WASHINGTON – At a rally in front of the Capitol on Saturday, a diverse group of activists gathered to protest against mass surveillance programs and deliver a simple message to Congress: stop watching us.
More than a thousand demonstrators participated in the march, holding signs that said “Thank you, Edward Snowden,” “Stop Mass Surveillance,” and “No NSA mass spying.”
Stop Watching Us, a coalition of more than 100 public advocacy groups, organized the event calling for an end to mass surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA). The group brings together organizations ranging from the conservative and libertarian Young Americans for Liberty and the Competitive Enterprise Institute to Occupy Wall Street NYC, from Tea Party-aligned Freedom Works to progressive groups like Demand Progress and MoveOn.org.
The NSA spying controversy has catapulted back into the spotlight amid new revelations by former NSA contractor Snowden that the U.S. monitored the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Leaders of Italy and France have protested NSA surveillance, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a visit to the U.S. last month over allegations of U.S. espionage.
“Whistleblowers have revealed that the government has lied to Congress and to the American people, it has lied to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, it has lied to and spied upon foreign governments,” said Laura Murphy, director of the Washington legislative office at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Illegal snooping and spying on citizens and foreign governments are not the values our soldiers are sent into war to protect and defend. This is not the promise in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that presidents, members of Congress, and cabinet officers swear to uphold,” she continued.
Snowden, who is currently in an undisclosed location in Russia, sent a message to the people at the rally.
“In the last four months we’ve learned a lot about our government. We’ve learned that the government secretly built a system of pervasive surveillance. Today, no telephone call in America goes through 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. “We’ve also learned this is not about party lines, and it’s definitely not about terrorism. It’s about power, control, and trust in government. About whether you have a voice in our democracy, whether decisions are made for you, rather than with you.”
Many in the rally showed their support for Snowden by chanting his name and displaying signs.
“Thank you, Edward Snowden, for bringing to the attention of the world the fact that U.S. government and the NSA is engaged in massive information gathering,” said former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who was the Libertarian Party’s 2012 presidential nominee. “125 billion cell phone conversations a month, judges granting legal authority for the NSA to monitor 113 million Verizon users. This is not due process.”
“There are members of Congress who wrote the Patriot Act and are vowing to fix it. Well, there’s only one way to fix it, and that’s to repeal it,” he added.
The coalition gathered nearly 600,000 signatures in support of a letter to Congress asking that it “take immediate action to halt this surveillance and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s and the FBI’s data collection programs.”
A provision sponsored by Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) was narrowly defeated in July by a 205-217 vote. The amendment would have restricted the NSA surveillance program that collects the phone data of people in the U.S.
Amash was there to receive the boxes full of petitions from the coalition and to talk about his efforts to bring more accountability to the NSA. He said the amendment has scared the establishment of both parties and has prompted the NSA to fight back by urging Congress to pass the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which the agency believes will legalize its surveillance programs.
“We had the intelligence community against it, we had Republican and Democratic leadership against it, and despite all those obstacles we came very close to passing the amendment. And we’re gonna pass something to rein in the NSA,” he said.
Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) urged Congress to repeal the Patriot Act and abolish the NSA.
“The so-called ‘War on Terror’ is a war of errors and misdeeds which produced the Patriot Act,” Kucinich said. “The Patriot Act gave rebirth to the NSA. The agency has grown stronger as it collects more of our personal information, while our Constitution grows weaker.”
Next week, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is expected to introduce a bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, which would create more transparency and accountability in the NSA. Sensenbrenner, who was the primary author of the Patriot Act, has also backed the Amash-Conyers amendment.