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In our opinion: An ability to conduct widespread surveillance doesn't mean permission to do so

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 5 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

A report by two organizations committed to the protection of civil liberties is raising new and valid concerns about how government surveillance programs have created an impediment to free speech and freedom of the press.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

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A report by two organizations committed to the protection of civil liberties is raising new and valid concerns about how government surveillance programs have created an impediment to free speech and freedom of the press. The report gives additional weight to efforts in Congress to end the National Security Agency’s indiscriminate gathering of telephone records.

Research by the Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union documents the existence of a chilling effect on the flow of information between government officials and journalists. Knowledge that the NSA routinely gathers phone, text and email records is deterring potential whistle-blowers from communicating information to news organizations for fear of reprisal. The effect is an unhealthy diminishment of the ability of the press to perform its essential role as a watchdog.

The report comes just as new legislation recently was introduced in the Senate to end the NSA’s blanket collection of phone records and instead require proof of a connection to terrorist activity before records could be retrieved from phone companies. A measure sponsored by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vermont, enjoys bipartisan support and extends similar restrictions proposed in a related House bill.

The effect on press freedom is yet another demonstration of the dangers inherent in the NSA’s practice of extending a wide surveillance net over virtually all electronic communication. Again, the matter revolves around the validity of the government’s argument that it needs to have the ability to quickly comb through phone communications in order to detect terrorist activity. The practice is supported neither by constitutional principle nor by evidence that it has been effective in suppressing terrorism.

Ironically, information leaked to news media by former NSA operative Edward Snowden about the scope of the surveillance practices has prompted an overzealous campaign by the Obama administration to guard against the leaking of sensitive information to news media. The mass of data in the possession of the NSA may facilitate the government’s search for alleged leakers, something that’s not lost on potential whistle-blowers, according to the Human Rights and ACLU report.

Information leaks that might compromise national security are a serious concern but can be addressed by existing laws. The practice of gathering as many records as possible denigrates traditional protections against unreasonable search and seizure as well as the freedom to speak or publish concerns about government activities.

Congressional action to limit NSA record gathering sends an important message that the ability to conduct widespread surveillance does not equate to permission to do so.

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