American Edward Snowden has stirred up a hornet’s nest. An intelligence services contractor’s employee, he has revealed that the American government is running a vast, secret program called PRISM by which it obtains basic information from the larger US telcos about phone calls made by millions of people.
Snowden is currently in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong, where he fears being assassinated by Chinese triad gangsters at the behest of the US government. Rasmussen Reports say that, In a opinion poll taken after his allegations were made public, 46% of the Americans who were polled said they believed it was likely that their own phone records had been accessed.
The same report said that 59% of respondents, not a very big majority, disapproved of the government’s program. Defending the PRISM program, US Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has oversight over intelligence agencies and their programs, said that it was nothing new and had been under way for seven years, implying the fuss is an exaggerated over-reaction.
What are we to make of all this? I am not particularly disturbed about the US government having “bulk” access to people’s phone records. The government has always had access to private information by using warrants in criminal investigations. The problem is how the government uses the information. And the answer is, we don’t know, because it is done in secret.
This is where the dog starts to chase its tail. We are told that the process has to be secret because it involves national security. That means that the two bodies that have any official control over the phone data collection process, namely the Foreign Intelligence Security Court and the congressional committees that review intelligence activities, don’t reveal to the rest of the world how PRISM works or anything else, very much.
The Wall Street Journal published an interesting story by Jacob Gershman on the FISC recently. Gershman writes: “Almost everything that’s submitted to the court or decided there is shielded from the public.” Of course it is. So, how then does the American taxpayer/voter know that the PRISM system is being conducted well, or badly? Whether it is being used enough or not enough or way too much?
That’s the problem. A government that operates in secrecy places itself beyond the judgment of its supposed owner, the demos in democracy, the public in the res publica, the people who elect the government.
Why is it a problem that we don’t know what government officials are doing with personal information about millions of ordinary citizens? Because those officials can and do make mistakes. Some of them have prejudices or misconceptions. Some of them may even be seriously bent, like FBI chief J Edgar Hoover, who was secretly a transvestite, reportedly participated in orgies while wearing a fluffy black dress, and is believed to have been blackmailed into protecting the Mafia. See this report by the UK Independent on Hoover from Frebruary 1993. This was while his agency was arresting thousands of Americans and sending them to jail for a lot smaller crimes than anything the Mafia was doing.
So, no, I don’t think the American people should trust the NSA or the CIA or their local sheriff or the dog catcher or any other government official to exercise the delegated power of the American people in complete secrecy. A constitutional system of checks and balances means exactly that. There must be effective oversight over everything the government does. That’s what it means to have a constitutional democracy. If Americans forget that, they will surely come to regret it. Snowden will probably be accused of treason. But he is giving Americans a timely remider to think about the way their government functions, and maybe to make some adjustment before it runs off the rails completely.