Everybody from Tea Party patriots to left wing weirdos are up in arms over PRISM, the government's ultra secret surveillance program that's been reading Americans' emails, listening to their phone calls and raking through their Internet data—among other things—since 2007. Details of the program exploded onto the public stage this week just hours after news of the National Security Agency's (NSA) monitoring of Verizon phone records. But we now know that it's not just the NSA that's spying on people domestically, and it's not just Verizon that's getting caught in the middle. It's everybody.
But are we really surprised? Is it really such a shock that, after years of approving overreaching anti-terrorism laws, the government is actually using the Bill of Rights-crushing power those laws have bestowed upon them? Should we all just move to Canada?
Come on. Canada is friendly but also freezing. And we ought not be surprised, because laws like the Protect America Act of 2007 and FISA Amendments Act of 2008 that made PRISM's invasive surveillance legal—and yes, everything that happened is entirely legal—those laws were passed by legislators that we, the people, elected into office. It's not like this is the first time we've heard about the potential civil rights violations these anti-terrorism measures introduce. In fact, plenty of real civil rights activists have been up in arms for years over these kinds of laws. This is simply the first time that the everyday American has been able to comprehend the true scope of the War on Terror and its consequences at home.
Once again, this has been going on for years. I'll skip over most of the Bush years for the sake of brevity (Patriot Act! Patriot Act!), and focus instead on the Obama administration's contribution to the death of the Fourth Amendment. Just before the president's historic victory in 2008, the Bush administration basically changed the name of its NSA-administered warrantless surveillance program to the very patriotic Protect America Act, a law that supposedly added a layer of secret judicial oversight to the program. It did not, however, keep the government from snooping on its own citizens.
A year later and a little over six months before Obama took office, Bush signed the FISA Amendments Act into law. This offered immunity to the companies that cooperated with the warrantless wiretapping program and also stipulated that the necessary judicial approval could come as late as 72 hours after the surveillance started. Some compared the measure to East Germany's famously Big Brother-ish Stasi, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) started filing lawsuits to challenge the constitutionality of the bill. Those freedom-loving Americans and others have been filing lawsuits and fighting the good fight ever since.
They've been losing. Despite a small campaign to raise awareness about the government's power to seriously invade your inbox, listen to your phone calls and rake through your browsing data, Congress approved a measure to extend the FISA Amendments Act for another five years by a healthy margin last December. Unsurprisingly, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was sounding its alarm, trying to tell mobilize people to contact their senators in an attempt to stop the bill from moving forward. It even warned the public in plain English that "the law allows the government to get secret FISA court orders—orders that do not require probable cause like regular warrants—for any emails or phone calls going to and from overseas."
And guess what PRISM did? Exactly that. The Senate passed the FISA Amendments Act and Obama signed it into law. This was also a year after we learned that the NSA had been given better access to data streams thanks to a Pentagon partnership with major service providers like AT&T and Verizon. Even then, watchdog groups warned that these kinds of measures could serve as "a backdoor form of surveillance."
We don't know everything about how PRISM works, but we do know that the American public had more than one opportunity to stop it. There were plenty of warning signs, moments when leaders said things that didn't sound quite right. For example, Deputy Secretary William J. Lynn III said of the Pentagon-NSA program in 2011:
The U.S. government will not be monitoring, intercepting or storing any private-sector communications. … We hope the [Pentagon] cyber pilot can be the beginning of something bigger. It could serve as a model that can be transported to other critical infrastructure sectors, under the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security.
Well, Lynn was certainly right about one thing. There was something bigger happening down the road. If citizens failed to keep the government in check over the course of the past few years, now is a good time for them not only to start caring about their civil liberties but to start fighting for them, too.
It's so far fairly unclear whose side Obama will be on. In a Friday afternoon press conference, he defended the PRISM program, pointing out that it was all legal and, he believes, reasonable. "I know that the people involved in these programs— they act like professionals," said the president wearing a surprising blasé expression. "When you actually look at the details I think we've struck the right balance." Obama even conceded that he would probably be on the list of those monitored, implying that we ought to be open to sacrificing our privacy for the sake of national security because he's willing to do it.
Is America willing to let him, to let Congress, to let our myriad intelligence agencies steal those rights? We'll see. A lot depends on what happens next, including Barack Obama's legacy.
"I'll be leaving this office sometime in the next three years," he said at the Friday press conference. It's up to us to decide exactly when that will be.