PRISM: A horrible, awkward paradox for the right

Until we know the whole story, scepticism of all involved is the only safe position to hold

Obama has been watching you
Alex Wickham, UK Politics Editor
On 11 June 2013 06:24

If you are fearful of government impinging on individual liberty, yet determined not to waver in the fight against terror, the last few days can’t have been much fun for you. Do you defend the capability of the National Security Agency and GCHQ to use the technology available to monitor terror suspects to the maximum of its ability? Or do you defend the rights of innocent citizens to unqualified privacy?

Even the protagonists cannot help us: right-wingers are asked to side with either President Obama or Glenn Greenwald. An impossible choice, obviously.

This is some paradox. Beginning with the individual liberty argument, it is clear several of the key actors here have done themselves no favours. Obama’s brusque dismissal that NSA agents “take this work very seriously; they cherish our constitution” and so that must be the end of the story, is typically arrogant. US National Intelligence Director James Clapper’s claim to Congress that the NSA does not intentionally collect data on Americans is, by his own admission, “untruthful”.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s clumsy “if you are a law-abiding citizen you have nothing to fear” line has rightfully been condemned by Index on Censorship as “the sort of justification we might expect from China”.

The dangers of a surveillance state have been betrayed by the incompetent, idiotic spin of the British and American governments since this story broke. Certainly the checks and balances in place to prevent abuses of power by intelligence agencies need to be emphasised and reinforced to reassure a justifiably sceptical public. Even more so in our technological age.

This does not mean the civil libertarians are right. David Simon astutely, and with some colour, writes that “we want cake, we want to eat it, and we want to stay skinny and never puke up a thing” – a position developed by Dan Hodges: “even in a free society, the state has to have some secrets”.

As someone who holds suspicion of the state and concentrated power as a core ideological belief, this seems the antithesis of everything I believe. But he is right. Pure, unadulterated, libertarian freedom is incompatible with catching the bad guys.

Furthermore, and crucially, are the NSA and GCHQ actually doing what the Guardian and Greenwald are accusing them of? Bob Cesca raises real questions over the veracity of Greenwald’s journalism. First, his assertion – repeated four times in his original article – that the NSA has “direct access” to the Google, Apple, Microsoft etc. servers, is contested by the companies themselves. They insist the NSA had to pass the safeguard of agreeing consent. Unless they are not telling the truth, the phrase “direct access” is an exaggeration.

Second, the Washington Post has amended its own original story, now saying that PRISM was used to “track foreign targets” and not US citizens. Greenwald has not changed his own story that US citizens were targeted. Why the change from WaPo; why the sudden, unexplained discrepancy?

Third, Greenwald has let slip that he was working with Edward Snowden in February, before he started working for Booz Allen and the NSA in March. As Guy Walters notes it appears Greenwald and Snowden therefore planned to look for abuses, quite plausibly to serve their own agenda.

Fourth, no evidence has been produced that anyone working for the NSA or GCHQ breached any law whatsoever, or that any information was obtained without a warrant. Anyone except Snowden.

This isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for right-wingers who don’t want to make a tough call; these are serious questions that need answering. If Greenwald can do that then fair play to him, but as things stand we don’t have conclusive evidence of the abusive surveillance state he says exists.

These are the reasons – ideological and practical – that many on the right have yet to choose a side. Until we know the whole story, scepticism of all involved is the only safe position to hold. 

Alex Wickham is the UK Political Correspondent for The Commentator. He tweets at @WikiGuido

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