Last Wednesday, the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald revealed that the National Security Agency is secretly collecting the phone records of millions of Verizon users. The agency received authorization to track phone "metadata" over a three-month period from a special court order issued in April.
We now also know that what the Guardian uncovered is just the tip of the iceberg of an ongoing phone and internet records-collection program that likely includes almost all major U.S. telecommunications companies.
President Obama -- who promised the "most transparent administration ever" -- now finds himself and his DHS at the center of yet another civil liberties controversy. That controversy has deepened in the wake of two reports published last night in both the Washington Post and the Guardian that outlined a different NSA snooping program -- a data mining initiative code-named "PRISM."
PRISM -- which was created in 2007 during the Bush Administration -- is almost certainly the most far-reaching surveillance program ever created. By reaching into the servers of nine different major U.S. internet companies -- including Facebook, Google and Apple -- the NSA has access to millions of users' personal data, including emails, chats and videos.
Although PRISM is supposed to only be used to gain information about "foreign individuals" suspected of terrorism -- the very methods used to access such information inevitably suck up the private data of American citizens
As the Washington Post pointed out:
"Even when the system works just as advertised, with no American singled out for targeting, the NSA routinely collects a great deal of American content. That is described as "incidental," and it is inherent in contact chaining, one of the basic tools of the trade. To collect on a suspected spy or foreign terrorist means, at minimum, that everyone in the suspect's inbox or outbox is swept in."
These startling revelations about American intelligence agencies raise a number of questions, the first being, of course, who's the Guardian's source?
We don't know for sure just yet, but I'd bet on WikiLeaks. The Guardian has always been the go-to paper for the group -- and exposing the NSA could be its payback for the trial of Bradley Manning, which started this week at Fort Meade in Maryland. Or, it could be somebody in the DHS who sees what a monster Bush created when he borrowed the word "Homeland" from the last generation's Germans and used it to create a huge national security agency.
Ultimately, however, the biggest question here is, "What have we become as a nation?"
Because here's the scariest thing of all: PRISM, just like the NSA's phone records collection program, is perfectly legal. Arguably unconstitutional and totalitarian, yes, but, at the moment, legal. PRISM is authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the NSA's metadata sweeps are allowed under the broad guidelines of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act -- both acts of Congress.
The frightened little men of the Bush Administration took us into some dark places after 9/11 -- but Congress and President Obama have tragically continued these exact same policies. Just this past December, Congress reauthorized an amended version of the FISA act and the President signed it without complaint.
We're supposed to have "checks and balances." But the very branches of government who are supposed to keep the intelligence agencies in check have rubber-stamped their abuses. Caught up in the hysterical spirit of the times, our elected representatives have signed away our most precious Constitutional liberties in the name of "national security." This is an institutional failure of the highest level.
Our nation now finds itself at a crossroads when it comes to Constitutional rights and civil liberties. Even Wisconsin Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the primary authors of the 2001 Patriot Act, is now backing away from a law he helped write and pass, and calling for new restrictions on its use in intelligence gathering.
But we need to go even further.
We need to repeal the Patriot Act altogether and end our obsession with "Homeland Security."