Last week there was report after report about a supposed bombshell with respect to NSA surveillance and data collection operations against Americans on American soil. There is a major problem with those reports: It seems much of that early reporting was wrong. Bob Cesca at The Daily Banter summarizes it thusly:
To summarize, yes, the NSA routinely requests information from the tech giants. But the NSA doesn’t have “direct access” to servers nor is it randomly collecting information about you personally. Yet rending of garments and general apoplexy has ruled the day, complete with predictable invective about the president being “worse than Bush” and that anyone who reported on the new information debunking the initial report was and is an Obamabot apologist.
That, of course, is not really the end, but only the beginning.
Let’s start with the claim that the companies simply provided complete access to the government in obtaining information from corporate servers. Here is what The New York Times reported back on Friday:
Each of the nine companies said it had no knowledge of a government program providing officials with access to its servers, and drew a bright line between giving the government wholesale access to its servers to collect user data and giving them specific data in response to individual court orders. Each said it did not provide the government with full, indiscriminate access to its servers.
And the reason that the companies did turn over information to the government? They were simply complying with court orders, as they are obliged to do. Did that mean they made it easy for the government? Not necessarily, as The Times reported that Twitter, in fact, made it as difficult as it was legally allowed to do.
Then there is the issue that despite the reports that Americans were targeted under this program, that is actually not the case:
The legal process, the person said, is akin to how law enforcement requests information in criminal investigations: the government delivers an order to obtain account details about someone who’s specifically identified as a non-U.S. individual, with a specific finding that they’re involved in an activity related to international terrorism. Both the contents of communications and metadata, such as information about who’s talking to whom, can be requested.
CNet’s Declan McCullagh further explains:
That Section 702 procedure works like this: The Justice Department must demonstrate that its surveillance will not intentionally target anyone present in the United States or any American who’s overseas. And the surveillance process must comply with the Fourth Amendment.
Additionally, the initial story in The Washington Post was corrected, and per Ed Bott, this included important details from the original story:
Crucially, the Post removed the “knowingly participated” language and also scrubbed a reference to the program as being “highly classified.” In addition, a detail in the opening graf that claimed the NSA could “track a person’s movements and contacts over time” was changed to read simply “track foreign targets.”
And given the subsequent reports that the NSA did not, in fact, take information from the main servers of the corporations, Bott notes this particularly troubling element that remains in the story:
In fact, the revised story still claims the NSA and the FBI are “tapping directly into the central servers” of those companies when that allegation no longer appears to be true.
Finally, of course there is the reporting from CNet’s McCullagh that indicates PRISM is not, in fact, classified and that a former NSA general counsel called the powerpoint at the heart of the controversy “flaky,” stated that it “sound[s] more like a marketing pitch than a briefing” and that “we don’t know the full context.”
As Bob Cesca explains:
Attachment to empirical reality must remain a central trait of the left, otherwise the progressive movement is no better than the non-reality based propagandists on the right who will say and do anything to further the conservative agenda.
A debate upon the merits of increased surveillance, and the limit and scope thereupon, is certainly worthy of having. Yes, as many note there is importance in maintaining individual privacy from government intrusion. At the same time there is a government responsibility to protect its citizens from those that wish to cause harm. It has been famously said that the Constitution is not a suicide pact.
So, yes, let us debate the merits. Let us weigh the pros and the cons. Let us discuss what is permissible and impermissible under the Constitution. Let us discuss what we believe the government should and should not to. But, at the same time, let us get our facts right rather than get caught up in a tempest of propaganda that has little regard for the facts.