PRISM Scandal: President Obama is George W. Bush, His Administration is Downloading Your Homemade Porn, and Other Tall Tales

The furor surrounding the Obama administration's supposed domestic surveillance scandal has incited some incredibly important debate over what the line is for spying on Americans, but many are taking the discussion to overzealous ends given the fact the stories are only a few days old.

Regardless of the secrecy of programs like PRISM, the ultimate intent of such activities is of paramount importance; not going on a civil liberties witch-hunt that compromises national security efforts. Believing that government officials from the president down to congressional intelligence oversight committees have authorized surveillance programs because they want to look at your naked photos is borderline conspiracy theory. Yes, these programs can become a slippery slope, but a bit more information is necessary before people start lambasting the Obama administration for its national security policies. 

To take the controversy over Glenn Greenwald's exclusive on the Verizon data-mining story as an example,

"Numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered."

Using such information seems necessary for one thing: to cross-reference call patterns and other information in the event that investigators find suspicious patterns and can then get a court order for an actual wiretap where they can listen in to a suspect's conversations. Stewart Baker, former top lawyer for the NSA, states that it is entirely conceivable that this type of strategy is being used without compromising the privacy of Americans, because of the rule of "minimization" that is written into the law allowing this program — which is entirely legal, like it or not. 

Minimization ultimately means that national security officials cannot actually use American information for an investigation unless it shows cause that that person is involved in terrorism. Therefore, human eyes cannot legally analyze the bulk of the information collected until such nefarious patterns in the anonymous data are found, warranting a deeper investigation. In other words, massive amounts of data are being collected, the vast majority of which will never be analyzed.

Whether or not you agree with the programs is the only real discussion to have, but Americans are fickle; in the face of a threat, we are willing to give up our civil liberties for security, but once we feel safe again, the opposite happens. There is no such thing as having our cake and eating it too in this debate, something citizens seem loath to understand.

Further, many people argue that Obama is not doing enough from a foreign policy standpoint by not intervening in Syria or being tougher on Iran, Russia, North Korea, etc. However, Obama is more hawkish with our enemies than the Bush Administration was — look no further than the drone program — and is using these tools, as well as controversial surveillance programs, to avoid involving us in prolonged conflicts that the U.S. simply cannot afford; this is realist foreign policy at its most basic, and in complete opposition to the Bush Administration's foreign policy doctrine. 

The Middle East is enduring sectarian growing pains that have the potential to realign the region in ways that could drastically alter the future of U.S. foreign policy, creating new cleavages, and even national borders. Of all those involved in the U.S. foreign policy consortium, from national security think tanks, to the halls of top foreign policy universities, to cabinet members, analysts, and even those at the tip of the spear, very few have gotten it right when predicting the future ahead of our competitors and in preemption of our enemy's schemes.

While controversial programs such as PRISM, the collection of call data from U.S. phone companies, the drone war, and the mutation of the CIA into a cloak and dagger version of the Pentagon should all be debated and constantly revised as times change, the world we live in is no longer as clear cut as it was during the Cold War. Entire regions can rapidly mutate, implode, and combust within days, and it would be a dereliction of duty if officials were not doing everything within reason to stay ahead of the pack with whatever legal means available.

The age-old argument on the balance between national security and civil liberties was referenced by President Obama, and its relevance cannot be overlooked since it is often forgotten when "scandals" such as these arise:

"I think it's important to understand that you can't have 100% security and then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a society." 

Whether the average American knew about it or not, debates about legality, usefulness, and potential fallout from such actions were happening; both parties and all three branches of government agreed to these programs and have defended them even amidst their leak. As U.S. citizens, it is our duty to stay up to date on what our representatives in government are doing to the best of our ability. Organizations like the ACLU have known about similar programs for quite some time, proving that it is not outside the scope of what we as citizens can keep tabs on.

The question is how much effort you want to put in.

How likely are you to make Mic your go-to news source?

Joseph Sarkisian

Joseph graduated with a Master of Science in international relations from the University of Massachusetts Boston and was an intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC. He completed his BA at Arizona State University in political science as well as studied Arabic language, terrorism/counterterrorism, and religion. Joseph also lived in Egypt where he studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo in 2007. Joseph was the Secretary of the Executive Committee for the University of Massachusetts Graduate Student Government, a teaching assistant in his department, and teaches a class on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. His main areas of interest are the Af/Pak region, Iran, Syria, and other current foreign policy issues.

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