Tuesday, September 24, 2013

U.S. government knew that revelations about NSA’s PRISM program would hurt American Technology companies, but they didn’t “really really care”, Bart Gellman

The following has been appended as an update to the previous discussion on how The Surveillance State Killed BlackBerry.

When details of NSA’s PRISM surveillance program were revealed, American technology companies shuddered in fear, not because they were concerned about criminal prosecution – both the Bush administration and the Obama administration had authorized the program – they shuddered in fear because they knew the revelations would negatively impact their business.

In the following interview on Democracy Now!, when Juan Gonzalez asks Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, the British newspaper that first reported on the Snowden affair (2), what his thoughts are on the impact of the revelations of the surveillance program on the world stage, Rusbridger replies (segments of interest occur at approximately 38:00 and 47:00 – emphasis added):
ALAN RUSBRIDGER [38:00]: Well, I think, the bit that is sometimes missing from the American debate, the President places great emphasis on the fact that America doesn’t spy on Americans in American territory, as if that was the only thing that mattered. And I thought it was very interesting that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook said, the other day, well that is no use to us if we are trying to build an international business. So, I think Americans haven’t quite understood the anger of other states, of people living in Germany, you say, that Americans feel free to spy on anybody else in the world, and you just have to, sort of, reverse that and think how would Americans feel if Germans were spying on them, or the Chinese.…

JUAN GONZÁLEZ [46:00]: …your sense of how these kinds of revelations are, not only effecting world perceptions of the United States, but as you alluded to earlier, the ability of American companies, internet giants and computer giants to do business overseas – and more and more people are saying, why should I deal with Yahoo or why should I deal with Google if the American government is going to be able to spy on me.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: …I think it gets to be a big big story for American innovation and business if the rest of the world comes to associate these companies with forms of surveillance, that is going to damage American companies, and I think the Silicon Valley companies know this, and they are worried.

Spilling the NSA’s Secrets: Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger on the Inside Story of Snowden Leaks

So was the world’s reaction to these revelations surprising? Didn’t the U.S. government and the companies that enabled the spy agency to initiate and optimize this program realize that there would be a backlash?

In the following gem of an interview with Bart Gellman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist that first broke the story about NSA’s surveillance program with a piece entitled, “U.S., British intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program”, we find out that the U.S. government knew that the willingness of American companies to provide support for NSA's dragnet data collection program (2) would severely damage the American technology industry, and rightfully so considering how careless they have been with the data (1, 2, 3, 4). The interview is a must watch in its entirety for anyone following the NSA scandal since it delves much deeper than what has been discussed above. The segment of interest which I refer to takes place between approximately 22:00 to 28:00. I have provided the transcript to the best of my abilities below (emphasis added):
“So what you have, basically, is a system which begins with competition, in which the government will try to keep secrets, and it will always try to keep too many…. So the government will try to keep too many secrets and people like me will try to find them out, and I’m not going to get them all, nobody is, but I’ll get some of them. And then what happens is, there is a process of cooperation that takes place next. And so, we have not published anything in the Washington Post without going to the responsible authorities, and saying, here is a list of facts that we know and are planning to publish, can you please help us understand them, set them in context, and let us know if you have any security concerns about any of these facts getting into the public domain….

“The first disclosure that I did was about this PRISM program by which NSA get information from Microsoft and Facebook and Google and so forth, and I began the conversation – and it was on the phone so I did not speak in detail – and told them here is the title of the document, you know, we’ll talk again in a couple of hours and if you need me to come in, I’ll come in, or get the document in front of you and we’ll talk about page numbers and line numbers….

“There were a number of places where they said, can you leave this out or leave that out and they had quite plausible reasons and we said sure, and in fact there have been very very few cases in which we have published anything that they asked us not to publish. Sometimes we come back and say let’s try a different form of words, we want to get across the idea here because there is an important policy question that we think should be aired and we think most members of congress and most members of the public would think this should be aired, but we want to avoid stepping on the thing that you’re most worried about and so how about this, and they say we can live with that.

There was one thing in that first PRISM story that the government asked us to do that we declined to do, and that was to remove the names of the 9 companies. They said this could greatly damage our ability to work with these companies in the future, and I said, I am not speaking for the Washington Post but I’ll tell you what my recommendation will be. If the harm you’re worried about consists of the companies stopping doing something because their customers and the public at large don’t like what they’re doing and they’re going to lose business because of it, that’s why we have to publish it, that’s our job. Our job is to enable the public to make that kind of decision based on information. And as I expected the editor backed me up on that and we published it, and the government really cared about that, but there is another kind of measure of how much they cared. This thing got resolved entirely at the level of me and reasonably senior officials talking on the telephone. When they really really care and they’re not getting the answer they want, the conversation goes higher. I’m aware of two cases in which a president has called in an editor or publisher of the Washington Post, and it’s happened at other news organizations as well, this didn’t get anywhere near that. I’ll stop there.

The Snowden Affair NSA Leaks


  1. Don’t Listen to Google and Facebook: The Public-Private Surveillance Partnership Is Still Going Strong - "These companies are certainly pissed that the publicity surrounding the NSA's actions is undermining their users' trust in their services, and they're losing money because of it. Cisco, IBM, cloud service providers, and others have announced that they're losing billions, mostly in foreign sales."