NSA surveillance law arouses skepticism

Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

With the recent passage of the USA Freedom Act last week, experts at local colleges said that while some of the new guidelines curbing government surveillance are a step in the right direction, the law may fall short of protecting civil liberties.

President Barack Obama signed the USA Freedom Act into law last Tuesday night, almost two days after key parts of the 2001 Patriot Act — including bulk collection of telephone data by the National Security Agency — expired at 12:01 a.m. Monday, June 1.

The new law limits surveillance by requiring phone companies, rather than the NSA, to hold the records. The government can obtain those records only by court order. The law also creates new guidelines for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — the body that will handle the court orders — by declassifying some of its decisions and creating a five-member panel to advise the court on matters of privacy and civil liberties in major cases.

Brent Durbin, an assistant professor of government at Smith College who is working on a book about the politics of U.S. intelligence reform, said the effectiveness of the legislation depends on whether it actually increases transparency.

“You could imagine nothing really changing just based on where the call records are held, whether they’re at the NSA warehouse or the AT&T warehouse, if the NSA can still ask for and get whatever it wants,” Durbin said. “If that office is completely shielded off from oversight, then the first provision may not change much.”

Of the new policies affecting the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Durbin said, “If that process does open that, if it’s subject to more scrutiny, subject to appeal and more oversight, then I think it is an important step.”

According to John Andrulis, a retired economics professor at Western New England College and Republican state committee member from Leeds, the legislation is a “clumsy compromise” because it does not necessarily prevent the government from violating civil liberties.

“They could get ahold of these records for political purposes, and use that — so there is that potential for abuse, and that’s worrisome,” Andrulis said, recalling the scandal from 2013 in which Internal Revenue Service officials acknowledged that some agents had targeted conservative groups for higher scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status.

Still, Andrulis said he understands the need for surveillance.

“I am willing to give up a little bit of liberty to maintain safety from terrorist groups,” he said.

According to Christopher H. Pyle, a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College, the new legislation does not sufficiently mitigate threats to civil liberties.

“Far too much material is classified, so we don’t know what the government is doing,” said Pyle, who disclosed military surveillance of civilian groups in 1970 and later worked for the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, as well as the Senate Committee on Government Oversight. “It’s still giving the intelligence community capacities it does not need and which are a threat to civil liberties.”

Pyle is one of several activists in the Pioneer Valley who opposed the Patriot Act from the beginning.

In May 2002, the Northampton City Council passed a resolution which in part asked for protection of civil liberties, even if intended violations of those rights were authorized by “new powers granted by the USA Patriot Act or orders of the Executive Branch.”

In April of the same year, Amherst Town Meeting members voted overwhelmingly in favor of an article that expressed concern about the Patriot Act and resolved that “to the extent legally possible” town departments and employees would not cooperate with procedures that violated civil liberties.

“There was much less support in the Valley for the Patriot Act than there was in other parts of the country,” Rene Theberge of Amherst, a co-sponsor of that article, said in an interview last week. “There’s a long history of dissent in the Valley, and a long sense that people have a right to their civil liberties and people have a right to their privacy.”

According to Durbin, opinions about the law depend on how people balance national security with civil liberties. In the Valley, people tend to value civil liberties, he said.

“We all have our own perspective on where the appropriate balance between where national security and civil liberties might fall, and my sense is that in the Valley, many of the residents lean more toward the civil liberties as paramount and are skeptical of the claims of threats against national security,” Durbin said.

That was largely reflected on Wednesday and Thursday over the course of a dozen interviews with Valley residents at the Northampton cafes the Roost and Haymarket, as well as at the Florence Veterans of Foreign Wars center and the World War II Club on Conz Street.

Many said they favor limiting surveillance; others said they saw a need of the type of intelligence gathering that took place under the Patriot Act.

“The NSA has to do what they have to do,” Charlie Dumas, of Florence, said at the VFW. “If they want to look at my phone records, answer me a question: why do people worry about if they’re looking at their phone records if they’re not doing anything wrong?”

Other residents said limiting surveillance is a positive step.

“We were going in a bad direction, and now there’s some awareness of it, and attention to it, and maybe we’re heading in a positive direction again as a society,” said Meredith Klotz, of Florence.

“Any time you can curb those intrusive policies it’s a good thing,” said Andrew Cothren, of Northampton.

Cothren added that while he would like further protection of privacy, he is glad the legislation has rekindled the conversation about how national security policy affects civil liberties.

“After Edward Snowden and all that stuff, it was in the conversation, and then it was immediately forgotten,” Cothren said. “So it’s good to get people talking about it again.”

Hailu Dyami, of Hadley, agreed that though the legislation is an improvement, additional change is needed.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction, but I’m still concerned,” Dyami said. “I think the government and the telecoms are going to keep things opaque, and it’s going to be a lot of business as usual, just with the policy shifted.”


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