Surveillance Gone Amok

In pushing for ever-expanding and unaccountable surveillance authority, the Bush Administration has assured the public that it aims its spying capabilities at serious security threats. But as two government whistleblowers recently revealed to ABC News, surveillance programs touted as critical to protect national security have in fact been used to monitor the private communications of innocent Americans abroad, including humanitarian workers and U.S. service-members. While disturbing, ABC's report confirms a core contention of the ACLU's lawsuit challenging Congress's recent expansion of governmental spying powers: unchecked surveillance authority invades the privacy of innocent Americans, and in doing so, fundamentally undermines the efforts of human rights workers, journalists, and attorneys doing important work around the globe.

Two former military intercept operators — the people who actually intercept, monitor, and collect international telephone and email communications — told ABC News that "hundreds of US citizens overseas have been eavesdropped on as they called friends and family back home." The operators worked for the National Security Agency ("NSA"), the spy agency chiefly responsible for international surveillance. They report that NSA routinely listened in on the innocent, and sometimes intimate, conversations of Americans abroad. There were apparently no effective procedures in place to filter out these kinds of communications.

The NSA program went beyond invading the personal privacy of Americans abroad (and their friends and family on the other end of the line). NSA also directed its surveillance powers at well-established humanitarian organizations, like the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. As one whistleblower told ABC News: "We knew they were working for these aid organizations. . . . And yet, instead of blocking these phone numbers we continued to collect on them."

The ACLU's lawsuit challenging Congress's recent expansion of surveillance authority, Amnesty International v. McConnell, shines a spotlight on the devastating effect of unchecked spy power on Americans doing indispensable work around the globe. The lawsuit challenges the FISA Amendment Act, which gives the government nearly unfettered access to Americans' international communications (and in some instances, purely domestic communications) without any of the judicial oversight normally required under the Constitution. Unleashing surveillance authority from basic procedures designed to ensure oversight violates constitutional guarantees. But as the plaintiffs in the lawsuit demonstrate, it also damages the ability of Americans to conduct important international work.

The plaintiffs' stories illustrate what's at stake. For example, Joanne Mariner is a Program Director for Human Rights Watch, an organization renowned for its influential reporting on human rights abuses. Her areas of research require her to correspond with people all over the world, including people who have been imprisoned by the U.S. or other countries, relatives of detainees, political activist, and journalists. Many of these sources will only communicate confidentially, and for good reason: some are victims of human rights abuses, and others reasonably fear reprisals if their governments learn they are cooperating with a human rights group. If such sources believe their correspondences are likely to be intercepted by the United States — despite having no relation to terrorism or national security — those communications will simply evaporate.

Journalists face similar obstacles. Another ACLU plaintiff, Naomi Klein, is an award-winning journalist who reports on international affairs. In order to obtain comprehensive and accurate information about her subjects, she communicates with sources around the world, including foreign political activist who have been critical of the United States or their own governments. Like Mariner, Klein must guarantee her sources confidentiality because, for them, communicating honestly with a journalist brings real risks, including imprisonment or violence. When engaging in international communications with an American means the U.S. government is likely to listen in, vulnerable sources become far less forthcoming. This means that Americans lose access to fully informative journalism about world affairs.

Unfortunately, the ABC News report confirms that the concerns of Mariner and Klein, as well as other ACLU plaintiffs, are justified. In fact, international aid groups and others may face even greater exposure to illegitimate surveillance than the whistleblowers describe. The challenged surveillance law, enacted in July 2008, actually sanctions the NSA's program of spying on Americans' international communications; before the law passed, the Bush Administration was conducting such surveillance unilaterally and in violation of statutory law.

The ABC News report reaffirms another important point: the choice between ensuring safety and adhering to the Constitution is a false one. According to one of the whistleblowers — a U.S. Army Reservist who won the NSA Joint Service Achievement Medal in 2003 — over-reaching surveillance programs undermine security: "By casting the net so wide and continuing to collect on Americans and aid organizations, it's almost like they're making the haystack bigger and it's harder to find that piece of information that might actually be useful to somebody."

By confirming the abusive and harmful reach of such surveillance policies, the NSA whistleblowers illustrate the urgency of bringing the government's surveillance powers back into line with core constitutional principles. Unchecked and unaccountable, the power of surveillance quickly runs amok.

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rebecca i. davis

It's to bad that there is not a specific organization (other than the ACLU) that monitors only the NSA. If Congress is the only agency that is responsible for monitoring the NSA then all Americans are in serious trouble. When the government fails to follow the laws then why should anybody else? The gov't is setting a terrible example.


This has all been done before, in Germany in the 30's and in Russia in the 50's. Read the history.

Mr. Smith

There are specific rights that military members have, however, they are restricted and have chain of commands. U.S. Military communications have been known to be monitored to ensure that members are not discussing movement information and other activities that would harm the mission and potentially endanger other Americans. While serving in the military, you are a Service person 24/7 and have to abide by higher standards.

Bet you would be screaming at the Government if an entire platoon or ship gets wiped out because someone had loose lips.


Lets see, as a member of the military, I violated a international treaty. It was my assignment to violate it for over 4 years. I was ordered to do it. What would of happened to me if I didn't. I would have been charged and court-martialled. Today, over 27 years later, I am proud of my service but not proud of what I was ordered to do! And I was not even awarded for doing it. Go figure.

Adam West

I'm concerned that telecoms received immunity and yet, AT&T & Verizon are providing Israel with equipment to spy for the NSA.What in the hell does a foreign country have to do with the people who live in America?
Indicates to me about our politicians is they'll do anything for a kickback!



Steven Erwin

Cut Justice Justice Department budget
severely, ASAP. NSA is extremely over
staffed. I have complained on being
a victim of NSA spying numerous times,
with no probable cause. Most of the lies
haven been created by Veteran Affairs.
I'm a dissabled veteran/served in Desert
Storm. I have no criminal record for my entire life/50 years.

Mr. Carey

In the past, "phone tapping" was required to intercept a conversation. By virtue of the available analog technology, it was much harder to just randomly pick out conversations. People of interest needed to be identified, in most cases, beforehand, in order to not waste time on irrevelant phone numbers. Now, with advances in technology, and with phone conversations traveling over wireless, analog, and fiber, they become just more digital data, available to the NSA for their perusal at will, as mirror copies of the data passing across most of the fiber trunks in this country is handed over. Being aware that this is the case for both domestic and international calls might not be a bad thing.

Privacy violati...

I am a naturalized citizen of USA and working for Intel corporation after completing my MS in Computer Engineering. I am a law abiding citizen and staying in USA for last eleven years. I don't have any criminal record. Recently, I have been subjected serious discrimination and racial profiling by my Employer i.e. Intel Corporation. They violated my privacy each possible way like they traces my movement and they put audio and video surveillance in my appartment. They made CIA suspicious against me and involved CIA on spying against me. They also forced me to go to mental hospital which is defacto a CIA torture camp. I have some proof on this regard and tried to get help from FBI but they are reluctant to help me since CIA would be in awkward situation for doing this.

I am very much surprised the reach of this corporate hand in US government on violating my privacy. I need your help to bring these people in justice. Please advise me how can I have help from ACLU. I brought it to the FBI & Local law enforcement authority and they are reluctant to take my case. It sounds astounding but true. Please mail me at with your advise. Thanks and regards.


My guess is that they are also (and have been) listening in on domestic phone calls and e-mails, with software that targets certain key words like "bomb," etc. I think it's safe to assume that any assumption of privacy is mere illusion. I am not involved in anything illegal, but I prefer to maintain my privacy, and so I have a Tracfone, which is supposed to not be traceable, but coincidentally, because of online software failures, I can never add minutes to the thing without having to call them and give them personal information, so I assume even the Tracfone is not private.


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