Calling on Congress to End Mass Surveillance

(Editor’s Note: The following is a guest blog post from Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress. Demand Progress works to win progressive policy changes for ordinary people through organizing and grassroots lobbying. It focuses on issues of civil liberties, civil rights, and government reform. Demand Progress recently helped organize a coalition letter signed by 60 companies and bipartisan advocacy groups, including Golden Frog, calling on Congress to end mass surveillance of Americans).

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Daniel Schuman

Policy Director, Demand Progress

The clock is ticking down on three provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, affording Congress a real opportunity to end mass surveillance and enact additional reforms. But the Intelligence Community and its allies on Capitol Hill are fighting tooth and nail to codify the broad surveillance powers it has assumed unto itself before the June 1 expiration.

Mass surveillance is poisonous to our democracy. The government’s mass surveillance practices are virtually limitless, as well as unnecessary, counterproductive, and costly. They undermine our economy, the public’s trust in government, and even the proper functioning of government itself. The only antidote is significant surveillance reform.

Meaningful reform must include fixing the law and ending the Executive Branch’s perverse understanding of its authority to spy on Americans. In addition, Congress must appreciably increase transparency, oversight, and accountability of intelligence agencies, especially those that have acted unconstitutionally.

Fix the USA PATRIOT Act.

Mass surveillance conducted under the USA PATRIOT Act is antithetical to Americans’ exercise of their civil liberties. Section 215 of the law has been twisted by the Executive Branch to ostensibly allow for the collection of virtually unlimited personal information, from gun records and financial records to our physical locations and with whom we talk. Even the original bill author says this is not what Congress intended.

All the worse, this intrusive collection is not only unconstitutional; it is unnecessary. The President’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board concluded not a single instance exists “involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.” Others have reached similar conclusions. Even the NSA considered ending the program because the “the costs outweighed the meager counterterrorism benefits.” Additional provisions that may be interpreted to allow bulk collection—whether under section 214, via National Security Letters, or elsewhere—must be addressed.

Clarify other laws, too.

Congress must end mass surveillance programs purportedly authorized elsewhere, including under the FISA Amendments Act and Executive Order 12333. These programs are incredibly broad. For example, they include the acquisition of vast amounts of information sent privately over the Internet (e.g., “upstream collection” under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008). They also include any information or communication, by foreigners and Americans, that is ever transmitted outside the physical boundaries of the United States (e.g., as authorized by Executive Order 12333). Section 702 results in the unnecessary collection of innocent American’s domestic communications, and EO 12333 raises troubling concerns about the scope of collection and the authority assumed by the President.

Restore accountability for bad actors in the Intelligence Community.

Accountability starts with truth. Members of Congress, both on the left and the right, must have access to documents necessary to know the full story. They must be able to trust those they oversee. When they are misled, as occurred in statements by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan, there must be consequences. In addition, the Intelligence committees and members of Congress must have the staff, resources, clearance and cooperation necessary to provide vigorous oversight. A special committee should investigate and publicly report on Intelligence Community transgressions since 9/11.

Mass surveillance harms our economy.

Mass surveillance will cost the digital economy up to $180 billion in lost revenue by 2016. Law enforcement efforts to subvert the integrity of technology—in particular by attacking privacy and security mechanisms built into technology—threaten the profitability of American manufacturers, entrepreneurs, and software companies. Already, 30% of all American adults report changing their online behavior in response to surveillance fears.

For the most part, Congress has focused on making minor changes to the broad surveillance powers the Executive Branch has aggregated unto itself, often in secret. This is the wrong place to start. Instead, Congress should focus on what powers the Intelligence Community actually needs, whether they are properly exercised and effective, and whether they infringe upon our civil liberties.

I’m looking forward to continuing the fight to get Congress to end the mass surveillance of Americans. I hope you’ll join me. Demand Progress’ site: http://www.stopmassspying.com is a great place to start.

About the Author:

Daniel Schuman is the policy director at Demand Progress. Daniel has been at the forefront of advocacy for greater congressional transparency for the better part of a decade. He worked as a congressional staffer and later as an attorney with the Congressional Research Service. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielschuman