WASHINGTON — Is Big Brother watching you?

That’s the question that Catholics are debating with the recent revelations about Prism and other U.S. government surveillance tools allegedly collecting the Internet and phone data of U.S. citizens for the sake of foiling terrorist plots.

Leaks of classified government documents revealed to the public for the first time the existence of a highly classified program utilized by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) called Prism, which allegedly seizes records from Internet companies and sifts through them for specific information.

Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor, leaked the hitherto secret program to The Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers, providing a file that showed in PowerPoint format how the NSA was collecting data for domestic surveillance to track foreign targets with the cooperation of major Internet companies.

A later Associated Press investigation reported that the NSA taps vast swathes of data from Internet traffic that runs through fiber-optic cables passing through the United States. Prism, the AP reported, is an additional tool that allows officials to focus on specific streams of data that analysts deem relevant to national security.

The AP explained that NSA analysts identify suspicious communications from tapping into fiber-optic cables, then use Prism to zero in on the targeted user’s communications from data obtained by Internet companies. Both the targeted user and anyone the user may have contacted also are subjects of investigation.

According to the AP, government analysts by law can’t access U.S. citizens’ personal emails, phone records and data until they become relevant to national security. At the same time, any data captured during an investigation may be stored indefinitely on government servers as government property — just in case they prove useful to national security threats decades from now.

The AP adds that findings from Prism, including names, addresses, conversation histories and entire archives of email inboxes, end up in President Obama’s daily briefings.


‘Assault on Human Dignity’

The revelations have prompted a national debate, including among Catholics, about the legitimacy, size and scope of U.S. government surveillance that has increased dramatically since the Islamist terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"This seems like a massive intrusion on citizens’ liberty," said Stephen Krason, a political scientist at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. "From a Catholic standpoint, it’s an assault on human dignity."

Krason told the Register that the surveillance program appeared to intrude on the legitimate right of individuals and the family to be free from state interference in their affairs.

He said the abuse of general warrants by British authorities was one of the reasons that the founders of the U.S. Constitution required specific warrants and banned unreasonable search and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

"People have a right to family privacy, privacy in their own homes, so long as there is no violation of the moral law," he explained.

The Protect America Act permits the NSA to conduct warrantless wiretapping under the general supervision of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), according to the AP report. A federal judge can give a secret order requiring Internet companies to turn over information, which the NSA seeks with specific requests.

Krason said the current cultural climate of the United States made it imperative that U.S. spying authorities have more safeguards, seeking individual warrants for data collection and not "carte blanche power."

"Why should we be so confident that the authorities are going to make enlightened, judicious decisions in an era of moral relativism and a lack of moral standards?" he said. "I don’t see the evidence."


Too Early to Judge?

Catholic commentator Russell Shaw, however, said it was too soon to judge Prism and government-surveillance programs as overreaching and "Orwellian."

"It’s nonsense," Shaw said. "What we’re talking about is an effort by the American government to save American lives."

While acknowledging many Catholics are sensitive to government abuse from the Health and Human Services’ mandate and from the Internal Revenue Service targeting scandal, Shaw argued those are a "different set of issues."

"All sorts of reasonable and necessary things can indeed be abused, but that’s an argument for not doing it at all," he said.

Shaw said that, in addition to court oversight, the NSA is also required to make reports to members of Congress on its surveillance activities. He added that, while it was good to have this national debate, "nobody has fingered any abuses yet."

"If it comes to privacy vs. protection of human life, I think human life is a hands-down winner," the former bishops’ conference spokesman said.

Still, Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a theologian at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., said Catholics need to exercise caution and think about the Church’s social teachings.

"The absolutely 100% secure state is not a free state," he said.

Msgr. Swetland said Catholic Tradition acknowledges the need for governments to have a "robust intelligence-gathering organization" as part of providing for the common good.

But he counseled that the principles of solidarity (acting together for the common good) and subsidiarity (respect for the other elements of society, such as the family or the church, to operate freely in their own spheres) need to be kept in balance.

"The question we have to ask is: Are we allowing the central government and its intelligence-gathering powers to become so vast and so broad that the principle of solidarity is overwhelming the principle of subsidiarity?" he said.


Constitutional Design

Joseph Wysocki, a political science professor at Belmont Abbey College in Charlotte, N.C., said the framers of the Constitution designed it to invest secrecy in the presidential role in order to make decisions related to war and diplomacy.

However, he said the bureaucratic "thickening" of the executive branch means a whole host of individuals, from lower-level officials to the president, also enjoy at least part of that flexibility and discretion in this sensitive area.

"Does the buck stop with the NSA, the director of national intelligence or the president?" Wysocki asked. "There is a lot of room now for the hiding of responsibility."

While the NSA’s net does appear to be cast too wide, Wysocki said, it’s not clear whether it is causing actual harm to the subsidiary members of society, unlike the recent IRS scandals that have caused harm to conservative groups denied tax-exempt status.

Ultimately, he said the Constitution was designed to be a "buffer to the passions of the people," and the elections staggered over the next several years will determine how the American people feel about the extent of domestic surveillance.

"If this is a momentary passion, then it’s going to die down," he said. "But if people are that angry about it, then it will change."

According to a new Fox News poll, Americans are divided on the benefits of the program: 46% think Prism will "hurt law-abiding Americans by using private information improperly," while 44% think it will "help catch terrorists and protect Americans"; and 74% expressed belief that the program could be abused to target specific groups. An additional 71% want Congress to continue investigating Prism, and a majority reported the program’s existence further eroded trust in the federal government.


Don’t Idolize Security

Msgr. Swetland, a former intelligence officer in the Navy, expressed his concern that the shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the natural desire to prevent such a "crime against humanity" from recurring may have provoked Americans dangerously close to "making a virtual idol out of security."

"If we’ll sacrifice anything for security, we have to be very careful not to turn security into an idol," he said. "Ultimately, our security as Catholics relies not on the nation-state, but, instead, on the providence of God."


Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.