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Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Tries To Make PRISM Not Sound Like an Orwellian Nightmare

The Government's PRISM Program Sounds Scary, but the Director of National Intelligence Thinks We Just Don't Understand It


James Clapper
There’s been a lot of people talking about the PRISM program, and how it basically sounds like something a James Bond villain would use, but James Bond villain Director of National Intelligence James Clapper would like to tell you about all the people not being spied on under the program, so he released a fact sheet about it. It largely focuses on what PRISM can’t do, and tries to pass the blame to Congress.

The three page document is a pretty dry read, so here are some highlights:

PRISM is not an undisclosed collection or data mining program. It is an internal government computer system used to facilitate the government’s statutorily authorized collection of foreign intelligence information from electronic communication service providers under court supervision, as authorized by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) (50 U.S.C § 1881). This authority was created by the Congress and has been widely known and publicly discussed since its inception in 2008.

Remember in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when the Vogons come to demolish Earth, and told everyone they shouldn’t be surprised about it because the plans were posted in our local planning department on Alpha Centauri for the last 50 years? That seems like an only slightly exaggerated comparison to Clapper’s argument here.

Congress has been discussing this since 2008, and since we all pay unending attention to what Congress is doing, obviously we knew about this PRISM business the whole time. Clapper goes on to say that PRISM isn’t the all-seeing Eye of Sauron the media is making it out to be either:

Under Section 702 of FISA, the United States Government does not unilaterally obtain information from the servers of U.S. electronic communication service providers. All such information is obtained with FISA Court approval and with the knowledge of the provider based upon a written directive from the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence.

Clapper sums that up by saying:

In short, Section 702 facilitates the targeted acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning foreign targets located outside the United States under court oversight. Service providers supply information to the Government when they are lawfully required to do so.

So PRISM isn’t collecting all the data all the time, says Clapper. It’s just collecting all the data it wants to collect when it thinks calls are being made to terror suspects overseas, but that’s totally fine because a secret court approves it and the service providers are cooperating whenever “legally required to do so.”

In the statement released Thursday by Verizon Executive Vice President Randy Milch, it seems like they’re always lawfully required to hand over data, or at least they think they are.

Clapper says that PRISM cannot be used to target United States citizens, people in the United States, or even someone outside the United States with the intention of getting information from a person inside the United States. So then why order American companies to hand over data?

He also calls the notion that PRISM is not subject to internal and external oversight “similarly incorrect.” He then outlines how all three branches of the federal government are involved in this “oversight regime.”

It might be the case that people are overreacting to PRISM because the idea of companies they trust with their information handing data over to the Government without their knowledge or consent sounds like a scary idea. It might also be the case that it actually is a pretty scary idea worth reacting to.

You can read the full document on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence website.

Also, if anyone is looking to make a movie about this whole PRISM/NSA scandal, please get Mike from Breaking Bad to play Clapper.

Left: Director Clapper, Right: Jonathan Banks (Banks Image via Thibault

Left: Director Clapper, Right: Jonathan Banks
(Banks Image via Thibault)

(via, image via Medill DC)

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Glen is a comedian, writer, husband, and father. He won his third-grade science fair and is a former preschool science teacher, which is a real job.