PRISM Is Bad for American Soft Power

We need a real debate on how much privacy we're ready to sacrifice in exchange for security.
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U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he arrives to deliver remarks in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany on June 19, 2013. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In 1948, Harry Truman flip-flopped. After decades of holding racial biases, he decided to support the civil rights movement against Jim Crow laws. Truman's shift was as much cold political calculation as anything else. The path to 270 electoral college votes ran through northern cities with large African American populations and a few states in the Deep South. The strategy worked. He carried Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas just as the Chicago Daily Tribune went to press with "Dewey Defeats Truman."

There was a foreign policy angle to Truman's civil rights awakening, too. In the ideological battle pitting democracy against communism, the Soviet Union began to churn out propaganda saying that Jim Crow proved America's inability to live up to its own fundamental values on human rights.

Collecting Americans' phone and Internet records must meet the absolute highest bar of public consent. It's a test the Obama administration is failing.

The argument was effective, argues Caley Robertson of Colby University: segregation was frustrating the United States' attempts to export democracy during the Cold War. In other words, Jim Crow was damaging America's soft power, defined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye as a country's ability to achieve its aims through attraction rather than coercion.

Which brings us to PRISM, the NSA program that collects meta-data from Americans' telephone and online communications.

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I am a former Department of Defense intelligence analyst. I have never used PRISM, and do not know if it existed during my tenure. However, I have used NSA databases, and became aware of two ironclad truths about the agency: First, its data is a critical intelligence tool; and second, that access to databases by non-NSA intelligence analysts is highly controlled. It's like buying drugs (so I'm told): you need "a guy" on the inside who passes you the goods in the shadows, then disavows any connection to you.

In addition to being useful and tightly controlled, PRISM is, of course, legal by the letter of the law. Its existence is primarily justified by the "business records" clause in the PATRIOT Act, and President Obama has argued that the legislation has been authorized by "bipartisan majorities repeatedly," and that "it's important to understand your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we're doing." Salvation from excessive government snooping would seem to lie at the ballot box.

Fair enough. But in the immediate wake of September 11, Americans questioned little of what their government would do to keep them safe. Just four months after the attacks in January 2002, Gallup reported that fully half of Americans would support anti-terrorism measures even if they violated civil liberties.

Times have changed. As soon as August 2003, Gallup found just 29 percent of Americans were willing to sacrifice civil liberties for security. By 2009, a CBS poll concluded only 41 percent of Americans had even heard or read about the PATRIOT Act, and 45 percent of those believed the law endangered their civil liberties. A Washington Post poll from April 2013--after the Boston marathon attacks but before PRISM's disclosure-- found 48 percent of Americans feared the government would go too far in compromising constitutional rights to investigate terrorism. And following the Edward Snowden leaks, 58 percent were against the government collecting phone records. Not a total reversal, but certainly trending in one direction.

This shift has existed in a vacuum of public debate. Prior to the PRISM leaks, the last time domestic government surveillance made headlines was in very late 2005 and early 2006, following revelations that the Bush administration was wiretapping Americans without a warrant. Despite the scandal, the PATRIOT Act was quickly reauthorized by March 2006.

The Bush administration did announce the end of warrantless wiretapping in 2007, and he moved the program under jurisdiction of the FISA court , a panel of Supreme Court-appointed judges who approve domestic surveillance requests. To call the FISA court a rubber stamp is an understatement. This year, it has rejected a grand total of 11 warrant requests out of--wait for it--33,996 applications since the Carter administration.

The PATRIOT Act's reauthorization wouldn't come up again until 2009. By then, public uproar over warrantless wiretapping had long since receded, and the year's debate played out as a relatively quite inside-baseball scuffle between civil liberties groups and the Hill. When the law came up for its next presidential signature in 2011, it was done quietly by autopen--a device that imitates Obama's John Hancock--from France.

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Jim Arkedis is a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and was a DOD counter-terrorism analyst.

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