Government surveillance is a significant concern in the United States. Certainly, the U. S. is obligated to protect national security through surveillance but critics assert that under human rights standards, the surveillance must be lawful, essential, equitable and the least invasive effective protection against genuine threats. The core American principles of freedom and democracy compel some organizations to scrutinize and report on the government’s extensive surveillance and toughened stance against leaks.
One considerable report is “With Liberty to Monitor All: How Large-Scale US Surveillance is Harming Journalism, Law, and American Democracy,” available here: http://www.hrw.org/node/127364
The 120-page joint report released by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU in July 2014 is based on interviews with 46 journalists, dozens of lawyers and senior federal officials. The HRW-ACLU study was interested in journalists and lawyers because their work is deemed “central to our democracy.”
The journalists, who report on law enforcement, national security and the intelligence community, state that extensive government surveillance has seriously affected their ability to gather information and report on important public issues. Sources of information are cowed by wide-ranging surveillance coupled with the government crackdown on leaks, including: greater restrictions on interactions between officials and media; more prosecutions for leaks; the requirement that federal officials report “suspicious behavior” indicating a possible leak. Under these conditions, sources that would otherwise help journalists must fear the loss or reduction of security clearance, termination or demotion, criminal investigation and perhaps even prosecution.
Lawyers, particularly but not only criminal defense lawyers, state that the right to counsel – guaranteed by the U. S. Constitutional and human rights – is being disintegrated by broad surveillance and the government crackdown on leaks. First, lawyers must converse freely with clients in order to gain their trust and plan strategy. Secondly, lawyers are professionally bound to safeguard the confidentiality of client-related information on pain of disciplinary actions and lawsuits. The current state of government surveillance and leaks crackdown deal a doubly harsh blow to lawyers.
Some journalists and lawyers complain that the present circumstances force them to behave like “drug dealers” in order to perform their jobs. Some resort to: burner phones (prepaid disposable phones); encryption (encoding messages so only certain persons can decipher them), air-gapped computers (computers with secure networks isolated from other networks); foregoing electronic communication methods such as e-mail for face-to-face encounters; and dead drops (exchanges of information at secret locations where the individuals never meet).
The HRW-ACLU report makes several recommendations to strengthen America’s freedoms and democracy: end overly broad or unnecessary surveillance; lessen government secrecy and loosen restrictions for interactions between officials and the media; end prosecutions of people who disclose information of great public interest; and protect whistleblowers.
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