In the wake of the release of classified National Security Agency documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post earlier this month, the American public has been conflicted on whether the release of the documents, which showed an infringement of their civil liberties, was worth the national security risk.
Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that the NSA had obtained secret court orders to collect telephone call records in what the agency calls an effort to investigate terrorism.
A June Pew Research Center poll found that despite the leaked documents, 56 percent of Americans approved of the NSA’s surveillance, up from 51 percent in January 2006. But the other 44 percent of Americans seem unsure that having their rights violated is in the best interest of the country.
In response to the findings that the government was collecting data on Americans without the public’s knowledge, the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a constitutional challenge to the surveillance program.
According to a press release, the ACLU argues that the NSA’s surveillance program — which required phone companies to provide information regarding every phone call placed within, from, or to the U.S. — is a violation of the free speech rights granted under the First Amendment and the privacy rights granted under the Fourth Amendment.
“The documents that The Guardian and The Washington Post have published should not have been secret,” said Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Project on Speech, Privacy and Technology, in a statement to Mint Press News. “The only harm their publication has caused has been to the government’s credibility. In particular, the notion that the government’s legal interpretation of its surveillance authority is somehow ‘national defense information’ is a dangerous one in a democracy.”
Citing the words of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the ACLU says it’s working to ensure that Snowden’s greatest fear doesn’t come true — that “nothing will change” even though the American public is aware of the amount of power the government has.
Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director for the ACLU, called the NSA’s surveillance a “dragnet program” and said the NSA’s use of the Patriot Act exceeded the authority that Congress had granted.
“It is the equivalent of requiring every American to file a daily report with the government of every location they visited, every person they talked to on the phone, the time of each call, and the length of every conversation,” Jaffer said. “The program goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act and represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy.”
Alex Abdo, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Security Project, also expressed concerns about the program.
“The crux of the government’s justification for the program is the chilling logic that it can collect everyone’s data now and ask questions later,” he said. “The Constitution does not permit the suspicionless surveillance of every person in the country.”
Can you hear me now?
The ACLU is a customer of Verizon Business Network Services, which was required by a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court order to provide phone call details to the NSA. The details included information on who calls were placed to and from, when the calls were made, and more.
The ACLU says the release of its phone records “compromises sensitive information about its work, undermining the organization’s ability to engage in legitimate communications with clients, journalists, advocacy partners, and others.”
“There needs to be a bright line on where intelligence gathering stops,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “If we don’t say this is too far, when is too far?”
Allan Friedman, a fellow in governance studies and research director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, told Mint Press News that he thinks it’s great that the ACLU has decided to pursue a legal route to challenge the surveillance program.
Though he stressed that he is not a legal scholar, Friedman said he hopes that the decision is one that is made in a public court with civilian lawyers and civilian judges, rather than in secret. Friedman also told Mint Press News he hopes that this case “creates sufficient skepticism” in the minds of government officials when it comes to the keeping information secret from the American public.
Friedman said the way to decide whether Snowden’s leak was worth it is to lay out the costs and benefits of releasing the documents.
“Privacy is notoriously hard to quantify,” he said, adding that little is known about the costs of the documents being publicly released since the public has very limited knowledge of how successful the NSA was in stopping terrorist attacks based on the information they obtained through this secret surveillance.
However, Friedman said that the release of the documents has imposed a cost on the United States’ credibility, undermining its reputation among other governments as a trustworthy partner.
Don’t blame it on Obama?
As Mint Press News previously reported, when asked about the NSA documents, many Americans blame the surveillance not on the government as a whole, but on President Obama.
A June 2013 poll from the Pew Research Center found that party affiliation greatly affected an individual’s interpretation of whether the NSA’s surveillance infringed on their civil liberties. Recent polls found that 64 percent of Democrats found the surveillance acceptable in 2013, compared to just 37 percent in 2006 when a Republican was in the White House.
About 56 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Republicans said they approved of the NSA surveillance in 2013, a drop from 75 percent in 2006.
“Anti-Obama sentiment is not at a fever pitch, but at a continual hum,” said Leslie Ungar, author of “100 Tips to Communicate Your Value,” in an interview with Mint Press News.
“It will just always be there, the lens through which many will filter all information. The inconsistency is that if spying is bad now, it was bad during Bush. Republicans that fail to see that are like the scorpion in the tale of the turtle and the scorpion. Biting Obama has become a reaction more important than their ideals.”
In a blog post for the Washington Monthly, Seth Masket seemed to echo Ungar’s statements, but cautioned those who come to the rescue of Obama.
“Is it really hackish for people to be more comfortable with a governmental power if they know someone they more or less trust is going to be in charge of it? Is it hypocritical to think that police state tactics are necessary when someone who shares your values is deploying them but excessive when someone hostile to your values is deploying them? Democrats are basically saying, ‘Yes, this is potentially problematic, but we trust Obama to do it right,’ and Republicans said the same thing about Bush,” he wrote.
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