The NSA Operations Center in 2012. Credit: Wiki Commons.
See also: Demystifying the NSA Surveillance Program by John Prados
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
John Prados, author of the new book The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power (September 2013), answers a few questions on the breaking news about the NSA’s current activities—and how his book foreshadowed it.
How does your forthcoming book, The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power, intersect with the current breaking news about the NSA?
The stunning revelation that people all over the globe—including both Americans and citizens of many other lands, innocently phoning or e-mailing their friends and associates—are being monitored by the National Security Agency (NSA) was explicitly predicted in my book. The book also anticipated the U.S. government response: blaming the messenger rather than repairing the massive transgression against individual rights and personal freedom entailed in these NSA surveillance programs.
What specifically are you referring to when you outline the NSA’s activities?
I refer collectively here to a group of related NSA projects by the name of one of them, “Prism.” That initiative has gathered data on individuals’ use of telephones, including the point of origin, identities of people calling, time of day, duration of conversations, and numbers and locations of recipients. The NSA collection is chilling—in the single month of March 2013 the agency vacuumed up no fewer than 97 billion bits of data—and they have been at it for the better part of a decade. A related effort collects the contents of electronic messages sent from persons in the United States to foreign addressees. This intelligence program dwarfs the NSA wiretapping and surveillance efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, aimed at American citizens, which proved so controversial they were subjected to congressional investigation. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 was enacted specifically to curb this kind of abuse.
Have acts such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 or other forms of oversight been at all effective in limiting these abuses?
Such reforms as were instituted in the 1978 act have been progressively dismantled, in a process that began even before 9/11. Following that tragedy, the government pulled out all the stops with the Patriot Act, plus the 2008 amendments to it. The Family Jewels shows how NSA surveillance and other domestic abuses (by the NSA, CIA, and other elements of U.S. intelligence) sparked fierce controversy in the 1970s and led to the creation of the present American system for intelligence oversight. But the security services have now replicated the abuses on a global scale, as the book documents, and they rely on secrecy to protect themselves from accountability. The Family Jewels argues that abusive actions carried out in secret create “Family Jewels,” scandals waiting to burst out and discredit legitimate intelligence operations. Congressional oversight is not enough. Prism shows the reality that has been so shrouded in secrecy.
How does the government justify the NSA’s activities? For example, has Prism been effective in preventing attacks?
Government officials point to one case in which Prism helped derail a terrorist plot, and to one other where the NSA collection assisted in the criminal investigation of an attack already carried out. This value (two cases) needs to be weighed against the chilling effect of authorities mounting surveillance of all citizens everywhere, gathering trillions of pieces of data. Proportionality is an issue. So is the open violation of the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution. The Family Jewels explores the controversial intelligence activities—then and now—in detail, shows the failures of presidential control and congressional oversight, and illuminates the debilitating effects of secrecy. The book offers a way forward. The Family Jewels furnishes a guide to thinking about the central security issue of our time.
What do you think is the next step? How do we work toward a balance between gathering necessary information and protecting private citizens?
Really we’re talking about two kinds of efforts here. One is at the level of authorization and accountability. In The Family Jewels I discuss creating a mechanism for regular, periodic housecleaning—public reviews of intelligence activities by a board akin to the 9/11 Commission. If intelligence officials knew they would be obliged to answer to the American people, regularly, inevitably, in a forum they could not avoid, that would go a long way toward getting rid of abuses. The other kind of work we need is more gumshoe intelligence efforts. Prism really represents a lazy man’s device. We had a capability, so we found a way to use it. Of the two cases being cited in justifying this overreach, I’ve seen no convincing evidence that the New York subway plot could not have been broken up by more conventional means, and as for the investigation of the Mumbai attack—well, that involved a criminal inquiry after the fact. The FBI and other authorities would have had no difficulty at all in obtaining a proper warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court enabling them to explore all of that individual’s electronic communications, and thus all the material used to obtain his plea. Plus the Mumbai case had nothing to do with breaking up a terrorist plot. If that’s everything the administration can offer in support of Prism, I’d say they’re on awfully thin ice. The bottom line is that the spooks have gone way too far, that the secrecy abets their enterprise, and that it’s time for citizens to sit up and pay attention. “Big Brother” is here, today!