Obama on PRISM

I very much respect our President, Barack Obama. I watch his speeches and press conferences with great interest. I am impressed by his thoughtfulness around issues and ability to craft language and sentiment that offers digestible feedback for the public on complex civic issues. I’ve voted for him twice and hope to meet him one day.

So watching and reading his reaction to questions about PRISM, a program which may shape public sentiment toward government oversight of private communications for the next decade or longer, is of great interest to me.

The Wall Street Journal published a copy of the transcript from Obama’s first comments on PRISM, and I wanted to call attention to two particular passages bolded below:

“So — so we have a system in which some information is classified, and we have a system of checks and balances to make sure that it’s not abused. And if, in fact, this information ends up just being dumped out willy-nilly without regard to risks to the program, risks to the people involved, in some cases on other leaks, risks to personnel in very dangerous situations, then it’s very hard for us to be as effective in — in protecting the American people.

That’s not to suggest that, you know, you just say, trust me, we’re doing the right thing, we know who the bad guys are. And the reason that’s not how it works is because we’ve got congressional oversight and judicial oversight. And if people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.

…But I know that the people who are involved in these programs — they operate like professionals. And these things are very narrowly circumscribed. They’re very focused. And in the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential, you know — you know, program run amok. But when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.

The exposure of PRISM (and the Verizon meta-data tap) shook people into realizing their conversations (textual and otherwise) data are part of a dataset being monitored for suspicious activity. The NSA and Executive Branch may have tangible, real-world examples that, in their minds, justify PRISM. However, it doesn’t change the fact that many people are surprised, shocked and alarmed at its exposure.

Absent specific proof about how PRISM has enhanced security, all people can do is trust the systems that Obama describes are in place. And further, that neither he, nor his successors will allow PRISM to be abused.

In the first bolded passage, Obama seems to almost make light of the idea that Americans might have an active distrust of the Executive Branch, Congress and Federal Judges. To contrast the idea of trust at this level, let’s take it to extremes: these are the same folks trusted to authorize a nuclear attack. Surely, if you can trust them with the bomb, you can also trust them not to abuse PRISM.

Americans are ok with the President carrying the nuclear football to his daily basketball games. The implication being that Obama might need to call a timeout, take a phone call and authorize a nuclear launch courtside. At least everyone would know it happened.

Having your email read by the federal government seems to be a bigger cause for concern.  It is easier for normal people to see how the responsibility to collect, retain and analyze private communications would be abused and directly affect them. With PRISM the American people must trust a rather large and hard to properly identify security apparatus. They also are unlikely to find out if a mistake is made using PRISM and a misguided follow-up information request ends up violating their privacy.

Clapper’s Cuteness

A major, major problem in my mind with regard to establishing trust with the American people over PRISM is the March testimony of the Director of National Intelligence before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

My home state’s Senator, Ron Wyden, (who I have personally discussed electronic privacy with here in Portland), asked Clapper point break about PRISM. Clapper gave what he described as an answer that was “too cute by half.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-Ore.): “This is for you, Director Clapper, again on the surveillance front. And I hope we can do this in just a yes or no answer because I know Senator Feinstein wants to move on. Last summer, the NSA director was at a conference, and he was asked a question about the NSA surveillance of Americans. He replied, and I quote here, ‘The story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is completely false.’
“The reason I’m asking the question is, having served on the committee now for a dozen years, I don’t really know what a dossier is in this context. So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question, does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?
Director of National Intelligence JAMES CLAPPER: “No, sir.
SEN. WYDEN: “It does not?
DIR. CLAPPER: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.
SEN. WYDEN: “Thank you. I’ll have additional questions to give you in writing on that point, but I thank you for the answer.

It is unfair for Obama to make light of Americans’ potential distrust of congress when there is recent evidence, that even our duly elected government officials can not pry even a semblance of truth, under oath (which indicates rule of law) from the Director of National Security.

I believe a reasonable person would assume that Ron Wyden was asking his question on behalf of the American people. Presumably, Wyden was well-briefed on PRISM at that point and knew the answer to his question was yes.

So allowing the false verbal testimony to stand seems to have done more harm than good: the exchange was misleading to the public, It was supposed to appear as truthful testimony and a matter cleanly resolved. In fact it was neither.

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