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What's the problem with PRISM?

By Matt Apuzzo

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 01:13 p.m. HST, Jun 10, 2013

WASHINGTON » When the federal government went looking for phone numbers tied to terrorists, it grabbed the records of just about everyone in America.

Why every phone number?

"Well, you have to start someplace," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told NBC News today.

That breadth, that willingness to sweep up enormous information on Americans with no ties to terrorists, is making it hard for the Obama administration to tamp down controversy over a separate program, called PRISM, to monitor Internet traffic.

In short, critics ask, if looking for terrorists means collecting every American's phone records, how can anyone believe the president when he says Americans aren't being monitored on the Internet?

"These things are very narrowly circumscribed," Obama said. "They're very focused."

The Internet program came to light last week in documents published by The Washington Post and Guardian newspapers. It allows the NSA to reach into the data streams of U.S. companies — Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and others — and grab emails, video chats, pictures and more.

Just how much the government seizes is unclear. Clapper says it is narrowly focused on foreign targets, and technology companies say they turn over only information that's required by court order.

But after reading a leaked court document last week that allowed NSA to sweep up millions of American phone records, Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said, "The question is how broad the orders are they're giving these companies."

PRISM was born late in George W. Bush's administration, but its bloodline can be traced to the frenzied aftermath of 9/11.

It used to be that, when the federal government wanted to read a foreigner's Yahoo or Microsoft emails, it needed a judge's approval. After the attacks, Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to get to skip that oversight and read U.S.-based email accounts in real time.

When the New York Times revealed the existence of that program, the Bush administration appealed to Congress, saying court approval was too arduous. There were too many emails to monitor. Getting warrants for each one took too long.

"In certain cases, this process of obtaining a court order slows, and in some cases may prevent, the government's efforts to conduct surveillance of communications that are potentially vital to the national security," Kenneth Wainstein, then the Justice Department's top national security prosecutor, testified in 2007.

Sometimes, the government would sweep up Americans' emails, but not intentionally.

"As a matter of due course, if you're targeting something foreign, you could inadvertently intercept an American," said Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence at the time.

Congress agreed. No more warrants.

With that, PRISM was born.

Now, the government needs only explain to Congress and a secret court exactly how it intends to collect information like emails, Skype video conferences and Facebook messages. Once the court approves the collection rules, the government can grab anything it wants.

Judging from the documents released by the Post and Guardian, PRISM takes a lot of data and quickly. An NSA document said PRISM was the eavesdropping program "used most" by the agency.

The law says the government must limit its surveillance to people "reasonably believed to be located outside the United States."

But everything hinges words such as "targeting" and "collecting," which have unique meanings in the spy world.

As the classified court order released last week shows, officials can grab phone logs from everybody and still say they haven't targeted or collected information on a single American. Only when an analyst reaches into the archives and looks at the information has something been collected.

Clapper uses a library analogy: The government can fill its shelves with books containing the phone numbers of Americans, who they're talking to, how long they talk and where they call from. That doesn't count as collection.

"To me, collection of U.S. person's data would mean taking the books off the shelf, opening it up and reading it," he said.

To which Timm replied: "Clapper has a different definition of 'collect' than most human beings."

At this point, the government has offered little assurance that PRISM isn't doing for Internet traffic what Clapper says the government does for phones: seizing vast amounts of data, including some belonging to Americans, and then selecting foreigners for specific scrutiny.

When Obama told Americans that PRISM was thoroughly reviewed by a secret court, that was little comfort to Timm.

"This is the same court that would approve the vacuuming up of all the call logs of American citizens," he said.


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lowtone123 wrote:
Big Brother is watching.
on June 10,2013 | 12:33PM
HD36 wrote:
Yes, this whole thing arose and grew out of the Patriot Act. Of course the Act is anything but Patriotic, like most laws they enact, it does the exact opposite, like the Tax Simplification Act. Don't get me going on 9/11
on June 10,2013 | 04:58PM
kuroiwaj wrote:
Hi HD36, you're correct that all this spying came out of the Patriot Act. The problem is that under the Obama administration, he took super steroids and spied on everyone, Americans and anyone else who communicated with an American. What about Obamacare "
on June 10,2013 | 05:30PM
HD36 wrote:
True. If you look behind the facade of politics you'll see the same companies, in this case the Caryle group, who owns Booz Allen. The Caryle group managed the assets for Osama Bin Ladens family, SBC, and was awarded a multi billion dollar contract to rebuild Iraq after Bush jr decalared, Weapons of Mass Destruction! Bush Sr was managing Caryle before that. Follow the money, not the puppets.
on June 10,2013 | 06:02PM
kuroiwaj wrote:
HD36, interesting you should bring forward The Caryle Group who controlled Hawaiiantel for a time some 10 years ago and it wasn't a successful financial venture. Just think if they were successful in connecting Sandwich Isle and Hawaiiantel through Japan ending in China, we would have a very different world today. There is a fiberoptic cable to the South Pacific that would make it possible to connect the entire Pacific through Hawaii. Iraq was just a diversion for 10 years, but it did generate a lot of money for groups like Caryle.
on June 10,2013 | 07:03PM
HD36 wrote:
Another fact to make one nervous: Charles O Rosotti, one of the Board of Directors for Booz Allen, was commisioner of the IRS from 1197-2002.
on June 10,2013 | 08:44PM
sailfish1 wrote:
If you are so against Obama and the intelligence gathering, why don't you leave the U.S. and join Snowden in Iceland or Hong Kong, Believe me, they are not recording your phone conversations or reading your emails unless you have made mention of committing terrorism. If you are afraid of them, you must have something to hide.
on June 10,2013 | 11:18PM
roadsterred wrote:
Benghazi occurred on 9/11/12, CIA Director Petraeus did not agree with the revised "talking points" deleting the mention of it as a possible Al Quaida terrorist attack, and on November 9, 2012 CIA Director is exposed as having an extra marital affair and resigns. What's the problem with Prism? The Obama administration used phone records to "out" CIA Director Petraeus because he would not support the revised talking points. Our Federal Government has gone rogue. The Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and the IRS have become puppets of POTUS. Is this what we wanted when we voted for Obama?
on June 10,2013 | 08:02PM
Hugo wrote:
The Advertiser in 2004 reported that the Verizon telephone switching facility in Kaka'ako was grabbing everything in real time. Not just telephone numbers. Verizon quickly sold out to Hawaiian TelCom, part of the Carlyle Group, that knew nothing about telephone companies. Since there are no cellphone towers between Hawaii and everywhere else, telephones are a rich source of intelligence.
on June 11,2013 | 12:16AM
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