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UUSC Statement on National Security Agency Surveillance

June 13, 2013

A recent leak that exposed a series of government surveillance programs has created an uproar and prompted a debate about government spying and secrecy. Last week, Edward Snowden, a then-employee of a National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, released details of various classified NSA surveillance programs through a series of articles in the Guardian newspaper. Among the details made public was information regarding government surveillance of phone records and a program called PRISM, through which the NSA and other government entities have access to the servers of nine U.S. Internet companies, including Google and Facebook. The leaks reveal surveillance programs with a scope that goes well beyond what had been publicly known until now.

The disclosure of these surveillance programs is the latest evidence of the ways in which the post-9/11 security state has curtailed civil liberties without adequate oversight. Critics of the programs argue that they constitute an egregious overreach of executive power and undermine the democratic process. Since the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001, the NSA has expanded significantly, raising concerns about the lack of public debate throughout the process and the lack of clarity regarding government record requests. At the center of these debates are the controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts (FISC), which were established as part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 to oversee government record requests for surveillance warrants against foreign agents suspected of terrorism in the United States. The FISA courts have declined less than one percent of government requests over the past three decades, calling into question how much judicial oversight they are providing in practice. Defenders of the NSA surveillance methods currently under scrutiny cite national security as a legitimate rationale for what they see as a minimal invasion of private communications.

It is possible to acknowledge a vested interest in our nation’s security while also voicing concern about what appears to be an alarming lack of government oversight and a serious violation of the right to privacy. The ongoing confusion regarding the surveillance programs is a testament to the secrecy that continues to surround them. Government officials have repeatedly stated that there are safeguards in place to keep the power of surveillance in check, but — as the example of the FISA courts demonstrates — those safeguards are dubious. As long as they remain unclear and secretly interpreted, the laws intended to provide checks and balances through government oversight cannot serve their purpose.

Accountability and transparency are central to ensuring a free press and a thriving democracy, and their absence in any society threatens everyone’s civil liberties. As rights guaranteed to every individual, civil liberties provide protection from arbitrary intrusions and assure equal participation in government processes. Some of the key Internet companies implicated in the NSA surveillance revelations, including Google, have acknowledged the importance of transparency in a public appeal for government permission to release details on the FISC requests they have received. UUSC has a strong commitment to ensuring that these rights are upheld as a central component of an open and democratic society. Over the coming weeks we will follow the developments regarding the NSA surveillance programs as we continue to work toward universal respect for civil liberties in the United States and abroad.

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