A series of leaks revealed that the government’s conduct of the war on terrorism has involved surveillance of communications more extensive than had been previously suspected. The government has for years collected information about phone calls to and from Verizon customers: what phone numbers they called and were called from, when, and for how long they talked. It is widely assumed that other phone companies are also handing over their information. The government apparently has also operated a program, called PRISM, that monitors networks such as Facebook and attempts to zero in on suspicious behavior by foreigners.
Edward Snowden, an employee of a federal contractor, has taken credit for the leaks and fled to China. It is a dubious perch from which to speak on behalf of transparent government and free speech, and his statements have been tinged with grandiosity and paranoia. (He suggested that journalists who worked with him might be killed and that the U.S. government might pay Chinese gangsters to kill him. No fatalities have yet been reported.) It is a mark against federal surveillance programs that they placed a person of such questionable judgment in a position of power.
The programs themselves appear to be compatible with the Constitution, and to offer potential help in preventing terrorist atrocities. Yet they also raise questions. PRISM reportedly allows people to be targeted for further scrutiny when the data suggest there is a 51 percent chance that they are foreigners, which seems like a very low threshold. The information being handed over by Verizon (and probably other phone companies) may seem to be limited, since it does not include the content of conversations, but modern technology allows a lot of inferences to be drawn from that information.
The phone surveillance has also taken place at a level of secrecy that is hard to justify. Telling the public that the “envelope” information for all phone calls was being tracked would not have tipped off any terrorist that he was being watched, precisely because the program casts a wide net; nor would it have divulged operational details about the program. And the program is authorized under what appears to be a very expansive interpretation of a provision of the PATRIOT Act. We do not know for sure what that interpretation is, since the surveillance-court decision that cleared the program is itself secret.
The PRISM leak, on the other hand, may have compromised the program by informing terrorists about the vulnerability of some of the networks they use. The government will be entirely in the right if it prosecutes this leak.
Libertarian-minded Republicans should resist the temptation to speak ominously of Big Brother or hyperbolize to the effect that the feds are listening to everyone’s phone calls. What is needed here instead is oversight and open debate to make sure the right protections are in place: from deadly terrorists, from overweening government, and from irresponsible leakers.