Commentary Magazine


Topic: PRISM

Wyden’s Stunt Was Congress at its Worst

On the face of it what happened in March was an example of everything that is wrong with government. When asked a straightforward question about whether the government collects data on millions of Americans, the director of national intelligence said the answer was no. In the wake of the revelation of the PRISM program that we know involves the capture of such data, James Clapper’s answer to Senator Ron Wyden’s question appears to be a big fat lie for which the DNI should pay with his job. Clapper’s deception seems to be just one more instance of governmental misbehavior along with Benghazi, the IRS scandal and the Justice Department’s spying on the Associated Press and Fox News. His dishonest answer is seen by many as little different from Attorney General Eric Holder’s lie when he was asked whether the government contemplated prosecutions of journalists even though he had already signed off on a court document in which Fox News’s James Rosen was labeled a “co-conspirator” and a flight risk.

But though I have little sympathy for Clapper, whose policy positions on the Islamist threat are highly questionable, lumping him together with Holder would not be fair. Far from being an honest probe into what the government was doing, it’s actually yet another example of how congressional grandstanding does the country little good. Wyden, who was already well briefed on PRISM and other intelligence operations, already knew the answer to the question when he asked it. But he also knew that it would have been inappropriate, if not illegal, for Clapper to answer the question honestly since doing so would have required him to publicly reveal highly classified information that ought not to be made available to America’s enemies. Wyden’s purpose wasn’t to shed light but to merely embarrass Clapper and the administration.

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On the face of it what happened in March was an example of everything that is wrong with government. When asked a straightforward question about whether the government collects data on millions of Americans, the director of national intelligence said the answer was no. In the wake of the revelation of the PRISM program that we know involves the capture of such data, James Clapper’s answer to Senator Ron Wyden’s question appears to be a big fat lie for which the DNI should pay with his job. Clapper’s deception seems to be just one more instance of governmental misbehavior along with Benghazi, the IRS scandal and the Justice Department’s spying on the Associated Press and Fox News. His dishonest answer is seen by many as little different from Attorney General Eric Holder’s lie when he was asked whether the government contemplated prosecutions of journalists even though he had already signed off on a court document in which Fox News’s James Rosen was labeled a “co-conspirator” and a flight risk.

But though I have little sympathy for Clapper, whose policy positions on the Islamist threat are highly questionable, lumping him together with Holder would not be fair. Far from being an honest probe into what the government was doing, it’s actually yet another example of how congressional grandstanding does the country little good. Wyden, who was already well briefed on PRISM and other intelligence operations, already knew the answer to the question when he asked it. But he also knew that it would have been inappropriate, if not illegal, for Clapper to answer the question honestly since doing so would have required him to publicly reveal highly classified information that ought not to be made available to America’s enemies. Wyden’s purpose wasn’t to shed light but to merely embarrass Clapper and the administration.

Edward Snowden’s leak about the existence and purpose of PRISM made sure that Wyden’s questioning of Clapper would become a major story, thus giving the Oregon senator the prize he sought. As the clip of Clapper’s lie is shown in a seemingly endless loop on the cable news stations, Wyden is back in the spotlight posturing about the need for “straight talk” from the administration. But the senator, who has carefully built up a reputation as a sober advocate of civil liberties, is the one who is being disingenuous, not Clapper.

Clapper’s attempts to wriggle out of the corner into which Wyden put him are laughable. The attempts to parse his answer to Wyden’s question as being technically truthful don’t work and he should stop trying to claim that he didn’t lie. But a dispassionate view of these circumstances shows that there are times when honesty is not always the best policy.

As guardian of the nation’s secrets, Clapper’s first duty is to ensure that efforts to combat Islamist terror are protected. Whether one likes PRISM or not—and count me among those who regard efforts to depict it as an Orwellian scheme as wrongheaded—the whole purpose of the program would have been undermined had it been made public. Wyden’s goal that day was not to elicit information so much as it was to force Clapper to choose between trashing a legal and necessary security measure and to lie. Though he must have hated doing it—something that showed up clearly in his body language as he told the lie—I can’t blame him for sacrificing his own credibility in order to protect a national secret.

Unlike Holder, who had no security or policy reason to lie about his targeting of James Rosen when he lied to Congress about that issue, Clapper was faced with a real dilemma and probably chose the lesser of two evils.

The real culprit that day was Wyden, who used the bully pulpit of a Senate committee hearing to create a sound byte. His pious declamations about his goals notwithstanding, by asking that question in public, he was seeking to trash a measure that by all accounts has been helpful in defending the nation. Like so many senators and members of Congress who have used hearings to posture more than legislate, Wyden’s question was pure theater. Rather than this episode being an example of administration misconduct, it was actually one that illustrated what happens when a senator gets the chance to grandstand in front of a television camera.

Whatever we may think of Clapper, he doesn’t deserve the opprobrium he has been getting on this issue. If anyone deserves our disdain here it is the senator who placed his ideological agenda ahead of the country’s national security needs.

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Liberal Obama Critics Pull Their Punches

Many of President Obama’s liberal supporters are angry today as they contemplate just how badly they were fooled by Democratic campaign rhetoric in both 2008 and 2012. Left-wingers who thought they were electing someone who would scale back or completely dismantle the measures put in place to defend the country against terror by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are hard pressed to explain or rationalize the Olympic-scale hypocrisy of the administration after the latest revelations about data collection from Verizon phone subscribers. I agree with our Max Boot who thinks the PRISM program is justified and necessary, even if I sympathize with those who wonder how we can trust the same government that lied about Benghazi, had the IRS target conservatives and spied on working journalists not to abuse this power.

But for liberals, facing up to the fact that Obama has continued Bush’s policies and even gone further than his predecessor on drone attacks and information collection is a tough pill to swallow. So it was hardly surprising that the president would receive a stiff rebuke from the New York Times editorial page, even if its writers tend to be among his biggest cheerleaders. On Thursday afternoon, the Times posted an editorial that said the following:

The administration has now lost all credibility. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it.

The Times was right about the president’s credibility, even if he lost it long before this episode. But just as that editorial was being relayed around the nation as a significant rebuke from Obama’s base, the Times decided to qualify their condemnation and, as Politico reports, changed the piece to soften the blow. The words, “on this issue” were added to the text of the editorial online and then in print without explanation to the readers. This leads one to wonder whether the Obama cheer squad at the paper decided it had to qualify their attack because too many of the president’s critics on a whole raft of issues were quoting their piece as proof of the collapse of his support.

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Many of President Obama’s liberal supporters are angry today as they contemplate just how badly they were fooled by Democratic campaign rhetoric in both 2008 and 2012. Left-wingers who thought they were electing someone who would scale back or completely dismantle the measures put in place to defend the country against terror by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are hard pressed to explain or rationalize the Olympic-scale hypocrisy of the administration after the latest revelations about data collection from Verizon phone subscribers. I agree with our Max Boot who thinks the PRISM program is justified and necessary, even if I sympathize with those who wonder how we can trust the same government that lied about Benghazi, had the IRS target conservatives and spied on working journalists not to abuse this power.

But for liberals, facing up to the fact that Obama has continued Bush’s policies and even gone further than his predecessor on drone attacks and information collection is a tough pill to swallow. So it was hardly surprising that the president would receive a stiff rebuke from the New York Times editorial page, even if its writers tend to be among his biggest cheerleaders. On Thursday afternoon, the Times posted an editorial that said the following:

The administration has now lost all credibility. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it.

The Times was right about the president’s credibility, even if he lost it long before this episode. But just as that editorial was being relayed around the nation as a significant rebuke from Obama’s base, the Times decided to qualify their condemnation and, as Politico reports, changed the piece to soften the blow. The words, “on this issue” were added to the text of the editorial online and then in print without explanation to the readers. This leads one to wonder whether the Obama cheer squad at the paper decided it had to qualify their attack because too many of the president’s critics on a whole raft of issues were quoting their piece as proof of the collapse of his support.

When asked about the change by Politico, the Times made it clear they thought it was no big deal:

“The change was for clarity’s sake,” Andrew Rosenthal, the Times editorial page editor, told POLITICO on Friday morning. “It was clear from the context of the editorial that the issue of credibility related to this subject and the final edit of the piece strengthened that point.”

That may be so. All publications are always working to hone their work as long as possible and to correct any possible errors or misunderstandings. But what’s at play here is the corner into which Obama has backed his most ardent supporters.

The Times and many on the left may not like the fact that Obama’s rhetoric turned out to be just so much blown smoke, as today he is being dubbed “George W. Obama” or having his administration being referred to as Bush’s fourth term. But they are very skittish about doing anything that might give comfort to Republicans who have been quicker to realize that the emperor at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue hasn’t been wearing clothes long before the PRISM leak was published.

Many in the mainstream liberal media may be upset about the president’s performance on issues like the Benghazi lies, the IRS scandal, the spying on the Associated Press and Fox News. But those who think liberal outlets will hold him accountable need to remember that however much the media may care about some of these issues or others on which the president has disappointed them, there is a limit as to how far they will go in pursuing that disagreement. The old “no enemies on the left” dynamic in which the political war with conservatives is always prioritized over anything else will always cause newspapers like the Times to pull its punches when it comes to an issue that could hurt Barack Obama.

The Times deserves some credit for consistency on this particular issue since it disagreed with both Bush and Obama. But no one should be under any illusion about whether they will press this or any other issue if they thought the president was in any real trouble. Their pious disclaimers notwithstanding, partisanship will always trump principle at the Times.

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“Top Secret” Should Mean Just That

TOP SECRET//SI//NO FORN

That’s the heading on the first page of the court order obtained the Guardian. Top Secret is one of the highest levels of security classification in the U.S. government; the other initials indicate that this is “special intelligence,” aka “signals intelligence,” one of the most closely guarded capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community, and that it should not shown to any foreigners. Ironically and disturbingly, a British newspaper obtained this document.

Now it seems to be open season on the secret intelligence-gathering programs of the U.S. government. Following the Guardian’s exposure of this data-mining program that collects phone logs, the Washington Post has decided to reveal the existence of a program code-named PRISM which allows the National Security Agency  to tap “into the central servers of nine leading U.S. U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.”

These disclosures raise obvious privacy concerns that deserve to be further explored by Congress behind closed doors. But there is no suggestion on the evidence so far presented that either program is illegal or unauthorized or that it has been misused for nefarious purposes. Quite the opposite: Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says that the data-mining program has been used to avert at least one terrorist attack.

So why are we reading about these programs? They are, after all, highly classified—and for good reason: We don’t want terrorists to know what capabilities our intelligence agencies have to track their plots.

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TOP SECRET//SI//NO FORN

That’s the heading on the first page of the court order obtained the Guardian. Top Secret is one of the highest levels of security classification in the U.S. government; the other initials indicate that this is “special intelligence,” aka “signals intelligence,” one of the most closely guarded capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community, and that it should not shown to any foreigners. Ironically and disturbingly, a British newspaper obtained this document.

Now it seems to be open season on the secret intelligence-gathering programs of the U.S. government. Following the Guardian’s exposure of this data-mining program that collects phone logs, the Washington Post has decided to reveal the existence of a program code-named PRISM which allows the National Security Agency  to tap “into the central servers of nine leading U.S. U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.”

These disclosures raise obvious privacy concerns that deserve to be further explored by Congress behind closed doors. But there is no suggestion on the evidence so far presented that either program is illegal or unauthorized or that it has been misused for nefarious purposes. Quite the opposite: Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says that the data-mining program has been used to avert at least one terrorist attack.

So why are we reading about these programs? They are, after all, highly classified—and for good reason: We don’t want terrorists to know what capabilities our intelligence agencies have to track their plots.

Here is the Washington Post’s explanation of how it got the story:

Firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities, is what drove a career intelligence officer to provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to The Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer said.

I have no idea who this intelligence officer is, but he (or she) has committed a serious crime by the unauthorized disclosure of such sensitive information. He needs to be ferreted out and prosecuted. Perhaps if he had actual knowledge of the PRISM program being misused such a breach of confidentiality might be morally, if not legally, justifiable–although even then his first step should be to contact his superiors or others in the government, not to talk to the Washington Post. But there is no suggestion of such misuse here. Instead this appears to be another legal and authorized program that has been implemented by our elected leaders to protect us against terrorists. Government officials stress that only “non-U.S. persons” who are abroad are subject to PRISM monitoring and that the entire program was authorized by the 2007 Protect America Act.

President Obama deserves to be commended for continuing these programs, building on work done in the Bush administration, rather than being attacked as the second coming of Big Brother. The Post and Guardian, for their part, are being irresponsible by printing these disclosures that are more highly classified than the cables that Bradley Manning released–a crime for which he is now being tried. Instead of expressing outrage at these actions to fight terrorism, as so many on both the left and right are now doing, it would be nice if someone got a little outraged at this breach of the secrecy needed for effective intelligence-gathering.

It seems like only yesterday that the chattering classes were castigating the FBI, CIA and other agencies for not doing a better job of monitoring the Tsarnaev brothers before they carried out the Boston bombing. Similar outrage is being directed at the British security services in the wake of their failure to prevent the murder of a British soldier by two Anglo-Nigerian jihadists. Obviously “sigint” collection tools such as PRISM are not a foolproof defense against such attacks especially when undertaken by loners unaffiliated with a known terrorist organization. But they are an important, indeed vital, tool to prevent major attacks on a 9/11 scale, which require far more planning and organization. Exposing these collection tools makes it harder for them to be effective; shutting them down would amount to unilateral disarmament in the face of a continuing terrorist assault.

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