In 2012, Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said that Americans would be “stunned” by the government’s interpretation of its surveillance authority. On Wednesday, we learned why: The National Security Agency (NSA) is routinely collecting telephone calls on all Americans. Indeed, we were stunned.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act created a special court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The court is supposed to oversee the collection of foreign intelligence. The focus was traditionally agents of foreign governments, but was later expanded to agents of foreign powers as we confronted threats from non-state actors.
The court order approved by the court and made public by the Guardian newspaper was unprecedented. The NSA obtained call records of Verizon customers solely within the United States. The Wall Street Journal later verified that this collection was also happening for all Verizon customers, as well as those of AT&T, Sprint and certain other companies.
The Constitution assures us that the government will not intrude on our lives without probable cause. The NSA’s collection of telephone metadata is unprecedented, illegal and very likely unconstitutional. There is simply no way the government could have demonstrated the requisite grounds to establish that each of the millions, perhaps billions, of telephone records of U.S. citizens were relevant to an ongoing investigation.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act further requires that no investigation may “be conducted of a United States person solely upon the basis of activities protected by the First Amendment.” A telephone communication between two people is protected free speech. Therefore, the sole basis for this investigation cannot be simply that these telephone records exist, though it seems inherently unlikely that the NSA has other individualized information about each of the millions of Americans caught in the agency’s dragnet.
In the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Electronic Privacy Information Center executive director Marc Rotenberg testified before the 9/11 Commission and warned against the potential abuses of the increased authority granted by the Patriot Act and amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. In light of the news that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has given the NSA authority to conduct purely domestic surveillance, the center has asked Congress to hold hearings to determine the legality of this program. In our view, it is unlawful and should be suspended
As Mr. Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, have long warned, there is a cataclysmic gap between the law passed by Congress and the powers the administration claims. People in the United States can no longer sit idle. We are all targets under this overbroad program, regardless of race, political affiliation, religion or place on the economic totem pole. I hope you’ll join the Electronic Privacy Information Center in its call to Congress. It is unlikely that we’ve seen the last of the government’s abuses.
In fact, less than 24 hours after the Verizon order was published, The Washington Post published documents revealing another dragnet surveillance program with major Internet companies — Google, Facebook, Skype and others — to provide the NSA with a backdoor to all consumer communications. Through the program — code-named “Prism” — the NSA is able to vacuum up emails, messages, pictures, video and a range of other personal information that users entrust to these companies.
We cannot wait for another revelation to tell us what we already know: The surveillance state must be reined in. The democratic soul of our nation is at stake.
Amie Stepanovich is director of the Domestic Surveillance Program for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.