The National Security Agency and the FBI 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 foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.PRISM was launched after deatails of former President George W. Bush's warantless wiretapping program were made public in 2007, and the program supposedly imploded, but naturally with no accountability for a grave breach of public trust and privacy laws, and with a FISA bill passed by Congress granting retroactive immunity to participating telecom companies, thus shutting down any avenue for civil suits. At the time, then-Senator Hillary Clinton, who voted against the bill, outlined the problem with the legislation:
The program, code-named PRISM, has not been made public until now. It may be the first of its kind. The NSA prides itself on stealing secrets and breaking codes, and it is accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers. But there has never been a Google or Facebook before, and it is unlikely that there are richer troves of valuable intelligence than the ones in Silicon Valley.
Equally unusual is the way the NSA extracts what it wants, according to the document: "Collection directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple."
[E]ven as we considered this legislation, the administration refused to allow the overwhelming majority of Senators to examine the warrantless wiretapping program. This made it exceedingly difficult for those Senators who are not on the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees to assess the need for the operational details of the legislation, and whether greater protections are necessary. The same can be said for an assessment of the telecom immunity provisions. On an issue of such tremendous importance to our citizens...all Senators should have been entitled to receive briefings that would have enabled them to make an informed decision about the merits of this legislation. I cannot support this legislation when we know neither the nature of the surveillance activities authorized nor the role played by telecommunications companies granted immunity.Clinton warned that without a full understanding of the program, and without meaningful accountability, there was no guarantee that the same type of surveillance would continue, without oversight or accountability. She argued that "any surveillance program must contain safeguards to protect the rights of Americans against abuse, and to preserve clear lines of oversight and accountability over this administration." That legislation did not ensure this would happen. And it hasn't.
Congress must vigorously check and balance the president even in the face of dangerous enemies and at a time of war. That is what sets us apart. And that is what is vital to ensuring that any tool designed to protect us is used – and used within the law – for that purpose and that purpose alone.
Back to details of the PRISM program:
In four new orders, which remain classified, the court defined massive data sets as "facilities" and agreed to certify periodically that the government had reasonable procedures in place to minimize collection of "U.S. persons" data without a warrant.Oh. Sure. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to see here. Move along.
...An internal presentation of 41 briefing slides on PRISM, dated April 2013 and intended for senior analysts in the NSA's Signals Intelligence Directorate, described the new tool as the most prolific contributor to the President's Daily Brief, which cited PRISM data in 1,477 items last year. According to the slides and other supporting materials obtained by The Post, "NSA reporting increasingly relies on PRISM" as its leading source of raw material, accounting for nearly 1 in 7 intelligence reports.
That is a remarkable figure in an agency that measures annual intake in the trillions of communications. It is all the more striking because the NSA, whose lawful mission is foreign intelligence, is reaching deep inside the machinery of American companies that host hundreds of millions of American-held accounts on American soil.
...The Obama administration points to ongoing safeguards in the form of "extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons."
And it is true that the PRISM program is not a dragnet, exactly. From inside a company's data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes, but under current rules the agency does not try to collect it all.
Analysts who use the system from a Web portal at Fort Meade, Md., key in "selectors," or search terms, that are designed to produce at least 51 percent confidence in a target's "foreignness." That is not a very stringent test. Training materials obtained by The Post instruct new analysts to make quarterly reports of any accidental collection of U.S. content, but add that "it's nothing to worry about."
The companies who are reportedly part of the PRISM program are denying their involvement, issuing carefully worded statements that say they participate with the government in accordance with the law. What we know for sure is that the details of this totally-not-a-dragnet surveillance program were not disclosed to US citizens, and that there has not been meaningful oversight or accountability to ensure that data collection does not infringe on the privacy of law-abiding US citizens. But that's "nothing to worry about." Naturally.
Instead, we are getting the usual rigmarole about how what we should REALLY be worried about is the dire threat to national security that exposure of the PRISM program constitutes.
In a statement issue late Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said "information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats. The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans."The same goddamn refrain that has been used by the Bush administration and the Obama administration to justify every overreach of executive power and unconstitutional intelligence-gathering—not to mention torture, extraordinary rendition, and indefinite detainment—for the last 13 years.
During the same vote for the 2008 FISA legislation, another Senator, in defense of his (curious) yea vote, said:
Given the grave threats that we face, our national security agencies must have the capability to gather intelligence and track down terrorists before they strike, while respecting the rule of law and the privacy and civil liberties of the American people. There is also little doubt that the Bush Administration, with the cooperation of major telecommunications companies, has abused that authority and undermined the Constitution by intercepting the communications of innocent Americans without their knowledge or the required court orders.If only President Barack Obama felt as passionately about presidential overreach as Senator Barack Obama did.
...Under this compromise legislation, an important tool in the fight against terrorism will continue, but the President's illegal program of warrantless surveillance will be over. It restores FISA and existing criminal wiretap statutes as the exclusive means to conduct surveillance – making it clear that the President cannot circumvent the law and disregard the civil liberties of the American people.