At a rally in Washington Saturday, self-exiled whistleblower Edward Snowden described “a system of pervasive surveillance” operating against American citizens, and he urged technology and free rights activists to spread awareness of the spying violations in the name of reform.
Mr. Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) who provided leaks about agency phone and Internet interceptions, is a key figure in the current controversy involving the agency. His message to the rally came as a statement sent from Russia, where he now lives under temporary asylum to avoid prosecution in the United States.
Just last week, leaks linked to Snowden revealed that the NSA had allegedly eavesdropped on cell phone calls by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This follows protests by other world leaders from Brazil, France, Spain, Italy, and as many 30 other countries – most of them US allies – who say NSA spying is a violation and could seriously impair their relationship with the US.
“Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no Internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA's hands. Our representatives in Congress tell us this is not surveillance. They’re wrong,” Snowden said. “Now it’s time for the government to learn from us.”
Although the US officially denies the monitoring, tensions continue to mount.
Last week, President Obama called French President Francois Hollande regarding a report in Le Monde that the NSA accessed more than 70 million phone records of French citizens in a single month in 2012. Also in Europe, Der Spiegel reported that NSA surveillance was tracked in the offices of senior officials of the European Union.
Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert said the German Chancellor told Obama “she unmistakably disapproves of and views as completely unacceptable such practices.”
“If the indications are authenticated, this would be a serious breach of confidence,” Mr. Seibert said. “Such practices have to be halted immediately.”
The Saturday rally in front of the Capitol Reflecting Pool reiterated these concerns as activists pushed for reforms that prohibit blanket surveillance of all phone and Internet activity of US citizens. The activists also want a special committee formed to investigate and report domestic spying violations and create regulatory reforms.
Stop Watching Us, a coalition of more than 100 organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Freedom Works, organized the rally, which was scheduled on the 12th anniversary of the signing of the US Patriot Act, which allows the FBI to conduct surveillance in terrorism and espionage cases with the approval of a federal judge.
Speakers at the rally include US Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan, former congressman Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, and gay rights activist former Army Lt. Dan Choi.
According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released in late July, nearly three-quarters of Americans say the NSA is infringing on some privacy rights, and half see the agency programs infringing on their own rights.
About all of those who say the programs compromise privacy say the programs are not justified. Half of those polled said that the programs make little difference in making the country safer.
Next week, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin is expected to introduce a bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, which will create more transparency and accountability at the NSA. Rep. Sensenbrenner was the primary author of the Patriot Act.
Earlier this month he told the National Journal the NSA “has gone far beyond the intent of the Patriot Act, particularly in the accumulation and storage of metadata.”
“Had Congress known that the Patriot Act had been used to collect metadata, the bill would have never been passed,” he said.