The difference between these two explanations isn’t some nuanced distinction that only tech geeks should care about. This is the difference between companies voluntarily giving the government direct and unilateral access to arbitrary customer data and companies merely complying with the law in a technically efficient way that doesn’t change the nature of the data received by the government. If Greenwald and MacAskill have documents or detailed statements from Snowden that provide illumination on this point, they should share this information. Because as it stands now, the only way their story is true is if all the companies involved are lying, and the NSA is lying, and Senators Feinstein and Rogers are lying, and the President is lying, and The New York Times’ sources are lying.
This certainly isn’t impossible. Much more likely in my estimation is that Greenwald’s use of “direct” and “unilateral” was technically imprecise or the result of exaggerations from his source. Either way, the American people deserve to know the truth. Before the story moves on to the motivations of the leaker, or the safety of the leaker, or the fallout from the leak, it would be helpful to learn precisely how this program works. Does it indeed render company consent unnecessary? Can the government search their customer data without company lawyers first reviewing and approving a lawful court order? Or is PRISM merely the method that companies use to comply with lawful requests?
If the kind of direct, unilateral access alleged by The Washington Post and The Guardian is not the case, the publications should issue strongly worded retractions. If this kind of access is the case, they should share the sources for this information; the slides they have published do not corroborate this account.