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The sun is shining on massive abuses, and some are blaming the light

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  June 11, 2013 04:39 PM

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In a classic PR maneuver, the Obama administration and a few lawmakers are trying to divert attention from revelations that our government has built the capacity to secretly spy on hundreds of millions of ordinary Americans. It appears as if they would rather have us argue about whether NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden is a hero or villain than focus on the substance of his revelations.

The American people shouldn't be fooled. Snowden isn't the story.

The story is what happens when a government can watch its people in secret, but the people can't watch their government. The danger is that democracy dies.

The American people have a right to know what their government is doing. Instead, this massive surveillance apparatus has been built largely in secret and five million Americans have some form of security clearance, leaving the rest of us wholly in the dark. We the people have been intentionally kept in the dark about the breadth of power our government has seized and how it is used. No wonder the Obama administration has been going after whistle-blowers and reporters aggressively. Were it not for leaks, the public would remain entirely unaware of what the government is doing in our name, and with our tax dollars.

Now, the Obama White House and their supporters in Congress want to focus the media's attention on Edward Snowden, suggesting that he is a traitor and threatening to prosecute him under the Espionage Act. Such a prosecution is highly unadvisable and would constitute a grave overreach of the government's authorities.

But even if you think Snowden is a villain, it doesn't answer the question of why the NSA trusted a relatively low-level employee with vast troves of data about ordinary Americans – nor why the Pentagon's NSA has built the capacity to harvest our Gmail accounts and iPhones data en masse and in secret.

Perhaps the government should do a little self-reflection about the absolutely gargantuan scope of its surveillance operations, and the powerful interests that have been paid to erect it in the shadows. How many people have access to the information Snowden disclosed? One report says 500,000 private contractors alone have access to it. Who is tracking whether any of them use that data for purposes of blackmail or harassment?

And that gets to the heart of the issue: the mass, antidemocratic, unconstitutional spying.

Some people are asking, "If I'm not doing anything wrong, why should I care?" If you think abuse of personal data can't happen, please do an Internet search using the phrases: "Nixon's enemies list" and "IRS targets Tea Party." You might also be interested to learn that the FBI spied on Martin Luther King, Jr., sent him a letter advising the civil rights hero that the bureau knew he was having an affair, and told him that to avoid embarrassment he should kill himself.

In response to the Guardian disclosures, President Obama has coughed up the usual statements about welcoming a public debate over the proper scope of government surveillance powers and standing up for a free press. But actions speak louder than platitudes. And President Obama has shown himself to be a firm defender of the Surveillance State — against the interests of the American people.

Until Snowden's leak, the debate on these issues was entirely one-sided, because the American people have been kept in the dark about the scope of their government's spying capabilities. Put succinctly: the government has been keeping the law itself secret from the people. Even members of Congress who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee — notably Senators Mark Udall and Ron Wyden — were unable to raise the alarm in any detail, since they, too, were sworn to secrecy.

It's past time to put sunlight on surveillance, and to have a "conversation we've needed to have for 12 years now," as Senator Warren says. Congress should repeal Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act, the statutes that grant the widest possible authorities for government surveillance and enable the abuses the Guardian uncovered. The only alternative is to simply give the military absolute power over civilian affairs, and give up on the pretense that we live in a democracy.

Here in Massachusetts, the state legislature will host hearings on July 9 on proposed privacy protections to ensure that state and local officials can't spy on ordinary people without having a good reason and showing that reason to a judge. That same hearing will include a discussion of our electronic privacy (phone/internet/location records) bill, administrative subpoenas (demand letters issued by prosecutors without judicial oversight), limits on surveillance of protected First Amendment activity, drones, and the prosecutors' wiretap expansion proposal.

Anyone who cares about democracy for themselves, or their children and grandchildren, should show up and make their views heard. The rights you save may be your own.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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