Monday, February 3, 2014

Sanders, Welch Hold Citizen's Meeting to Discuss NSA Surveillance

Speaking at a packed town hall style meeting on Saturday afternoon in Montpelier, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Peter Welch addressed the growing alarm among Vermonters about the recent string of revelations on NSA surveillance brought about by former intelligence contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Flanked by Executive Director of the National Lawyers' Guild Heidi Boghosian and Nation Legal Affairs correspondent David Cole, the assembled panel used the majority of the meeting to recite remarks condemning the NSA and acknowledging the “Snowden Effect” upon popular discourse (particularly noting that such a town hall meeting wouldn't have occurred if the now-exiled Snowden hadn't facilitated the largest leak of classified information in history).

While many of the pre-written remarks echoed through an attentive but unimpressed audience, Boghosian's detailed explanation of electronic surveillance and data aggregation left many in the audience overwhelmed with the seemingly limitless information gathering capacity of the National Security Agency. Describing a “Co-dependent corporate government surveillance state” Boghosian went on to explain that 80% of 3 and 4 star generals and admirals ultimately end up working for defense industry contractors while continuing to advise the military and intelligence industry. Working hand-in-hand, these interconnected systems are setting up an extraordinarily dangerous conflict of interests both for national security as well as domestic civil liberties.


Heidi Boghosian, Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild, speaks to gathered citizens about NSA surveillance

Still reeling from the fresh reminder that everyone is under some form of phone or data surveillance, the gathered citizens peppered the panel of statesmen and experts with questions that seemed to inexorably circle around to “What can we [as citizens] do about this?” Boghosian offered the feeble suggestion of looking up your own electronic data trail as gathered by security contractor Axion with the laughably ironic caveat that users are required to provide their social security numbers before accessing any of their own histories. Meanwhile, Cole suggested possible legislation that would emulate the European model of data collection oversight that would establish a “data privacy protection protocol.” The flaw in this approach however is that there already exists an internal check-and-balance system for gathering information (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court) , a system that often serves as a rubber stamp process for the intelligence industry- no known government request for information before a FISA court has ever been denied.

As more questions were presented to the panelists, it became clear that citizens of the Green Mountain State were considering if their elected officials were doing enough to counter civil liberties violations. Over and over again, they were told to do as much as they could as citizens to speak out and protest against the NSA. Yet, with each passing question a growing sense of exasperation with the panel seemed to spread across the room. Is legislation even going to be enough?!” asked one citizen. “Is anybody being held accountable at all?” asked another in reference to the obvious perjury of James Clapper before Congress when asked about NSA surveillance of Americans. “That's not within our power” responded the panel flatly.

Waiting patiently to speak, Executive Director of the Vermont ACLU passionately pointed out that NSA surveillance is not the only form of government monitoring that Vermonters must be aware of. Displaying a copy of his organization's special report on Vermont's northern border, Gilbert reminded everyone present of the enormous amount of information being gathered by Autmated License Plate Readers (ALRPs) that read and data-tagged nearly 8 million license plates across Vermont in the past 12 months. Additionally, Gilbert pointed to "Fusion Centers"; information clearing houses where numerous municipal and state agencies share troves of citizens' information with the federal government. The report recently released by the ACLU of Vermont presents a dire warning: 

"Vermont used to be a state where both the notion and the reality of privacy were true. Over the last 12 years, Vermonters’ reality of privacy has eroded. We are being watched. Today, Vermonters can barely go anywhere without creating a trail of digital information that pinpoints a person’s whereabouts at nearly any time, day after day."
  Allen Gilbert, Executive Director of the Vermont ACLU, speaks up about the ever-increasing surveillance state of the Green Mountains

Also speaking up, Matthew Cropp of Burlington posed a classic double-dog-dare of Senator Sanders and Representative Welch: “Would you be willing to read classified information into the Congressional record in order to make those documents available to the public?” Referencing the 1971 reading of the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record by Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska on behalf of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Looking much like a deer in the headlights when asked if he'd fall on the proverbial sword for the sake of protecting a whistleblower, Sanders passed the question off to Peter Welch before mostly dodging it himself: “At some point I think Snowden would like to return to his country” he rambled, “[but] it may come down to him standing trial before a jury of his peers.”

As statesmen and experts took their leave from stage, spotlight, and podium; the crowd of citizens moved slowly and quietly down the stairs of City Hall. Their heads bowed, they appeared resigned to the notion that warrantless surveillance by a vast governmental agency was gradually becoming the new normal. The fictive landscapes of Bradbury, Huxley, and Orwell had become all too real as the citizens walked out into the gently falling snow. 


A citizen emphatically demands answers to her questions about the increasingly controversial Trans Pacific Partnership


 Matthew Cropp of Burlington asks the panel if they'd be willing to make classified information public by reading it into the Congressional Record

 Read the ACLU report on surveillance in the Green Mountains here.

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