: if this story turns out to be true, President Obama, Vice President Biden and the entire cabinet must resign and face prosecution. According to the Post, data collected from the rogue PRISM program is relied upon for roughly one out of seven of the President’s Daily Briefs on intelligence matters. “That is a remarkable figure in an agency that measures annual intake in the trillions of communications,” notes the newspaper. It means that knowledge of PRISM, and authorization thereof, goes to the Oval Office. There must be accountability. Swift accountability.

Members of Congress, corporate executives of the Internet companies involved, and of any other companies, must be held to account as well. Prosecutions should come quickly.

Finally, we have some hard questions to ask ourselves.

I’d start with this one:

What does it mean to be an American? Are we citizens, free men and women? Or are we serfs, not vested in even the primal right to talk to our friends and family members without some goddamn government asshole listening in?

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in April by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

10 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: The PRISM Scandal: The Last Chance for America

  1. When America was outraged by Nixon, the Republicans had enough patriotism to support his impeachment.

    Will the Democrats have enough patriotism to support the impeachment of Obama, or will they loyally wallow in and approve of this growing filth?

    • Both mainstream political parties are in collusion over the security state. Don’t expect any integrity from either one, not even the Republicans who are supposedly obstructing Obama at every turn yet go along with his most egregious policies. What I want to know this morning is why NPR and the New York Times – well I do know, both have close ties to the CIA and other intelligence agencies – are spinning the article that appeared in the Washington Post yesterday into something that it is not. Namely they keep talking about how this program is meant to track foreigners. But by all accounts, it is tapped into domestic American data.

  2. Ted, I agree with 99% of this. However, we are different from the totalitarian states in one important, critical, respect. Our newspapers are free to publish this scandel with fear of being shutdown and journalists who write about don’t have to fear for their lives.

    I fear that the reality is that most Americans assumed the NSA already did this and will great this scandel with a shrug, than go back to crying about the Game of Thrones last episode last Sunday. Most of our fellow Americans aren’t even upset about this. The youths don’t even believe in privacy. They think we should all be publishing every detail about our lives for the world to see on facebook.

    • @Andy: You may well be right. This may well be met like every other scandal of the last 20 years, with a collective national shrug. But this really is our last chance. It is so brazen and so huge and so obvious that if we let this one go, there is really never going to be any turning back. We are headed toward collapse or revolution.

  3. Good follow-up op-ed Ted. Of course you know your site is on a hotlist for sure, and you yourself are probably on a hotlist. No way a writer of a book on revolution is not on the explicit radar of authorities.

    That said, I’m sure all comments here are tracked. Nonetheless, I agree that no one is going to care. I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again. Americans care about one thing and one thing only: The Big Gimme. Everything else is secondary, even the most basic privacy rights.

    In fact, these Verizon/PRISM stories are nothing. Just wait for these in the not to distant future:

    EVENT: Americans will all be required to submit DNA samples to get driver’s license.
    REACTION: A shrug. Can’t let the terrorists win doncha know.

    EVENT: GPS and drones will track our every movement.
    REACTION: A shrug. Can’t let the terrorists win doncha know.

    EVENT: Google Glass will make your private life public and searchable, whether you like it or not.
    REACTION: A shrug. Can’t stop progress you dumb luddite.

    EVENT: Anyone engaging in any activism at all, even fully legal, will be targeted as a threat to the system.
    REACTION: A shrug. Don’t want to hurt the economy you America haters.

    Bottom line, people simply do not care. It’s really hard to be middle aged right now because we’re stuck in the middle of this mess. Older people and retirees don’t care because they don’t really use much tech, and they’re near the end anyway. Millenials are actively AGAINST privacy. It’s only those of us in the middle that are outraged, and there’s just not enough of us that care to do anything about it. Which is a shame.

  4. Some things are chicken and egg, so it’s hard to know which direction is causal, or even if either direction is causal.

    The major US newspapers refrain from criticising the US government. As Mr Rall points out, the New York Times and NPR did not show any outrage over the US government’s collecting and analysing massive amounts of US citizen data without any warrants. And the voters show no outrage, as exkiodexian points out.

    Is it that the major US newspapers are constantly telling their readers, the voters, that the US presidents, representing the US people, only ever fight for Good against Evil, and so have only targeted the worst terrorists, spying on them until the government can track them down and kill them and thereby keep innocent people all over the world safe, and saying this over and over until most Americans believe it?

    Or is it that most Americans think their country is the best in the world and has the best government in the world, a government that only kills evil people and thereby keeps innocent people safe all over the world, and they would cancel their subscriptions and ads and thereby force the closure of any newspaper that criticised the US or its government?

    There is no statistically valid test for the direction of causality between these two.

    But, as exkiodexian points out, the net result is that there’s not enough support to realistically expect any major change for the better.

    • @Michael: To clarify, I did not mean to imply that the New York Times did not express any outrage over the latest NSA and FBI revelations about spying on Americans. To the contrary, they published quite a passionate editorial. Well, relatively passionate, at least for them. What I criticized the Times and NPR for was spinning the story. The NSA and FBI collect a lot of American information, yet the New York Times headline and the MPR headline stated that it was directed towards foreign intelligence. Which is precisely not true.

      This is highly reminiscent of the 2000 election Florida recount stories that appeared in 2001. The headlines said that Bush would have won the recount had it occurred, but when you read the articles in the New York Times and elsewhere, that clearly was not true.

  5. I noticed the word “Promise” on some of the computer equipment in the news stories. Made me larff. Maybe you get the joke too.

  6. Judging from my Obama cheerleader friend on facebook we have lost. They are rallying to the president’s defense saying (and two of these guys are lawyers for major law firms):

    (1) What the NSA did was not a search because the email were stored by a third party so there is no reasonable expectation of privacy

    (2) Nothing they have heard makes them the least bit uncomfortable and it sounds to them like the data was collected for legit goal of stopping terrorism.

    Based on 1 and 2 they are declaring that this is a manufactured scandel by the anti Obama media meant to sell newspapers and scare the public for no reason.

    (3) THey are all saying that they over the coarse of their lawyering career have subpoened 100,000s of emails for investigation much less important than terrorism. It now standard operating proceedure in any major case. Therefore what the NSA did was totally normal and happens all the time.

    So yeah. America the free is dead.

  7. Actually, after some more thought on this matter, I say let the NSA harvest all the data it wants. I say put cameras on every corner. Swab away for all you’re worth, pigs.

    But first, I want the e-mails of every president, every senator, every representative, every court judge, every police officer, and all their precious families, posted online. Fully searchable and downloadable. I want cameras in every police station and police station locker room and on all the approaches to every home of the above mentioned groups. Those cameras will route to a server which can be accessed by any member of the public. Ditto, DNA swabs.

    As a member of the public, I double-dog promise, we won’t use that information for anything, you know, invasive. It will only be used to make sure that we’re being protected as we deserve.

    After that’s been done, we’ll have a one-year trial. If presidents, senators, representatives, judges, cops, etc., break the law, even though they are being monitored around the clock, then clearly, such systems of surveillance won’t work. (Odd that in London, where there are cameras EVERYWHERE, people still get murdered.)

    But tell you what. When all the cops, all the judges, all the elected officials (and their precious, super-important families), remain uncaught for any crimes for a full year, THEN, they can start doing the same sort of surveillance to all of us.

    Fair enough?