The NSA's data tapping: America through the PRISM

The <em>Guardian</em>'s stories of the last two days are the highest-level US leaks since the Pentagon Papers.

Yesterday, I asked if the story about the US National Security Administration secretly  requisitioning phone records went deeper – if social networking data might not be as easily requisitioned by security forces as phone metadata. Within hours, the Guardian provided the answer, in the form of a leaked PowerPoint presentation, classified 'Top Secret', which was “apparently used to train intelligence operatives” as part a program named PRISM.

This is now the second of two such 'Top Secret' documents obtained by the Guardian in as many days; an astonishing achievement, considering that the last documents of this level of American security classification to be actually published in the press were the famous “Pentagon Papers”, by the New York Times in 1971, forty-two years ago.

Nothing that WikiLeaks published ever carried this level of security classification. Most of the documents they leaked to the press were “secret” level, with a few “confidential” and unclassified documents thrown in.

This puts the Guardian in a unique position. Whoever leaked these documents – both the Verizon court order, and the intelligence training PowerPoint presentation the following day, two separate leaks – could be in real trouble under the Espionage Act as well as several other US statutes.

It is also worth mentioning that the Nixon administration did place an injunction on the New York Times and the Washington Post over the release of the Pentagon Papers, though it was lifted after fifteen days by the Supreme Court, which upheld the papers' First Amendment rights. Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday that the DoJ “will not prosecute any reporter from doing his or her job.”

Nonetheless, this leak is absolutely unprecedented in the internet age, and the Obama administration is developing a worrying reputation for hostility to journalists; the DoJ named Fox News reporter James Rosen as a 'co-consipirator' under the Espionage Act in order to put him under surveillance in 2010, the first time a journalist had ever been targeted this way in the US.

This also comes at a time when Army Private Bradley Manning, who gave WikiLeaks their biggest information-dump of classified material, is facing military trial for leaks. Prosecutors are seeking to prove that he was “aiding the enemy” - which is technically a capitol offence in the US, though they apparently do not intend to seek the death penalty.

US Director of National Intelligence James R Clapper gave a statement yesterday condemning the leaks, saying that they threaten “potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation,” and highlighted that everything the NSA has been shown to be doing is “within the constraints of the law”. House intelligence chairman Mike Rogers defended the phone data requisition program to the Washington Post too, saying that within the last few years, the phone record requisition program had been used to stop a terrorist attack within the United States. But libertarian senator Rand Paul called the seizure shown by the first leak an “astounding assault on the constitution”.

The PRISM logo.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Getty
Show Hide image

Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage