Shooting the messenger: Snowden, PRISM and our post-September 11 future

America’s newspapers are supposed to fight for freedom of speech and transparency in government, both at home and abroad. But when it comes to whistleblower Edward Snowden, who revealed the NSA’s massive surveillance program, they are rolling over and retreating.

The editorial pages of both the Washington Post and the New York Times seem more concerned with national security than civil liberties. It’s an unfortunate sign of the times that even on the pages of such esteemed beneficiaries of the First Amendment, one finds so many voices championing such a significant expansion of state power, while only paying lip service to the shrinking space in the public debate devoted to our rights as citizens.

Take, for example, Thomas Friedman’s knee jerk ‘remember 9-11’ reaction to the leak. Friedman is one of America’s most respected journalists, a man who made his career covering the Arab-Israeli conflict. Looking back, his  book  “From Beirut to Jerusalem” is probably one of the reasons why I’m pursuing journalism today. But Friedman, who supported the Iraq War, has been something of a hawk since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“…I do wonder if some of those who unequivocally defend this disclosure are behaving as if 9/11 never happened – that the only thing we have to fear is government intrusion in our lives, not the intrusion of those who gather in secret cells in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan…,” Friedman wrote in his June 11 New York Times opinion piece.

Who can pretend that 9-11 didn’t happen? We have collectively chosen to let the event define our future. The Western and Muslim words have been watching tragedy unfold day after day for the past decade, from suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices to torture, rendition and drone strikes. And this NSA program is only latest evidence that the “long war” may be both boundless and endless. Mr. Friedman wonders if those of us who support the disclosure and oppose PRISM remember 9-11. Yes, we all remember 9-11. Some of us are just trying very hard not to forget the Constitution as a consequence.

September 11 could have been prevented

Snowden’s disclosure should be defended, because it demonstrates that we are accepting certain costs to our liberty for only uncertain gains in our security. Let’s remember – PRISM did not stop bombs from going off in Boston. And the September 11 attacks – where this story really begins – may well have been prevented, if only the Bush administration had been more alert. As former CIA chief George Tenet told the 9/11 Commission, the “system was blinking red” during the summer of 2001.

In July of 2001, FBI Agent Kenneth Williams sent a memo to bureau headquarters calling for an investigation into why young Arab men with ties to radical Islamist groups were seeking commercial flight training in the United States. A month later, Zacharias Moussaoui – who had connections to al Qaeda and the men planning 9/11 – was arrested outside of a flight school in Minneapolis, Minnesota on immigration charges.  Moussaoui had raised concern among flight instructors at that school by seeking commercial flight training, although he had no flight experience. The FBI office there, convinced that he was a fundamentalist, was unable to obtain a court order to search his laptop.

Perhaps most shockingly, two of the actual hijackers had been living in the FBI’s backyard.  Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, known to be al Qaeda terrorists to US authorities before they entered the country, lived with FBI informant Abdussattar Shaikh for a time in San Diego, California. The two men later crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

On August 6, 2001, President George W. Bush received a report in his daily intelligence briefing titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the US.” This is just sample of the system that was “blinking red.” The 9/11 plot had been lying under the nose of the federal government.  The relevant information was available without a program like PRISM. But it was not acted on, because there was no political will at the highest levels of government bureaucracy.

 ‘Potential for abuse? Of course’

Then there’s the Washington Post, which along with the Guardian, was privy to and published Snowden’s leaks. One should applaud the Post for publishing the story in a timely manner (as far as I know), unlike the New York Times, which back in 2005 chose to sit for a year on the scoop it had about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program before deciding that the story was “fit to print.”

Although the Washington Post clearly decided that the public had an interest in knowing about PRISM, some voices on the paper’s editorial page are trying to de-legitimize the leak in a classic case of “shoot the messenger.” According to a Post column by Matt Miller, Snowden’s “grandiosity,” i.e. his ego and self-righteousness, have put us all in jeopardy by leaking PRISM. But even Miller admits that this mass surveillance program is “creepy.”

“Is there potential for abuse? Of course. An Internet-era J. Edgar Hoover is frightening to conjure. But what Snowden exposed was not some rogue government-inside-the-government conspiracy. It’s a program that’s legal, reviewed by Congress and subject to court oversight,” Miller wrote in his June 11 column.

So while Miller sees the potential for abuse, he is reassured by the laws establishing secret judicial and congressional oversight. I’m by no means a legal expert, but to my layman’s eyes, this program does appear “legal” in the sense that it’s governed by laws and not the whim of the executive. But that, in it of itself, is certainly no reason to support PRISM. Many injustices have been supported by the law in American history. And let’s not forget the very questionable origins of this whole surveillance mess.

Institutionalizing Bush-era policies

Remember that NSA warrantless wiretapping program I mentioned? After 9/11, the Bush administration implemented a “rogue government-inside-the-government conspiracy” to illegally wiretap – that means without a warrant – any phone call of its choosing placed from abroad to the US, all in the pursuit of terrorism suspects.  When the New York Times finally decided to inform us about this abuse, the public got so hot and bothered that Bush backed off, once again seeking warrants from the secret FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court.

But the story doesn’t end there. Congress was determined to stop the executive branch from going rogue again. So in 2008, it amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The amendment empowered the executive branch to conduct mass surveillance of electronic communications via FISA court order in pursuit of terrorism suspects. So no, Mr. Miller, PRISM is not a “rogue” program in the strict legal sense. It simply has its origins in a rogue program.

But this is all the more troubling. Some of the Bush era excesses Obama came to office promising to stop have simply been institutionalized. It’s not yet clear what kind of state this “post-9/11” paradigm will leave us in. But I have to ask: Have you forgotten the Fourth Amendment Mr. Friedman? How about you Mr. Miller? Because the NSA sure hasn’t.

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One thought on “Shooting the messenger: Snowden, PRISM and our post-September 11 future

  1. great article. The media has a lot to answer for – correct me if I’m wrong, but on both sides of the Atlantic there are too many vested interests, the media is not the autonomous and seperate entity it needs to be.

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