MONTPELIER – Sen. Bernard Sanders drew a full house Saturday for a town hall meeting on government surveillance and constitutional rights.
Intense data mining and surveillance efforts revealed in leaked documents by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden have sparked a debate on the pervasiveness of government snooping. Sanders, a second-term independent, wants to curb the government’s powers. “We’ve got a lot of problems, but this, clearly, is one of the main issues that we face,” Sanders told hundreds of Vemonters at Montpelier City Hall.
There are “no magical solutions,” however. The country must balance legitimate efforts to prevent another terrorist attack on U.S. soil with the constitutional and privacy rights of Americans, he said.
New technology, once just the creation of science fiction writers, is allowing the government to dig deeper than ever into the lives of Americans, Sanders said. “The ability of those who have that technology, to know virtually everything about our lives, is real now and is only going to become more dangerous in years to come,” he said.
Democratic Congressman Peter Welch, part of Sanders’ Saturday panel, said the U.S. has been living a “bizarre reality” since 9/11 in which the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies are operating under secret budgets.
Welch, who has sponsored legislation to make the total budgets of each intelligence agency public, said he and other members of Congress can get the information but are forbidden from telling their constituents.
“What’s the point of me knowing? You’re the one that needs to be briefed. It’s your money,” Welch said.
David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor, said the NSA’s metadata program, which collects the cellphone records of Americans, should be a matter of concern to everyone because the government conducted it in secret and invaded people’s privacy.
“The framers understood that privacy is essential to human liberty,” he said. “It’s essential to political freedom, to know that you have the ability to talk … without the government watching over you at every moment.”
Cole said technology has allowed the government to gather information more easily because almost everything Americans do leaves a digital trace. The NSA’s surveillance program has allowed the government to track everyone “without showing that any one of us is engaged in wrongdoing,” he said.
“What a democracy needs, in my view, is transparency from the government and privacy for the citizens. It seems like we’ve turned that on its head,” he said. “What the government used to only be able to do with probable cause that you’re engaged in wrongdoing … they can now do without a warrant, without probable cause. … That’s a radical transformation in the relationship of we the people to the government.”
Another panel member, Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, said corporations are also collecting vast amounts of data. She said retailers are tracking purchases and other personal data online to more effectively target consumers.
All of the information about an individual collected online can create a narrative of a person’s political persuasion and tastes, Boghosian warned.
Sanders said he also fears government surveillance could undermine democracy if private information about elected officials is used to blackmail them. “You are, in a sense, holding hostage an elected official,” he said.
Fear of government surveillance is already having a negative effect, Sanders said. He said cases of “self-censorship” are beginning to emerge by people who fear the government.
Sanders urged those at the town hall meeting to keep raising the issue of government surveillance and to question political candidates on where they stand on the matter.
“Your job and my job is to make this a political issue. We have an election coming up this year,” he said.