The next Edward Snowden

The next Edward Snowden

ACLU President Susan Herman explains the perils of national insecurity

By Kevin Uhrich 03/04/2014

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Whether one believes the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 were part of a colossal conspiracy aimed at propelling America into war, or that Middle Eastern jihadists really hijacked commercial jets and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon because they hated our “way of life,” one fact remains: We are still at war. 

That world-changing event is now nearing its 13th anniversary, and there appears to be no let up in the fighting — not battles against armed insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, countries which after years of military occupation we’ve now left to their own devices, but Americans themselves.

Thanks largely to provisions contained in the PATRIOT Act, passed by Congress immediately following 9/11, the National Security Agency has been engaged in an incomprehensibly massive intelligence gathering campaign designed to keep tabs on every single person using a cell phone, a smart phone or an everyday computer. And, by all accounts, the agency has succeeded in alarmingly spectacular fashion.

Of course, people always knew this was occurring, and many opposed the PATRTIOT Act since its inception for these very reasons: the violations of the Bill of Rights that it allowed in the name of keeping us “safe.”

But it wasn’t until the revelations of former NSA contract worker Edward Snowden that people truly understood the massive scale of the country’s surveillance program, or that the government has been working hand-in-hand with the nation’s giant Internet and telecom corporations in gathering data about every single American.

In her book, “Taking Liberties: The War on Terror and the Erosion of American Democracy,” constitutional law professor Susan N. Herman, national president of the American Civil Liberties Union, looks at the personal toll that the ongoing War on Terror has exacted on everyday Americans who, much like Snowden, were unaware of the awesome power of our government to ruin lives under the rubric of keeping us safe from terrorism. Herman will be speaking on the subject Wednesday at Caltech.
Why Caltech?

“Our national security agencies spare no effort in recruiting the most talented individuals into their service. People are recruited through appeals to their best intentions. They join because they want to serve our nation’s efforts in important matters such as preventing terrorism,” according to a statement on Herman’s appearance. Further, private sector workers are “conscripted” in the War on Terror through government demands for background information and gag orders on workers. Since many Caltech students will likely be drawn into such jobs, “The Edward Snowdens of tomorrow could be Caltech students today.”

Retired JPL scientist Robert Nelson helped organize the event, which is co-sponsored by the Caltech “Y” Social Activism Speaker Series and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said he became involved “from a profound ethical concern.”

“Technically talented people are recruited into working for organizations like the National Security Agency and, after they are on the payroll, they are told to engage in, or cover up, illegal activities,” Nelson wrote. 

In 2011, the US Supreme Court ruled against Nelson and other scientists at JPL who sued to stop intrusive background checks of all JPL employees under provisions of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12. JPL is owned by NASA and managed by Caltech. 

“They are helpless to do anything,” said Nelson. “They fear the consequences of becoming a whistleblower like Edward Snowden. This recruiting policy by government agencies violates the basic principles of ‘informed consent.’ Young, technically adept graduates join up with the best of intentions. Once they are on the inside they are told to keep their mouths shut”

We recently caught up with Herman, who teaches courses on constitutional law and criminal procedure as a Centennial Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, and asked about her talk Wednesday at Caltech titled  “Civil Liberties in National Security Era: What Happened to Edward Snowden?” 

Pasadena Weekly: Why is it important for people — these individual students and professors — to know about Edward Snowden?

Susan Herman: Some of the Caltech students may find themselves working for government agencies or contractors where they will themselves have access to classified information. They could find themselves in the same position as Snowden, believing that something wrong is going on and wondering what to do about it and what the consequences might be. They may also work for private businesses — especially Internet or telecommunications firms —where they may find themselves conscripted to help the government spy on people. I plan to tell the stories of several pre-Snowden whistleblowers, from inside the government as well as an employee of AT&T and a small Internet service provider, who found themselves in those positions. 

It’s been said that if you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear. But that’s not necessarily true, is it?
No, it isn’t true. Massive government surveillance is changing who we are as a society in many ways I will explain. While I am in LA, I will also be speaking at [an] LA community college to students who are reading George Orwell’s “1984” and want to talk about whether that is where our society is heading, or if that’s where we already are.

Is there not some middle ground here, between safety and maintaining basic rights? 
There is indeed middle ground where we can be both safe and free.  As I will explain, it is far from clear that the mega-surveillance programs and other post-9/11 laws are actually contributing to our safety. One question for the engineers is whether we have the algorithms to find the terrorist needle in a haystack of information about ordinary Americans. There is also some question about whether some of our antiterrorism tactics are actually counterproductive and making us less safe.

We’ve complained about the PATRIOT Act for years, as have much louder voices than ours. How do we reverse course? 
Right now, we have a very good opportunity to reverse course somewhat, because American telecommunications and Internet companies are discovering that it’s bad for business for our private communications to be exposed to the government. With Google and other large firms beginning to come over to our side, the landscape is changing.  Congress is considering a number of reforms to the PATRIOT Act, so this is the perfect time for people to figure out whether they want to contact their representatives to urge them to vote for the pending reforms. 

Susan Herman’s presentation, “Civil Liberties in the National Security Era: What Happened to Edward Snowden,” will be at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Caltech’s Beckman Institute Auditorium. Caltech is located at 1200 E. California Blvd., Pasadena. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call the ACLU of Southern California at (213) 977-9500.

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