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 freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.