Ted Rall: Ten Things You Probably Don’t Know About PRISM

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Written by Ted Rall

Make no doubt about it. Contrary to popular opinion, the NSA surveillance PRISM scandal is aimed at ordinary Americans. Whether the government is going to look at your messages now or later just is not the point, says Ted Rall. Here are the top 10 things you need to know about PRISM.

aNewDomain.net — Our Ted Rall continues his coverage on the FBI NSA PRISM surveillance scandal. Here’s the Ted Rall PRISM perspective on 10 things you probably don’t know about the scandal, but should.

Here’s U.S. President Barack Obama: “What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls and the NSA cannot target your e-mails.” Well, say what you like about Mr. Hope and Change, but that certainly is a reassuring response to the recent revelations about NSA domestic spying – that is, snooping on the communications of ordinary American citizens.

Straightforward. Plainspoken English. It must mean exactly what it sounds like it means, right?

Remember, our President is a lawyer.

And there is nothing unequivocal about it at all.

Not only can the NSA listen to your phone calls and target your emails — the USA Patriot Act specifically gives them the right to do so if the person on the other end of the call or the digital communication is overseas — it all depends what the meaning of “listen” is.

In NSA jargon, the transcript of your email and the voice recording of your phone call has not been “collected” until a government spook brings it up on his computer and reads it or listens to it. The fact is, all of your emails and all your phone calls and all your text messages are now on U.S. Government servers. They can listen to them any time, they can read them anytime. It’s up to the Government.

I don’t know about you, but let’s use the analogy of nude photographs. If there are naked photographs of me on the Internet, it doesn’t make me feel much better to find out that not many people are finding them and looking at them right now. What terrifies me is the potential that they might suddenly go viral. Similarly, the problem is that the Government has this stuff at all. Whether or not they are treating it respectfully or right now is beside the point.

This is just one of many examples of the wild spin that the Obama administration is using in order to obfuscate what is really a very simple issue: the Government is way up in our business.

So let’s get some clarity on what’s really going on with 10 things you probably don’t know about the NSA scandals.

1. PRISM, not Verizon, is the bigger story.

Government-aligned mainstream media outlets like The New York Times and NPR focus more on Verizon because — though what the phone company did was egregious — it’s less indefensible. “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama says. (When that’s what passes for reassurance, you’ve got a PR problem.) PRISM, they keep saying, is targeted at “foreigners” so Americans shouldn’t be angry about it. But …

2. PRISM really is directed at Americans.

“Unlike the call data collection program, this program focuses on mining the content of online communication, not just the metadata about them, and is potentially a much greater privacy intrusion,” notes Popular Mechanics.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress that the NSA does not collect “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”  He added, “Not wittingly.” As The New York Times said in an uncharacteristically bold post, this is a lie. Here’s what’s behind the Rumsfeldian logic of what Clapper describes as his “least most-untruthful” testimony: “What I was thinking of,” explains Clapper, “is looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers of those books in the metaphorical library. To me the collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the books off the shelf, opening it up and reading it.”

In other words, the NSA collects the search histories, emails, file transfer records and actual live chats of every American. They store them in a data farm. Whenever the NSA wants to look at them, they can. But according to Clapper, this isn’t “collecting.” It’s only “collecting” when they choose to read what they have.

I have bought several books. They’re on my shelf. I haven’t read them yet. Have I “collected” them? Of course.

I don’t want the NSA to read my sexts or look at my dirty pictures. The fact that they might not have gotten around to them yet — but just have them sitting on their shelves in the meantime — doesn’t make me feel better.

3. President Obama should be impeached over this.

Richard Nixon was. Or he would have been, if he hadn’t first resigned. Obama, his top officials and his political surrogates have repeatedly and knowingly lied to us when they said the NSA didn’t “routinely sweep up information about millions of Americans.”

The President should go now. So should others who knew about this.

4. PRISM and other NSA spy programs are not approved by courts or by Congress.

White House defenders say the surveillance — which is, remember, a comprehensive vacuuming up of the entire Internet, and of every phone call ever made — has been approved by the Legislative and Judicial Branches, so there’s nothing to worry about. Right? Wrong.

It just isn’t true. The “FISA court” is so secret that, until last week, no one had ever seen a document issued by it. It’s not a real court. It’s a useless rubber-stamp panel that literally approves every surveillance request the Government asks for. In 2012, that’s 1,856 requests and 1,856 approvals.

Very few members of Congress were aware of the Verizon or PRISM programs before reading about them in the media. A few members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were aware perhaps, and a few select Friends of Barack were aware perhaps, and that’s it. That’s not Congressional oversight. Real oversight occurs in full session, in public, on C-SPAN.

5. There is no evidence that NSA spying keeps America safe. And so what if it does?

According to Government officials, PRISM saved the New York City subways from being bombed in 2009. Actually, the alleged would-be terrorist was caught by old-fashioned detective work, not data-mining. There is zero evidence that the NSA has saved a single American from being blown up.

But so what if it did? In recent years, between 15 and 17 Americans a year died worldwide from terrorist attacks. You’re as likely to be crushed to death by your television set. It’s sad for the dozen and a half victims, of course. But terrorism is a low, low national priority. Or it should be. Terrorism isn’t enough of a danger to justify taking away the privacy rights of 320 million people.

6. This is not a post-9/11 thing.

We’re being told that PRISM and the latest Patriot Act-approved surveillance state excesses date back to post-9/11. This “make us safe at any cost” paranoia is not just post-9/11, though. In fact, the NSA has been way up in your business long before that.

Back in December 1998 the French newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur revealed the existence of a covert partnership between the NSA and 26 U.S. allies. “The power of the network, codenamed ECHELON, is astounding,” the BBC reported in 1999. “Every international telephone call, fax, e-mail, or radio transmission can be listened to by powerful computers capable of voice recognition. They home in on a long list of key words, or patterns of messages. They are looking for evidence of international crime, like terrorism…the system is so widespread all sorts of private communications, often of a sensitive commercial nature, are hoovered up and analyzed.” ECHELON dates back to the 1980s. PRISM picks up where ECHELON left off, adding the Internet to its bag of tricks.

7. Edward Snowden expects to be extradited.

U.S. media wonders aloud, “puzzled” at whistleblower Snowden’s decision to go to Hong Kong, which routinely extradites criminal suspects to the United States. But Snowden’s explanation is crystal clear. All you have to do is listen. “People who think I made a mistake in picking HK as a location misunderstand my intentions,” he told a local newspaper. “I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality.” Snowden could go to Ecuador, or perhaps Venezuela or Iceland. He’s staying put because he wants to face trial in the U.S.  And I doubt he’ll cop a plea when he does. He wants a political hearing so he can put the system on trial. In the meantime, he’ll use the time it’ll take Obama’s legal goons to process the extradition to talk to journalists. To explain himself. To make his case to the public. And, of course, to help shepherd those new revelations Greenwald mentioned.

8. Caught being evil — or collaborating with evil — Google and other tech companies are scared shitless.

And they should be. Consumers and businesses know now that when Big Brother comes calling, Big Tech doesn’t do what they should do — protect their customers’ privacy by calling their lawyers and fighting back. This could hurt their bottom lines. “Other countries will start routing around the U.S. information economy by developing, or even mandating, their own competing services,” speculates Popular Mechanics. Europe, worried about the U.S. exploiting the NSA for industrial espionage, began working on work-around systems that avoid U.S. Internet concerns.

9. 51% of Americans trust the Government’s PRISM program, which the Government repeatedly lied about. What people don’t know should worry them.

You’re not a terrorist. You don’t hang out with them. So why worry? Because the data collected by the NSA isn’t likely to stay locked up in Utah forever. Data wants to be free — and hackers have already proven they can access the NSA. Some want to sell it to private concerns. To insurance companies, so they can determine whether your buying habits make you a suitable risk. To banks. To security outfits, to run background checks for their clients. To marketers. Mining of Big Data can screw up your life — bad credit, can’t get a job — and you’ll never know what hit you. Oh, and don’t forget: governments change. Nixon abused the IRS and FBI to attack political opponents. Innocuous census data that collected religious affiliations was used by the Nazis to round up Jews when the Nazis came to power.

10. In the long run, the end of privacy will liberate us.

Everyone (who isn’t boring) has a dirty secret. The way things are going, all those secrets will be as out as Dan Savage — and just as happy and self-assured. Blackmail — the what-nobody-talks-about-real-reason-PRISM-is-creepy — only works if most dirty secrets are hard to come by. But if everyone’s got a nude photo online, if everyone’s sexual deviations are searchable and indexed, the power of shame goes away as quickly as it does at a nudist colony. By the time the surveillance state plays out, we may look back at 2013 as the year when America began to move past Puritanism.

If we’re not in a gulag.

Based in Boston, Ted Rall is a syndicated political columnist, beloved cartoonist, two-time winner of the Robert F. Kennedy journalism award and a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He writes about politics and anything else that strikes his interest here at aNewDomain.net. Read more at our Ted Rall’s website at tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be on shelves in 2014 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).



  • This is extraordinary. Your site — is it just me — damn, it is getting better and better. Gina Smith? DVORAK? TED RALL?

    Jesus, who is next. Congratulations to anewdomain? Can I write for you?

    • Send us your particulars! As Ed Director — ie midwife — I love to bring new (or old and wise) writers to our crazy group of journalists — all of us trying to reinvent journalism, as it were.