The PRISM spin war has begun

The war over how to spin revelations of the National Security Agency's latest spying program has officially begun.

On the heels of media reports that the NSA has gained access to the servers of nine leading tech companies -- enabling the spy agency to examine emails, video, photographs, and other digital communications -- Google has issued a strongly worded statement denying that the company granted the government "direct access" to its servers. That statement goes so far as to say that the company hasn't even heard of "a program called PRISM until yesterday." 

At first glance, Google's statement is difficult to believe. Senior intelligence officials have confirmed the program's existence, and Google's logo is prominently listed on internal NSA documents describing participating companies. But Google may be engaging in a far more subtle public relations strategy than outright denial.

Google's statement hinges on three key points: that it did not provide the government with "direct access" to its servers, that it did not set up a "back door" for the NSA, and that it provides "user data to governments only in accordance with the law." 

According to Chris Soghoian, a tech expert and privacy researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union, the phrase "direct access" connotes a very specific form of access in the IT-world: unrestricted, unfettered access to information stored on Google servers. In order to run a system such as PRISM, Soghoian explains, such access would not be required, and Google's denial that it provided "direct access" does not necessarily imply that the company is denying having participated in the program. Typically, the only people having "direct access" to the servers of a company like Google would be its engineers. (Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has issued a similarly worded denial in which he says his company has not granted the government "direct access" to its servers," but his language mirrors Google's denial about direct access.)

A similar logic applies to Google's denial that it set up a "back door." According to Soghoian, the phrase "back door" is a term of art that describes a way to access a system that is neither known by the system's owner nor documented. By denying that it set up a back door, Google is not denying that it worked with the NSA to set up a system through which the agency could access the company's data.

According to Soghoian, the NSA could have gained access to tech company servers by working with the companies to set up something similar to an API -- a tool these firms use to give developers limited access to company data. Google has denied that an API was used, but that denial doesn't exclude the possibility that a similar tool was used.

To protect itself against allegations that it inappropriately compromised user data, Google further notes in its statement that the company provides "user data to governments only in accordance with the law." Despite the outrage directed at the NSA and the Obama administration, PRISM -- as currently described -- is in all likelihood within the bounds of the law. In the aftermath of the 2005 disclosure that the Bush administration had carried out a warrantless wiretapping program, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 and the Protect America Act of 2007. But those laws did not outlaw the kinds of actions carried out by PRISM.

As for Google's claim to have never heard of PRISM, would the intelligence officials who reportedly collaborated with Google have used the program's actual codename?

The tech companies alleged to have participated in PRISM aren't the only ones who appear to be spinning PRISM to their advantage.

On Friday, U.S. government sources told Reuters that PRISM was used to foil a 2009 plot to bomb the New York City subway. In all likelihood, such counter-leaks will continue in the days ahead as intelligence officials try to portray the program as essential to national security.

Welcome to the PRISM spin war.

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Work of rebuilding Syria will fall to a 'lost generation'

If the country's future is its children, Syria's reconciliation and reconstruction will fall to a group of young people forced from schools -- a "lost generation."

It's a dramatic change for a country with a relatively high standard of education. A new Human Rights Watch report notes that "In 2010, about 93 percent of all eligible children were enrolled in primary education, and 67 percent in secondary education. Before the war, literacy rates among young people were high: approximately 95 percent of the population between ages 15 and 24 could read and write." Early in his presidency, Bashar al-Assad initiated a series of education reforms, increasing the quality of instruction and expanding opportunities for collegiate education.

It's difficult to separate higher education from Ba'ath Party privilege, but it also "was linked to social mobility and the attainment of middle-class status," according to a recent study of refugee students and academics conducted by the University of California, Davis Human Rights Initiative and the Institute for International Education's Scholar Rescue Fund. "Syria's university campuses were the domain of both its established middle class and its aspiring lower middle class," Keith Watenpaugh, director of the UC Davis-HRI, told Foreign Policy by email. "They were one of the few social spaces in Syria, outside of the military, where Sunnis, Alawites and Christians mixed with any frequency."

The war has changed that. "UNICEF and other humanitarian organizations have made it very clear that the entire education sector in Syria is collapsing," Watenpaugh tells FP -- a fact also demonstrated by the new HRW report, "Safe No More: Students and Schools under Attack in Syria," about primary and secondary education. "As anti-regime higher education professionals and students have fled the country or stopped attending the universities, the remaining faculty are mostly regime loyalists. For decades Syria has been hemorrhaging its best and brightest -- tired of the party, but also the loss of opportunity. The war has accelerated that process."

As schools are closed by the violence and university students flee the country, those opportunities are slipping away. When Watenpaugh and his co-authors visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in April, relief workers told him that there were no university students among the camp's 140,000 residents, "only poor and uneducated villagers," he wrote in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. That simply wasn't true. In their conversations with overlooked refugee students at the camp, they found them eager "to renew their studies, even if it meant leaving their families and traveling farther abroad," but they also found that their efforts to continue their education have been stifled by a lack of money, studying opportunities, and paperwork (like transcripts and standardized test results left behind).

Watenpaugh hopes that special arrangements can be made for visiting students in the region, especially in Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey, where there are many universities and, in many cases, lower tuition costs than in Jordan. Otherwise, post-conflict Syria could face an even steeper class divide. "Often when we focus on the elite," he tells FP, "we end up enabling emigration and not empowering large numbers of mid-range students to go home and rebuild their societies." It's a bleak prospect that could leave students who thought they were rising in society "at the bottom end of the economic ladder -- either in Syria or on the margins of Jordanian, Lebanese, and Turkish society."

That disappointment will exacerbate the prospects for peace in the long-term, he writes by email: "That loss of status is a sure path to anomie and radicalization. Angry, resentful, and left-out, those students who fall off the edge, as it were, will be a burden on any peace and reconciliation process."

The fight for Syria seems as intractable as ever, but the struggle for what comes next is already well underway.