Last week, we looked at the phone data collection program that collects metadata on calls so that the government can detect unusual patterns. Contrary to the hysteria generated from some Republicans and the left, the government is not listening to your calls, unless it has probable cause, individualized suspicion, to zero in on you. This is done by court order and subject to congressional review. If you are going to “connect the dots” you need the dots, and this methodology provides them.

President Obama speaks during a press conference. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency) President Obama speaks during a press conference. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)

What about the so-called PRISM program? Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald acknowledged on ABC’s “This Week” that there is a big conflict about what actually was going on:

What we said was that, and — and we presented it as the story from the start, was that we have top secret NSA documents that claim that there is a new program called The PRISM Program, in place since 2007 that provides, in the words of the NSA’s own documents, direct collection, directly from the servers of these companies. We then went to all of those companies named, and they said no, we don’t provide direct access to our servers, so there was a conflict, which is what we reported, that the NSA claims that they have direct access, the companies deny it.

Moreover, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), although highly critical, let on that this program is not about domestic communications. “There is one the so-called PRISM program, Article 702 in the law, and it’s been very effective,” he said on “This Week.” “It surveils foreigners, grabs content, photographs, e-mails.”

And finally, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, argued that Greenwald “says that he’s got it all and now is an expert on the program. He doesn’t have a clue how this thing works. Neither did the person who released just enough information to literally be dangerous.”

In sum, I don’t think we have much to go on in understanding whether the government had a backdoor to Internet companies’ servers, if only information on foreigners was gathered and whether individualized suspicion was needed to probe the contents of an American’s e-mails. If, however, the program targets foreigners, is done pursuant to a warrant and is overseen by Congress, then it is perfectly legal.

What is patently absurd, however, is to say we have to open this all up, get all the details and have a big debate out in public. There is a reason we don’t provide such details; there are people in the world who want to kill Americans. This is so elementary it seems odd to spell it out, and yet elected leaders, who should know better, sound clueless.

Udall complained:

The 215 provisions which are collecting all the metadata, I am not convinced that it’s uniquely valuable intelligence that we could not have generated in other ways. So I know these claims are being made, but that’s all the more reason to have a debate, to share this information and to determine whether or not we ought to be collecting millions of records every day of Americans’ phone calls. It’s just to me a violation of our privacy, particularly if it’s done in ways that we don’t know about.

It’s not a violation of privacy if you don’t know how the intelligence community is gathering information. Sorry, senator, but that is appallingly ignorant. It’s a constitutional problem if the government peers into the contents of your communications without probable cause. We never should know the precise methods of gathering information because that would mean our enemies would know, too. And if Udall has some ingenious method of connecting the dots so that a New York subway plot can be detected, he shouldn’t keep it to himself.

What is going on here, I think, is that there is now a complete loss of faith in the president and the administration arising from Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service and Justice Department scandals and prevarication about all three. The tumult and recriminations swirl because the president has lost the trust of the American people. An administration that abuses power (e.g. the IRS) and prevaricates is, even when operating legitimately, going to fall under suspicion.

In a way, the NSA intelligence gathering is President Obama’s Katrina. While the accusations may be ignorant and unfair, it nevertheless becomes the final blow that drains support from independents and his base and sends his poll numbers plummeting.

This is a perfect example of how an abundance of hubris and dearth of honesty cripple a president. In that respect, Obama has no one to blame but himself.