QUICK RESPONSE: PRISM, Verizon, and other Expanded Surveillance This Isn’t a Scandal, It’s a Test

The facts are still slowly trickling out on a couple of government surveillance programs.

On Wednesday, news broke that the US government had secretly collected information on every phone call made on Verizon’s phone network from April 25 to July 19. The information collected included the phone numbers of each party, the duration of the call, as well as location and time data.


We are learning about this now as the result of a leaked FISA court order, which Senator Dianne Feinstein has described, in defending it, as an “exact three-month renewal of what has been the case for the past seven years.” In other words, we should assume that the scale of data collection far exceeds what we learned about on Wednesday.

On Thursday, another program, called “PRISM”, became public as the result of yet another set of leaks. The PRISM program, according to reporting from the Guardian, involves the National Security Agency gaining direct access to online user data, including search history, the content of emails, file transfers, and live chats.

The 41-slide, classified Power Point presentation on PRISM that was leaked to the Guardian indicates that this is done with the cooperation of the technology companies involved. Those companies have vehemently denied knowledge of the program. The administration, in the person of James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, has defended the program and asserted that the Guardian and Washington Post reporting contained a number of inaccuracies.

As this story is still unfolding, we’ll have to wait for more of the facts to become known before speaking too authoritatively on the subject. It’s not hard to imagine that the scale of this goes way beyond what Americans would have conceived of and are prepared to accept. But it’s also not inconceivable that we’ll learn that the programs are sufficiently well-targeted to assuage most Americans.

The political fallout is likely to be significant, but it’s still mostly to be determined. You can be sure the administration is preparing to weather the storm and you can be certain the Republicans are getting ready to exploit their advantage.

But in important ways, this isn’t just a scandal, it’s also test. It’s a test of whether this country’s governing institutions are capable of dealing with a substantive problem in a substantive way or whether they’ll instead, as happened with Benghazi, deteriorate into political theatre.

For Democrats, the test is whether they’ll be able to get out of the way and let the political cost fall squarely on the White House. There will be a temptation to blame shift by pointing out that these programs predate Obama and are authorized by the Republican-championed Patriot Act. That’s true, but beside the point. Obama is the sitting President and has been in power for five years, so even if these programs predate him, he’s in for his fair share blame. The Democrats need to let him have it.

(It’s also likely that some will try to draw comparisons between these programs and the warrantless wiretapping that happened during the Bush era, forgetting that the operative word in that scandal was ‘warrantless’.)

NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland

NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland

Playing the blame game just means this will become yet another pointless episode of mudslinging in Washington; if we’re going to have a productive investigation into the scope of these programs, then the White House is going to have to take the heat for them.

For Republicans, the test will be whether they’re able to control their urge to squeeze every last drop of partisan advantage out of this scandal. On Benghazi, the Republicans went down the conspiracy rabbit hole and the country lost out on an opportunity to have a real conversation about our embassy security operations. If they let that instinct take over here, we’re going to get a lot of heat, but not a lot of light.

There isn’t much doubt that these programs are, at least, disturbing and any airing of the facts will reflect poorly on the President. The Republicans should accept that gift and focus on investigating the programs, rather than sliding into ad hominem attacks on Barack Obama.

It should also be said, that from a governing standpoint, the bigger scandal here is the lack of Congressional oversight, rather than the Executive overreach.

A lot has already been made about President Obama’s hypocrisy over transparency and surveillance. But, frankly, the Presidency is institutionally hypocritical. Every President has a reason to think that they, and they alone, should be entrusted with extraordinary powers. But those powers are always inherited by their successor – so the ratchet only works one way.

The Executive is designed to overreach, it’s designed to push the envelope of what’s allowable. That’s why the President is the Commander-in-Chief. The Congress is supposed to constrain him; that’s why they have the power over war and peace.

The White House’s claims that they can adequately constrain themselves are corrosive and obnoxious, but also inevitable. It’s up to the Congress to provide genuine oversight, rather than to rubber-stamp the expansion of Executive power or to engage in meaningless grandstanding.

Come back Tuesday for a longer look at civil liberties, executive power, and the threat of terrorism.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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