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Speaking on a Party Line

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October 10, 2008

Joanne Mariner is the director of the Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism program at Human Rights Watch.

I just read about how NSA officials have been listening in to the phone calls of hundreds of American citizens working overseas. According to military intercept operators interviewed by ABC News, U.S. intelligence analysts eavesdropped on personal calls between Americans abroad and their families at home, monitoring communications of U.S. military personnel, employees of humanitarian organizations, and others.

Given the many reports I’ve seen in the past year about unchecked government surveillance carried out in the name of fighting terrorism (not to mention abuses like torture, secret prisons, and unfair trials), I wasn’t entirely surprised. But I was horrified. I work abroad a few months every year. When I’m based overseas — in Europe, usually — I make a lot of phone calls. I call friends, colleagues, and family members. I also call human rights lawyers in the Middle East, former Guantánamo detainees, and relatives of people who have been “disappeared.” I communicate with these people by telephone and email from the United States as well. The idea that NSA officials may have been listening in to those calls — any of those calls — without judicial warrant is dismaying.

My research focus at Human Rights Watch is terrorism and counterterrorism. Some of the people I speak to have been subject to severe abuses, like torture, or have witnessed such abuses, or are connected in some way to others who have information about such abuses. These people often live in countries in which the rule of law is shaky, at best. Their governments — which are in some cases close U.S. allies — may arrest people arbitrarily, subject them to violent abuses, and hold them without trial.

These people share information with me because they trust me to treat their information with appropriate sensitivity. They often — and with good reason — insist that their identities be kept confidential. Concerned about possible reprisals, if they thought that our calls were monitored, they might not pick up the phone.

Some of these people have been previously targeted by the U.S. government. For example, some of the work I do involves tracking down people who were held in secret CIA prisons, or who were rendered by the CIA to countries in which they were tortured. In certain cases, the U.S. government might allege that the person was associated with a terrorist group.

When I speak on the phone in Europe — even sometimes when I’m talking to my mother or my best friend — I may mention counterterrorism, Guantánamo, al-Qaeda or the CIA. Or I may sort through a family problem, or discuss a friend’s latest blind date. I discuss the same topics when I make international calls from the United States.

Some of my international communications are critical to my work. Others are part of my personal life. None involves violating the law. Either way, they’re private conversations; I don’t think the U.S. government should be sharing the line, Regardless of whether I’m making a call from overseas, from my desk, or from my home here in the United States.

That’s why Human Rights Watch has joined the ACLU’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. This new law gives the NSA even more authority to obtain our international communications without a warrant, without probable case, and without meaningful judicial oversight. This kind of unchecked surveillance power threatens to significantly impair our ability to do our human rights work around the world.