NSA Headquarters in Ft. Meade, MD

Through a Prism Darkly


Through a Prism Darkly

Logo for the NSA’s PRISM data mining program that operates out of Camp Williams National Guard Base, in Bluffdale, UT (Complete Photo Credits are located at the end of this article)

At Camp W.G. Williams National Guard base in Bluffdale, UT, the most comprehensive data mining and storage facility in American history has been brought online. Though it has satirically been dubbed Bumblehive (a wordplay on Utah’s nickname, “The Beehive State”), the NSA‘s new spying complex is quite real. Located about thirty miles south of Salt Lake City and spanning approximately 1.5 million square feet, the officially designated Utah Data Center (UDC) houses a nexus of super computers that are said to be capable of storing a yottabyte — that’s one trillion terabytes — of information.

Personal emails, telephone conversations, online purchases, keyword searches and other private digital activities are the sort of “information” the NSA stores at the UDC, gathered from a growing list of major telecommunications and internet service providers (including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Verizon, Yahoo and YouTube) concerning users who have been deemed a threat to national security. This method of intelligence gathering centers around the program known as Prism, an application that accepts raw data streams as they pass through a company’s servers, while simultaneously creating an identical stream that is re-routed to the UDC hub. The process is analogous to what happens when a beam of light is divided into separate wavelengths traveling in different directions as it passes through a glass prism.

Would you willingly relinquish some of your Fourth Amendment protections in exchange for added security?

Ostensibly, the program is designed to combat and prevent acts of terror against U.S. interests, and the Director of National Intelligence Gen. James R. Clapper has testified (see video clip below) that only those suspected of terrorist affiliations will be “wittingly” targeted by Prism.  However, a closer examination of the law reveals that — wittingly or not — American citizens may be placed under surveillance at the NSA’s discretion.  Furthermore, the checks in place to guard against the abuse of such discretionary (and unprecedented) powers is arguably lacking.

The Road to Prism: FISA, FISC & the Patriot Act

Surprisingly, the Federal Government has not superseded the authority granted it by building the UDC in order to house the data collected by Prism, nor has it done so by discharging any other surveillance prerogatives (from its point of view). Though that may come as a shock to some, it is important to understand that these vast powers — broadly interpreted though they may be under current legislation — were not granted overnight. The sun did not set on an American nation that championed the First and Fourth Amendments and then rise on a police state the following day. In this case, the march towards restricted freedoms is being conducted slowly and deliberately. In order to understand how this is possible, it is necessary to review some history on the subject.

James R. Clapper (Official Portrait, 2010)
James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence under President Obama

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which granted U.S. intelligence agencies the right to place suspected foreign agents of a sovereign nation — including American citizens — operating within the confines of the U.S. border under surveillance. A provision of FISA established the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), to serve as oversight to intelligence agencies who would execute the new surveillance powers granted by FISA in order to provide a check against abuse. However, critics of the time argued that FISC itself lacked proper oversight, and that the court could conceivably be misused as a rubber stamp to authorize inappropriate surveillance actions against American citizens.

Nevertheless, our nation quietly continued on in this way for nearly a quarter century, Her citizens tending to business as usual on the surface, while underneath the various agencies (e.g., FBI, CIA, NSA) that comprise the U.S. intelligence apparatus used FISA to quietly help them prosecute the Cold War, as well as to help deal with other suspected threats from foreign nations. Then, on September 11, 2001 (aka 9/11), the U.S. was dealt a crushing blow by Her enemies over seas when the World Trade Center was destroyed in New York City, NY. Over three thousand Americans were killed in this attack orchestrated by al-Qaeda, a Muslim extremist group founded by Osama bin Laden.

In response to 9/11, the U.S. waged the “War on Terror”, then proceeded to invade the nation of Afghanistan — a known al-Qaeda stronghold. Three years later, though the U.S. was still engaged in Afghanistan, the Federal Government decided to launch yet another invasion into the country of Iraq. This decision was based on U.S. intelligence reports that the Iraqi Government had been harboring chemical weapons. (However, these reports were later proven to be erroneous.)

Additionally, President George W. Bush signed into law the USA Patriot Act of 2001, which — among other things — broadened the Federal Government’s powers of domestic surveillance granted under FISA.  This was done in the hopes of aiding law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the identification, apprehension and detention of suspected enemies of the State (whether they be foreign or domestic), before they could successfully carry out attacks against the nation.  Specific provisions within the act, which relaxed long upheld protections in place to guard against illegal search and seizure, were pushed through Congress despite some objections from the liberal left. 

Which brings us to today.

End Justifying the Means

Now, considering the heightened level of anxiety experienced by many Americans in the days, weeks and months after 9/11, it is (perhaps) understandable that the leaders of our terrified nation would choose to sacrifice some personal liberties in exchange for (what they imagined would be) more efficient tools for fighting our enemies. However, it is important to remember that many provisions within the Patriot Act were presented as temporary measures to be taken during a time of war, and that they were signed into law with that understanding.  Any such pretense was erased when President Bush signed a re-authorization bill making a number of those temporary provisions permanent, on March 9 and 10, 2006.

Other provisions under the Patriot Act facing expiration have been reauthorized in recent years, including several by President Barack Obama.  Those versed in history will note that power, once given, is seldom relinquished. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Senate passed yet another extension to the FISA Amendment — and by an overwhelming margin, on December 31, 2012 — granting protections to telecommunications companies for “cooperating” with federal agencies, in the event that they are asked to violate privacy laws by turning over user information. This amendment, the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, essentially grants amnesty to companies for the role they play in the Prism data gathering program operated out of the UDC.

'Utah Data Center Panorama' by Swilsonmc
The Utah Data Center (UDC) located in Bluffdale, UT, holds over a yottabyte of information (which has been collected from internet and telecommunications companies via ‘Prism’) about the browsing habits, emails, online transactions, phone calls and other such activities of U.S. citizens.

Flawed Logic of Pro-Surveillance Advocacy: Propaganda and the Paragon Paradox

1) If a lie is necessary to justify an action, the action itself is unjust.

The proponents of such legislation as the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act maintain that, in these dangerous times, it is necessary to take seemingly drastic steps in order to guard against attack.  Indeed, after 9/11 a popular rhetorical question among hawkish American policymakers and pundits (whenever detractors voiced concern over the far reaching implications of new laws) was: “There haven’t been any terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11, have there?”

This line of reasoning was notably absent in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, however.

But soon other “Modified Pro-Surveillance Justifications” (or, MPSJs*) made their way into talking points and onto airways, accompanied by legislation granting even more power to the Federal Government at the expense of civil liberties.  After all, it does not matter if the body politic’s logic is flawed for as long as it is subscribed to by the majority of active constituents within the body politic.  History has shown us as much whenever extremist groups employ propaganda in a grab for power.

Such end-justifying-the-means rationalizations (i.e., sacrificing some personal freedoms for the purpose of stopping crime) are often used in conjunction with the equally dishonest practice of fear-mongering, which — ironically — enables offending parties to keep taking more and more power to protect the common folk from themselves until the self-proclaimed saviors are, in fact, revealed to be the villains.  That is, by professing the existence of an outside, ever present threat, and then implicitly declaring that the solitary means of combating that threat is to grant additional authority to the party decrying it in the first place, a political entity will seek to promote a constant state of fear; thus accomplishing three crucial goals necessary for any successful coup:

  • To discredit the opposition
  • To rally many followers to the common cause
  • To assume heightened “emergency powers” to bypass legal protocols in order to combat threats (these powers are later made permanent, as discussed a bit further down)

'Joseph Goebbels' by Heinrich Hoffman
“Propaganda is a means to an end. It’s purpose is to lead the people to an understanding that will allow [them] to willingly, and without internal resistance, devote [themselves] to the tasks and goals of a superior leadership.” –Joseph Goebbels
Chillingly, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party used an identical blueprint in the years leading up to 1933.  Doctor Joseph Goebbels, a prominent party member of the time, masterfully used vehicles like newspapers, television broadcasts, radio waves and political rallies to further the NSDAP agenda.  The party’s rise to power was due in large part to Goebbels’ manipulatory skill.

Counter-intuitively, another possible response to the constant bombardment of politically charged fear-mongering is apathy. After a certain point, the warnings of imminent doom seem to wash over some people like white noise.  Sadly, however, the end result is the same — a lazy people are just as susceptible to abuse as a misled people.

In any case, once temporary emergency powers (i.e., to sidestep legality in the pursuit of enemies of the state) have been granted, the political body will simply attempt to hold onto it indefinitely, perpetually instilling distrust, hatred and fear towards “enemies” — be they real, exaggerated, or some combination thereof — while simultaneously maintaining that the only means of deliverance exists through strict, unquestioning adherence to the ideals of the party.  As such, the new controlling faction is free to realize it’s vision for the society unchallenged, eschewing cooperation and compromise, and silencing outright dissent.

2) The Paragon Paradox

Another popular argument among those who advocate for granting the government heightened surveillance permissions, is: “I don’t have anything to hide, and neither should you,” which your author calls the Paragon Paradox.  That is, the overseers of a population have set a standard of behavior, of being, for everyone to aspire to (based on themselves or some cultural icon, etc.).  However, it must of necessity be left to the overseers to determine who is, and more importantly who is not, towing the societal line.  Indeed, those who agree wholeheartedly with the powers that be about what people should believe, and how they should behave, have nothing to worry about — unless, of course, the overseers should ever have a change of heart.

In such cases, those who agreed with the cultural “Paragon” ideal of the past will now come into conflict with the Paragon of the present. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that those who exist in harmony with the Paragon of the present will find themselves in conflict with the Paragon of the future. Similarly, if the Paragon is ever replaced by someone who has different ideas about how people should behave altogether, the process begins anew.  If a society’s legal infrastructure is set up in such a way as to grant power to a few who determine right from wrong — even down to right thinking and speaking —a person might very well find themself an upstanding citizen one day and an enemy of the state the next! (For those who think this unlikely in modern America, just consider the assassination of 16-year old U.S. citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki on October 14, 2011, in Yemen.  Many believe the boy was targeted simply because of who his father was.)

Liberty and Death

'During Operation Neptune Spear' by Pete Souza
President Obama and staff watching a live feed of Operation Neptune Spear — the mission to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden — on 2011 May 11 (Dir. James Clapper is standing at far right)

The United States is at war with an unconventional enemy.  Cloaked in mystery, they lurk in the shadows, donning neither uniforms nor identifying apparel. They hide in plain site: in the middle of a crowd or on a bus; eating dinner at a restaurant; patronizing a movie theater.  When attacking, they show a blatant disregard for life — including their own — and their only goal is to wreak as much havoc and to kill as many people as possible. They are called terrorists, and the name is fitting.

At first glance, it would seem as though the United States is winning the War on Terror.  Have we not disrupted the enemy’s “armies” at every turn, killing or capturing their leaders with ruthless efficiency?  Have we not invaded their countries, overwhelmed their defenses and eliminated hundreds of millions of dollars worth of their assets?

Yet, your author would argue that we are well on the way to losing — not only the war — but the country, as well.  The sacrifices that we have allowed ourselves to make during the prosecution of this global conflict have perverted the ideals of liberty for which we are supposedly the stewards.    How can any American citizen support the implementation of a surveillance program like Prism, or a legislative tragedy like the Patriot Act, and still claim to be a patriot?

Consider that the unconventional enemy we face has employed an equally unconventional battle plan.  Since they don’t have the resources to simply destroy us outright, they instead bide their time. They settle in and wait, occasionally scaring us with strikes designed to incur as much carnage as possible. They prey on our instincts of self-preservation, knowing that we will sacrifice much in order to survive.

However, it is in these sacrifices that the enemy scores the deadliest blow.  By reducing us to a state of mere survival, wherein we actively over-police ourselves and willfully give up our freedoms — in an attempt to avoid being stung again — we destroy ourselves.
Every time another personal liberty is struck down by our short-sighted elected and appointed officials, we erase another of the freedoms that make us exceptional.  Without those we are just another country — another empire — that is born, lives and dies.  With it, we may yet regain our standing as the golden child of human endeavor, the stewards of justice and the shining example for the rest of the world to follow.

But we have some work to do, because the America that we live in today has become alien.  It is not the nation that our forebears fought and died for.  We, the People, have idled — smug and complacent — while foreign and domestic enemies have corrupted the soul of the country.  In a very real way, the terrorists have already won, helped along by those who would seek to combat evil by doing evil themselves.

American Duality

From the original sin that stained our country’s inception with the agony of human bondage, to the Confederate States of America that fought tooth and nail to resist the liberation of those who had been enslaved (and the half million who died before they would be deterred from that struggle), we have always been at war with the better angels and base demons of our nature.

Janus Coin
Coin depicting Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings

For years we glossed over the genocide of the Native Americans during the Great Westward Expansion, until revisionist historians fought to set the record straight long after the blood of countless murdered innocents had been absorbed by the sands of time.  Even now there are those who would downplay the atrocities committed then, as others fight to improve life for the progeny of those who fared so poorly under our care.  We are, at once, the sum of the terrible acts that we have perpetuated as well as the guardians of truth who seek to right wrongs — oftentimes committed by us — and mete out justice to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

From the corruption of Tammany Hall to the quid pro quo government contracts that were handed down to American companies during post-war reconstruction in Iraq, greed has always thrived within our body politic.  And it is this flaw that continually attempts to pervert what is good and righteous about us, poisoning the lifeblood of our Republic like so many millions of gallons of crude oil poisoning marine life in the Gulf of Mexico.  Indeed, it would seem that those base demons have won more battles than they have lost.

On the other hand, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in order to expose the deplorable conditions that immigrant meat packers were subjected to in a newly-industrialized America, and his work contributed to eventual reform.  Similarly, Woodward and Bernstein brought President Richard M. Nixon down for abusing his executive privileges, and the most powerful man in the country was forced to resign after breaking our laws.  And let’s not forget about Jeremy Scahill, the intrepid journalist who willfully placed himself in harm’s way in order to expose the questionable tactics of the military during the U.S. conflict in Afghanistan — America’s longest war.

These, and other, such examples have shown us that the ability to write and speak without fear of censorship is an essential tool for agents of reform.  Is it really wise, then, to restrict the voices of activists, social critics, whistleblowers and journalists in the name of heightened security?  Doing so may help the powers-that-be catch more terrorists, but it also amplifies the potential for abuse — something that we are all too familiar with.

From the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy to the Bill of Rights; from Valley Forge to Omaha Beach; from Sherman’s destruction of the Confederate South to the fifty-eight thousand Americans who gave their lives in Vietnam without ever knowing why; we are both the villains and the heroes of this story.  Our conduct informs others to the calibre of our character more than lofty rhetoric ever could.  The soul of this Republic is measured by our deeds, and whether or not we have the courage to do what is right even when it is hard.

Will we wear the white hat in history books that have not yet been written, or the black?  Perhaps the best we can hope for is grey.  But while it is easy to ignore the inherent danger that comes from insidious policies in favor of more tangible confrontations, I would submit that if we lose enough battles on the first front, the second simply won’t matter.  These attacks on privacy and free speech — that were legalized in theory by the Patriot Act and implemented in practice with Prism — committed in the name of stopping terrorists, constitutes one of the great battles of our generation.  We must choose who will win this round in the fight for our collective soul: the angels or the demons.

If you answered 'Yes' or 'I'm unsure' to the question asked near the beginning of this editorial, have you reconsidered your position after reading the article?

**Modified Pro-Surveillance Justifications (post-9/11):

Modified Pro-Surveillance Justifications (MPSJs) are re-configured talking points, employed by concerned parties, to advocate for heightened surveillance in a post-9/11 world. These talking points may be modified to suit any situation, and may even contradict a previous MPSJ. Your author’s intention is to update this list as he becomes aware of new (relevant) occurrences:

1. Kopan, T. Lindsey Graham ‘glad’ NSA tracking phones [Internet]. Washington, D.C.: Politico; 2013 Jun 6, [cited 2013 Jun 6]. Available from: http://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/lindsey-graham-nsa-tracking-phones-92330.html

2. Finn P., and Nakashima E. Obama defends sweeping surveillance efforts [Internet]. Washingto, D.C.: The Washington Post; 2013 Jun 6, [cited 2013 Jun 6]. Available from: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-06-07/politics/39806756_1_president-obama-phone-records-privacy

3. Goodman, L. Surveillance ‘could’ have stopped 9/11 [Internet]. Place unknown: MSN Network; 2013 Jun 16, [cited 2013 Jun 16]. Available from: http://news.ca.msn.com/world/cheney-surveillance-could-have-stopped-9-11-1

4. Sanger DE., Shanker, T. N.S.A. Director Firmly Defends Surveillance Efforts [Internet]. New York, NY: The New York Times; 2013 Oct 12, [2013 Oct 12]. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/us/nsa-director-gives-firm-and-broad-defense-of-surveillance-efforts.html?_r=0


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