06/11/2013 12:52 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

The Precarious State of Our Civil Liberties

If anyone was starting to feel that the power of print media was diminishing and overshadowed by lightning-quick online posts, one only has to look at what happened this week to see that print media can still pack an almighty punch. A one-page article in Britain's Guardian newspaper exposed the National Security Agency's "Prism" eavesdropping program and its involvement with Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and other companies. There were no ripple effects after this article was published; instead, we witnessed a barrage of tsunamis that are continuing to pound the United States government, massive information technology corporations, and the constitutionally enshrined principal that all law-abiding U.S. citizens have the right to freedom and privacy.

Senior congressmen, members of the intelligence services, and the president himself have all felt the need to quickly get in front of the cameras and argue that PRISM has been lawfully approved by Congress, that it doesn't monitor the emails and phone calls of anyone -- U.S. citizen or otherwise -- based on American soil, that it only targets suspected terrorists based overseas, and that even then it can't access the content of emails and calls. Some officials have gone further, citing examples of how PRISM has successfully identified and captured terrorists who were planning to attack the United States. One such example was that of a dormant Internet address that was being monitored in Pakistan due to suspicions that it was linked to al-Qaeda leaders. In 2009, an email passed through the address and in turn set off the alarms of one of NSA's PRISM computers. Investigators traced the email to a 24-year-old man in Denver. They read his emails, and established that he was an al-Qaeda operative who was about to plant a bomb on U.S. soil.

Though it is a huge relief that PRISM was able to thwart this and other attacks, these cited success stories do seem to undermine what President Obama and others have told us, because it is clear that PRISM can set in train a series of events that do culminate in the interception of U.S.-based individuals and the content of their electronic communications. Furthermore, PRISM's detractors have rightly pointed out that PRISM can store the telephone numbers and email addresses of any U.S.-based person sending or receiving overseas communications. The truth, therefore, is that PRISM's activities have, on the one hand, tight legal constraints, and on the other hand, a whopping grey area of unregulated ambiguity.

Perhaps because he was running out of arguments to defend PRISM, Mr. Obama resignedly told reporters that, "You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a society." He's partially right. All democratically elected, libertarian governments are constantly confronted with the torturous conundrum of how far a state should intrude on its citizens' private lives in order to protect those citizens. But he's wrong to say that society makes these choices. We have no power to vote in or out certain covert intelligence activities because, Guardian newspaper exposés aside, they're top secret. Security-cleared politicians and intelligence officers make the choices.

To some extent that may be an uncomfortable reality, but that's not to say it is necessarily a bad thing. As a former intelligence officer who worked in hostile overseas locations, I know from painful experience the tremendous burden one carries when working in the secret world. Every day, intelligence officers are faced with morally ambiguous problems. Typically, officers operate in environments where there is no safety net and no legal framework to tell them what is right and what is wrong. The issues are compounded by the fact that espionage is illegal in most countries in the world, and by extension intelligence officers are criminals in the eyes of the country they're spying on. Of course, agencies like the CIA and my former employer, MI6, don't recruit criminal-types. Instead they try to identify new recruits who have a strong moral compass. Still, that compass is constantly tested to the limit. If you've caught a terrorist and have placed him in shackles, do you torture him to within an inch of his life to ascertain the location of the bomb he's planted in your home city? Or do you try to glean that information through non-violent means? The burden of navigating the path between the imperative of national security versus the rights and liberties of a human being is one that is appropriately assigned to intelligence officers, and it is not done so lightly. As citizens, we must place our faith in these officers to conduct themselves in a manner that reflects well on the countries they represent. Ultimately, we must expect them to exercise superb judgment.

What worries me about programs like the NSA's PRISM is that human judgment comes into play too far down the line. Vast computers are collecting electronic communications data, and, by extension, data on people, and it is possible that millions of those people are law-abiding Americans. Does that matter, given that all U.S. citizens already have details about them stored on other government and commercial databases? It does, because PRISM's different. If one of your emails gets mistakenly linked to a terror cell, you could be wrongly arrested and imprisoned. The worst-case scenario is that you could end up getting gunned down by a counterterrorism unit.

About The Author. Matthew Dunn was an MI6 intelligence officer, who worked deep cover in hostile overseas locations. He is the author of the Spycatcher series of novels, including the forthcoming SLINGSHOT (published June 26 2013, HarperCollins/William Morrow).