Commentary forum, 6/18

Commentary Forum Center: Has Big Brother finally got our numbers?

By Alex Culpepper

Illustration: Nate Beeler

Reports are already hailing Edward Snowden as the possible heavyweight champ of whistleblowing for providing information to The Guardian newspaper about the National Security Agency (NSA) data gathering efforts that has the country in uproar. Snowden had access to this classified information because he worked for the NSA as a contractor employed by Booz Allen Hamilton. He has since fled to Hong Kong to keep a fair distance from possible government retaliation.

Snowden’s revelations spotlight the NSA harvesting billions of records of people’s telephone and Internet activities over several years, information considered private by many but considered within the legal realm of surveillance by the NSA. First, it was Verizon handing over records to the NSA, and now reports say other telephone companies have been involved in the information swap, too. Further, under a program called PRISM, the claim is the NSA has access to servers from nine Internet companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook from which they mine data. These companies claim no voluntary participation in the NSA’s programs. Revelations about the NSA’s actions has generated monumental controversy.

The Obama administration, the NSA and supporters of NSA surveillance say these operations are necessary to protect and defend U.S. interests from terrorism and to root out conspiracy both here and abroad. The government claims data mining reveals particular patterns showing large-scale illegal or terrorist activity and has foiled attempted terrorist attacks. They further say what they are gathering is not private – it is no more personal than information on an envelope.

Opponents argue the metadata gathering is too intrusive, and the information is collected without compelling reason or need and without court order. Add to that, the gathering of Internet activity records under PRISM and the government access to people’s telephone and computer habits, and those details offer tremendous information about a person and can develop a pretty good profile of an individual. Further, opponents view this scenario as hard evidence of the Big Brother government intrusion that authors and social critics have warned about for decades.

That the United States has intelligence gathering entities with the will and capabilities to gather information across the planet is no secret, but to what depths they can dig and about whom, especially with regard to its own citizens, is of great concern. The NSA and their supporters want technology to enhance and extend national security efforts, yet the other side wonders about the cost of that security and whether national security is even the true motive.

Commentary forum question of the week:

Via leaked information by exiled former CIA employee Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) has covertly gathered billions of U.S. citizens’ telephone and Internet records in the name of national security. Are your phone and Internet records as public as how a mailed letter is tracked? Or is this “Big Brother” government gone too far?


Commentary Forum: PRISM: The last chance for America

By Ted Rall

The charter of the National Security Agency (NSA), 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.”



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,” wrote 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 percent 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 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?

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.


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.

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 … 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.

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.

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. 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 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.


Commentary forum: Where is the line between privacy and security?

By Dave Landon

Last weeks’ startling revelations over the government’s expansive surveillance program have dramatically pointed out the need for a national conversation on privacy and security. While the security programs were known to Washington lawmakers, they were largely unknown to the public until former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked a series of stories this month. Snowden reported that one of the NSA’s programs had the technological ability to scoop up raw data on nearly every phone call placed in the United States. With Snowden’s revelations, Americans are asking themselves whether the post-9/11 security measures have now gone too far.

The authority for the massive surveillance and data gathering is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). One particular section of the act coming under scrutiny is the so-called business-records collection provision – known as Section 215 – of the post-9/11 law that allows aggressive data surveillance to foil terror plots. Wisconsin Republican Representative Jim Sensenbrenner helped draft Section 215 but now doesn’t support its wide interpretation under the Obama administration.

The concern by the general public is over the possible intrusive nature of the data gathering. One program revealed by Snowden, the telephone “metadata” program, obtains call logs from Americans’ telephone lines. The programs records the number called and the length of the call but, according to government officials, does not survey the “content” of conversations. Over the weekend, administrative officials flooded the Sunday morning news shows to tamp down the growing controversy.

Over the weekend, the administration also released a three-page document regarding the NSA programs to congressional intelligence committees, stating that as a result of the program, terrorist plots were thwarted in the U.S. and more than 20 other countries. In an attempt to show that the surveillance programs are less sweeping than alleged, officials also reported that NSA checked just 300 phone numbers last year against its database of millions of U.S. phone records gathered daily. The other program which has come into view is the PRISM program, which surveys foreigners’ Internet use. Unlike the “metadata” program, this program is about the content of the email messages. It has been suggested that this program has now been enhanced and had it been functioning in 2009, it might have prevented the Ft. Hood massacre by intercepting the multiple email exchanges between the shooter Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, an American citizen on U.S. soil, and radical cleric al-Awlaki, the terrorist who encouraged Hasan to act.

So is this data mining by NSA something out of a Orwellian nightmare, or is this a reasonable intrusion by our government into our collective privacy in order to keep us safe from a very real threat? After the smoke cleared and the carnage of 9/11 tragically demonstrated that there were people in the world bent on our destruction, granting the government the increased ability to monitor the “bad” guys seemed like a price that we should begrudgingly be willing to pay. I, along with many others, supported the passage of the Patriot Act in light of the very real threat posed by radical Islam. I think that it was needed at the time and, as a result, lives have been saved.

I want to believe that there are checks and balances in place today that would keep my government from abusing the authority that it has been granted. However, recent stories in the news have given me serious questions about whether or not my government can be trusted with the tremendous power that it has been afforded by the people. There is a danger that as government becomes so large and involved in our everyday lives, a mindset develops that “the government will take care of me as long as I am compliant.” Americans today are concerned, as there seems to be a steady assault by the government on treasured rights afforded them by the U.S. Constitution, many times under the guise of keeping them safer.

Really, how big is the leap from witnessing a government agency like the IRS filtering groups based on content and value systems to the NSA using a metadata collection of telephone calls and email messages to track individual Americans not in step with the administration? I’m uneasy that there are not sufficient checks and balances to make certain that this type of abuse can’t happen. Before the last several months, who would have seriously believed that the IRS would target you because you were advocating smaller government or that you opposed abortions? Yet, that is clearly what has happened.

This is still a dangerous world and I want the U.S. government doing everything it can within reason to protect me. That would include intercepting overseas communications from known or suspected al Qaeda operatives attempting to communicate with someone here in this country. But it should certainly not include capturing every phone call made within the United States if there is any ability to retrieve the content of those calls. I remain skeptical that there is a valid investigative need to collect the numbers of every phone call made within the United States, even if the only ability is to retrieve them for their frequency and length. Within the United States, the Bill of Rights still applies to communications by American citizens. NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander has some explaining to do.


David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at

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