(Washington, DC) – The Government Accountability Project (GAP) would like to make its position clear on remarks by President Obama delivered at the Department of Justice on January 17, 2014:
I. RECOGNITION OF UNIVERSAL RIGHT TO PRIVACY A WELCOME CHANGE.
The President acknowledged the privacy concerns of people in other countries who are the subject of NSA surveillance and suggested he will consider curtailing wholesale international data collection. He appeared to recognize that this country is not entitled to subject other populations to dragnet surveillance. This restriction is based on Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which establishes the international right to privacy. The United States is a signatory nation to the declaration.
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II. THE PRESIDENT CONCEDES THE NEED FOR REFORM, BUT NEGLECTS TO CREDIT THE CATALYST.
To prove that he had intended all along to start a “fresh examination of our surveillance programs,” the President cited a speech he made at the National Defense University in May 2013 where he had mentioned the “balance between security and liberty.”
This speech and, specifically, his claim of striking a proper balance was not an open-ended discussion; it was stated within the context of a full-throated defense of assassinations via unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones.
There can be no mistake that the very public debate we are now engaged in is the direct result of revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
III. PROPOSED REFORMS ARE DEVOID OF WHISTLEBLOWER PROTECTIONS.
The bulk telephony metadata program has repeatedly been characterized as ineffective. A 2009 FISA court found only 11% of the phone numbers swept up by the program adhered to the legal requirement of “reasonable, articulable suspicion.” Similarly, US District Court Judge Richard Leon characterized the program as ineffective and likely unconstitutional in December 2013. Finally, former FBI Director Robert Mueller called the program a “useless time suck.”
When ineffective, deeply flawed, costly, unconstitutional programs like this not only persist, but are permitted to grow over time, Americans are reminded of the need for whistleblowers to be free to act on their conscience. True reforms are not possible in a self-policing, highly secretive culture that fails to protect whistleblowers, who are the regulators of last resort.
IV. BULK METADATA COLLECTION WILL NOT CEASE.
It is important to note that the President did not promise to end bulk metadata collection. Rather, he has asked the Attorney General to devise “alternative approaches” while he simultaneously consults with “relevant committees in Congress to seek their views, and then seek congressional authorization for the new program as needed.” In other words, the President is going to consult the same parties who have already failed to exercise oversight and good judgment about these programs. External and objective experts must be consulted because Congress and the Justice Department are compromised.
This President’s intended reforms would be more credible if he had not cited the case of 9/11 hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar as proof of the need for bulk metadata collection. It is widely known that the circumstances of that particular case point to a lack of communication between the CIA and FBI rather than an inability to engage in effective surveillance. The 9/11 Commission established this.
V. ILLEGALITY – NOT JUST REFORMS – MUST BE CONFRONTED.
When a program within a black budget now known to be in excess of $52 billion finds itself in need of “concrete and substantial” reforms – reforms brought about through the disclosures of a whistleblower – that program must bear the deepest scrutiny possible. Effective reform is simply not possible without first demanding accountability of those who created these deeply flawed programs.
VI. SNOWDEN IS A WHISTLEBLOWER WHO DESERVES AMNESTY.
The fact that the President has been compelled to introduce “concrete and substantial” reforms to NSA surveillance programs affirms Snowden’s status as a whistleblower. The law enfranchises a whistleblower to disclose illegality, fraud, waste, abuse of authority, or danger to the public.
Several high-profile opinion pieces in major news publications throughout the world have called for either amnesty, clemency, or a presidential pardon to be extended to Snowden. In consideration of the significant reforms Snowden’s actions continue to engender, as well as the absence of protections available to him as a whistleblower working within the intelligence community, GAP asserts that it would be just and equitable to grant amnesty to Snowden.
GAP champions government and corporate accountability and transparency by defending whistleblowers and advancing occupational free speech. Since its founding in 1977, GAP has helped over 5,000 whistleblowers to exercise of conscience.