The Diplomatic Dangers of PRISM

By: Leslie Schuman

A little over a month ago, Edward Snowden, an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), released a bevy of government documents detailing a highly classified counterterrorism program called PRISM. PRISM is an electronic surveillance program run by the NSA that was first instituted by the Bush administration in 2007. According to the leaked documents, PRISM monitored emails, phone calls, Skype chats, and other online communications of individuals who had been singled out by the government. The program was used both domestically and abroad to track foreign nationals and US citizens.[i]

When Snowden was asked why he leaked the PRISM program to the public he said, “I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, but I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed if even for an instant.”[ii] Snowden is right to not want the United States government running wild and stomping all over the Fourth Amendment. A government that is too powerful or invasive is dangerous. However, because of the ensuing diplomatic backlash and potential harm done to our counterterrorism efforts, Snowden’s decision to leak the PRISM program was far more detrimental to the American citizens than it was helpful.

Since the leak, the Obama administration has been in damage control (as if there weren’t enough things to handle before). Some of the documents Snowden released discussed American spying within foreign embassies, which, understandably, other countries did not appreciate. The European Union in particular, has promised severe backlash if the information Snowden released is accurate.[iii]  This had almost nothing to do with our counterterrorism programs, and it will be difficult for the Obama administration to justify spying on our allies. However, it should come as no surprise to anybody that the US has been going above and beyond the usual spy planes and wiretapping. We are one of the most disliked countries in the world, and at the top of nearly every hit list that exists. We spied on our allies to give us an advantage in settling disputes. That may have been unfair, but it also may have expedited the process. Although the government went too far in this regard, Snowden’s decision to release this information was a detriment to the United States and American citizens. It disrupted our most positive relationships and put us at a diplomatic disadvantage.

By publishing PRISM for the public to read, Snowden also gave terrorists a better view into one of the key parts of our counterterrorism agenda. With the release of this information, potential terrorists now have a better understanding of how best to avoid detection by the US government and hopefully, pull off a major attack.[iv]

It remains to be seen what Snowden will release in the future, but it is clear that he believes he has done the American public a favor by revealing PRISM’s potential infringement on privacy rights. Some of the Obama administration’s efforts were unnecessary and ill advised. Spying on loyal allies was not useful for counterterrorism and really only opened the door for a public relations disaster.   However, the heart of the program was legitimately aimed at preventing terrorist attacks and, thus far, the Obama administration has properly handled terrorism. Overall, although many hail Edward Snowden as a whistleblower and hero, he has done the American public a disservice by revealing important counterterrorist intelligence and upsetting diplomatic relations. 

Leslie Schuman, a rising sophomore at Emory University, is a proud native of Los Angeles, California. She is an International Studies major and a French Studies minor, and is currently working as a Communications intern at a social media company. She hopes to work or study abroad at least once before graduating from Emory.

[i] Lee, Timothy. “Here’s everything we know about PRISM to date.” The Washington Post, June 12, 2013.

[ii] Greenwald, Glenn. “Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations.” The 29-year-old source behind the biggest intelligence leak in the NSA’s history explains his motives, his uncertain future and why he never intended on hiding in the shadows, June 09, 2013. (accessed July 16, 2013).

[iii] “New Snowden leak: US bugged dozens of foreign embassies.” Last modified July 01, 2013. Accessed July 16, 2013.

[iv] “Bush: Snowden ‘damaged the security of the country.’” Last modified July 02, 2013. Accessed July 21, 2013.

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