It’s not often that the NAACP and the tea party agree on much of anything, but we have come together over a common concern to fight for a common cause: We want our government to stop spying on innocent Americans.
The government claims the legal authority to collect records of your personal, private conversations with your significant other, spouse, doctor, pastor or lawyer – all without a warrant or any evidence of wrongdoing. It can turn on your computer’s webcam in your own home without your knowing, provided it gets a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret court that approves 99.96 of the government’s requests.
Our intelligence agencies say they need these powers to combat terrorism, but many of these powers are used routinely to collect information about innocent Americans. And very often, it is racial and ethnic minority groups who are disproportionately targeted.
One of the most infamous examples was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO, a series of covert and often illegal operations in the 1960s to discredit and smear civil rights and political groups the agency deemed subversive, including the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. In the name of national security, the bureau planted illegal wiretaps, sabotaged communications and conducted warrantless physical searches and whjle committing a variety of other violations.
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The surveillance tools the National Security Agency possesses today – being able to monitor Internet searches and call records – makes the age of hotel-room bugs seem quaint. And experience shows us how threatening unchecked government surveillance can be damaging to the very core of our democracy.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that the Patriot Act did not in fact permit the government to collect and store the phone records of all Americans, as it has been doing. Rather than stop it, however, the court noted that Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the provision the NSA cites to justify its call records program, is set to expire June 1. So the court decided to let Congress determine whether Section 215 should die, be revised or extended without alternation.
Last week, the House passed the USA Freedom Act, a bipartisan bill that would prohibit the bulk collection of phone records. But while the bill would stop the government from collecting phone records en masse, it would not stop it from accessing those records from telephone companies so long as it gets approval the FISC. And it doesn’t address government spying abuses authorized by other surveillance authorities.
Clearly, this reform is not enough. We need a broad overhaul of the government’s surveillance powers, and the people of North Carolina know this. A recent bipartisan poll commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union found that more than 80 percent of voters in the state find it concerning that the government is collecting and storing the personal information of Americans.
As the USA Freedom Act moves to the Senate this week, we urge Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis to pull the plug and let Section 215 expire. By wiping the slate clean, our country can have the much-needed debate about how much of our liberty and privacy we are willing to give up in the name of domestic surveillance.
Be it members of the NAACP or, more recently, members of the tea party, the fact is our government has too often, during the most challenging of times, targeted those who wish to struggle for positive change or demand accountability in the name of the common man or the underserved. We have all been on the receiving end of government overreach and other abuses, and this is why we stand united today.
Jenny Beth Martin is the co-founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. Hilary O. Shelton is the director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and senior vice president for policy and advocacy.