Stop Watching Us Coalition “Lobby Day”: a report back

[by Martine Zee]

U.S. Capitol Last Friday, I joined dozens of other activists for a “Stop Watching Us Lobby Day” dedicated to opposing NSA mass surveillance.   We were thrilled to learn that the coalition had booked 55 appointments with Congressional Members for participants!

Preparation
After an hour long overview highlighting the issues with Patriot Act Section 215 (phone records) and FISA Section 702 (internet data), we broke up into teams to practice our messages to our Representatives.  Teams were based on congressional districts or states.  Each team was accompanied by a “team leader” from coalition member “Public Knowledge,” who left information packets with each visited Member’s office about the illegality of the NSA’s surveillance programs.  The packet contains a summary of a “framework of principles” for Congress to help bring the NSA’s programs into compliance with the U.S. Constitution and international law.

My team included Vanessa and Ian, who run an IT system consulting business together in Baltimore Maryland; Stephanie of Potomac, Maryland; Chris Lewis from coalition member Public Knowledge; and an event photographer .

The visit, summarized
The coalition also asked all participants to complete a 4 question survey on questions and after our meeting with VH’s staffer our group huddled and we all had the same answers:

  1. chrisvanhollenDoes the Member support ending the bulk phone record collection program?
    Our group agreed that for Van Hollen the answer is “NO.”
  2. Does the member support limiting the scope of Section 702 of surveillance?
    Our group agreed that for Van Hollen the answer is “YES.”
  3. Does the member support closing the “backdoor loophole” that allows the NSA to search for Americans’ communication it has collected without a warrant?
    Our group agreed that for Van Hollen the answer is “NO .”
  4. Does the Member support limiting the sharing the information with law enforcement to ‘serious crimes’?
    Our group agreed that for Van Hollen the answer is “YES.”

Our conversation with Ben Cook
I was pleased that Van Hollen’s staffer, Ben Cook, was very familiar with MCCRC’s position on the NSA spying and our“profound disappointment” with the Congressman’s vote on the Amash-Conyers amendment. Obviously, our coalition lobby visit in early October was still resonating with him!

Cook said that VH has voted in the past against the long-term extensions of 215/704 and that he put forward legislation to install a “public advocate” to argue in FISA court against the Government’s position when appropriate. He insisted that Van Hollen still has not taken a public position about the bulk collection of data on US citizens without any suspicion, despite his “No” vote on Amash-Conyers.  Cook contends Van Hollen voted against Amash-Conyers because he simply disagreed with the ‘legislative approach’ of cutting funding for the NSA’s bulk collection program

I explained my position on the issues, based in part on having been illegally spied on by Maryland State Police in 2005.  Secret surveillance programs are ripe for overreach and abuse, particularly when it comes to spying on peaceful activists who have dissenting views on the policies of the State.

Cook  tried several times to lessen our concerns by arguing that NSA has the same data and same access that all Verizon’s employees have today. I agreed with Stephanie, who pointed out that Verizon doesn’t collect EVERYTHING on us but the NSA does – they have our phone records, our bank records, our internet searches and posts, everything. Moreover, if  Verizon employees were to abuse our data they could be held accountable  — and they know it!

We’ve heard directly from Members of Congress that Congressional oversight of the NSA is non-existent – a “joke”.  Ian from Baltimore spoke on the young people he’s been talking to on this issue and they’ve “tuned out”, they say it’s useless to try to change anything – freedom and liberty is a thing of the past – and they don’t even vote anymore, implying that if Van Hollen and other Democrats want votes they better wise up on this issue.  Vanessa said their IT company has a seen a big drop in customers willing to buy cloud based data hosting solutions because they know providers are in league with the government.

Conclusion
It’s clear to me from the lobby meeting that despite any evidence Van Hollen will support NSA mass surveillance programs based on claims they serve as a tool for government to fight/find Terrorists. So if we want to stop these programs we will have to attack this false premise, and make Van Hollen see that we don’t buy it and we will NOT forgo our freedom, liberty, and OUR INTERNET based on these unsubstantiated claims.


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