Why We're Looking at the PRISM Scandal Wrong

For the fourth time in the last few weeks, President Obama has found himself having to answer for a brewing scandal. Well, it’s a scandal if you hear prolific anti-Obama attack dog, Glenn Greenwald describe it.

It appears that the government is collecting data on American citizens. So far, we know that phone records, without the actual conversations, are being collected. People were outraged, but it’s doubtful that many people were legitimately surprised. It’s part of the Patriot Act.

Then facts get a little fuzzy. Reportedly, the data mining program, called PRISM, is also mining our data from nine companies, including AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, PalTalk, Skype, Yahoo! and YouTube. All companies have denied any involvement in the program and claim that the government is obtaining the information without their knowledge.

Of course, these companies have every incentive to lie. If their customers knew that they were sharing information with the government, there would obviously be a backlash. But if the information can be obtained without the knowledge of some of the most talented computer geniuses in the world, that even leads to a bigger question. If the government can go in through a “back door” to collect our data, what is stopping any other hacker?

Essentially, the tech companies are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are either government pawns or they are incompetent. Neither option would be good for business.

With the information I have now, I have no doubt that PRISM is a real program. In fact, it’s been real for six years. It’s also perfectly legal.

Personally, I’m not happy at all that the government can collect my personal data, but I’d be lying if last Thursday night’s “bombshell” was a surprise. My Grandparents were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. My father was spied upon by the FBI for anti-war efforts in the 60s. Since I got my first bank account and my first telephone (both in the 80s), I’ve known that I was giving some of my privacy to the government. They can track me through credit card usage. If they want to know something, they can find out.

The PRISM story has four major players. The first two, Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden, are perhaps a match made in heaven. Greenwald is a journalist who writes about national security issues. His slant is consistently anti-Obama. While he has amassed a cult-like following among many liberals, his writings read like an anti-government libertarian and he has had little but praise for Ron Paul. That fact is not a criticism of Greenwald and I will get to its importance in a moment.

The second player is Edward Snowden – the leaker (I won’t call him a whistleblower simply because whistleblowers reveal broken laws. He did not reveal broken laws). There have been plenty of attempts to discredit Snowden. I won’t even go there. It is possible that Snowden is a libertarian. Again, I’ll get to its importance in a bit.

The third player is, of course, the government. The fourth is the government contractor who employed Snowden, Booz Allen Hamilton. And this is where Greenwald’s and Snowden’s libertarian leanings become important.

Greenwald, took the story from Snowden and ran with it. But Greenwald’s anti-government angle has all but missed the most frightening aspect of the story. From Dan Murphy with the Christian Science Monitor:

In the years since 9/11, tens of billions of dollars have flowed to private contractors in the intelligence and digital security businesses, and Booz Allen it turns out is just one of them. And the sheer number of people working either inside the government or on outside contracts is staggering.

On Page 3 of Booz Allen Hamilton’s 2012 annual report, the company says it has approximately 25,000 employees, 76 percent of whom have a US government security clearance and 49 percent of whom have security clearances at the level of “top secret or higher.” That’s 12,250 employees at Booz Allen alone who have “top secret” clearance. How much of the company’s work is for the US government? Almost all of it. In each of the past three years, 98 percent or more of its income came from government contracts.

All this brings to mind the cliche about how two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead. How on earth can you keep secrets if just one American company has enough people with top secret access to fill a mid-sized American town?

Booz Allen Hamilton has locations in six other countries, including Russia, three former Soviet Republics, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. US relations with Russia are, shall we say, not particularly warm at the moment. Putin’s Russia is considering offering Snowden asylum.

Booz Allen’s parent company, the Carlyle group, has offices on six continents.

I’m not accusing Booz Allen of selling our secret information to the Russians, but my point is, they could sell our information to the Russians or to anyone, really. Of course, it’s not unprecedented for the government to make deals with our enemies, but even libertarians would have to agree, there is far more incentive and probably fewer consequences for a multinational corporation to commit an act of treason.

This story highlights the downside of libertarianism – unfettered capitalism. We already know that Snowden was overpaid for his job (although not by as much as he said), which is common for government contractors and one of the reasons that oft-touted private sector efficiency is a farce.

While the government does have (admittedly flawed) checks and balances, corporations have just one. If they are earning money for their shareholders, they are doing their job. By law, they do not have our best interests in mind. Private prison companies profit by filling beds. Private schools profit by catering only to the easiest children. Private security companies profit by lobbying governments to extract even more data from citizens. When profit is a company’s only motive, it is profit they will achieve – even if it means selling our secrets.

Snowden is in hiding. There has been a lot of speculation that his life is in danger from the government. My guess is he’s more afraid of his former employer, who could feel the brunt of the political pressure. Their stock price has already taken a hit.

If Greenwald and Snowden weren’t seeing this story from their own libertarian prisms, perhaps we’d finally have the story that would convince all Americans that corporate intrenchment in the government has gone lightyears too far. But because it’s being sold as just another Obama scandal, the Grand Canyon sized political divide pretty much stayed put.


Wendy Gittleson grew up in a political family. Her passion is for social justice and fairness. She lives in a union household. In her rare downtime, you’ll find her hiking or exploring the shoreline with her dogs. Follow her on her Facebook page, on her Facebook blog page or on Twitter, @wendygittleson

Author: The Blue Route

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