April 21, 2014 -- The “surveillance state” created in the wake of 9/11 and expanded since has become a “behemoth” and a “monstrosity” that should be of great concern to all citizens, the executive director of the ACLU of Texas told Law Center students Monday.
“People need to recognize this as a core violation of everything that makes us Americans,” Terri Burke said during her presentation, “Your Privacy in the 21st Century: The NSA and Our Surveillance State,” hosted by the ACLU-UHLC Club.
In the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, the country’s founders placed strict limits on how far the government could intrude on citizens’ rights and privacy, she said, quoting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “They conferred . . . the right to be let alone.”
Instead, Burke said, the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting data on “every single phone call for every single day for at least the past seven years.” She said the scope of domestic spying extends to license plate scanning, cameras, drones, digital intercepts, text messages, cloud data, social media, strip searches, and monitoring of international e-mails. Capturing all of this data, Burke said, amounts to creating a de facto national database. “The NSA is just doing it,” she said, with no approval from the citizenry and little oversight. While some areas of secret surveillance require a warrant, others require only a subpoena, she said.
“This is the biggest monstrosity in the history of humanity,” Burke said of the surveillance apparatus, just to monitor a few potential terrorists. There is no evidence to show the extensive data collecting has paid off, she said. “Old-fashioned police work” uncovered most serious threats to security, Burke said.
In answer to the frequent argument that if you are not guilty of anything, you should not mind surveillance, Burke said it represents an intrusion on basic freedoms, rights to privacy, and due process. No one would want to be subjected to hours of law enforcement interrogation on the basis of association with someone or being photographed for looking suspicious or walking near a crime scene, she said.
The ACLU has filed lawsuits against warrantless collection of data, and made Freedom of Information requests with hundreds of police departments. It is also lobbying Washington to “update laws that would correct so many abuses that were implemented after 9/11,” she said.
It is “absolutely critical,” Burke said, that the USA Freedom Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-WI, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, gains passage. The Wisconsin congressman introduced the sweeping Patriot Act shortly after 9/11. His proposed legislation would “rein in bulk collection of personal data” and its support “crosses all ideological lines,” Burke said.
“9/11 was used as an excuse to build this behemoth,” she said. “Some of these (methods) can be used as one tool among many,” she conceded, “but they shouldn’t be the only tool. We can be safe and we can be free.
“I happen to think Edward Snowden is a patriot,” she said of the government computer specialist who released thousands of classified American surveillance documents.