PPSA joined ten other civil liberties organizations alerting the leadership of the U.S. House and Senate and their judiciary committees about “alarming statements and actions” suggesting the federal government is secretly conducting mass, dragnet surveillance of the internet activity of all people within the United States.
“The statements of the intelligence community’s defenders reveal the outlines of something potentially big, dark and secret,” said Gene Schaerr, general counsel of PPSA. “If the government doesn’t respond to our query, Americans will have no other choice but to assume they’re engaged in gross violations of our Fourth Amendment rights.”
Sean Vitka, senior policy counsel at Demand Progress, told Gizmodo that he believes that Adam Schiff, chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, reworked the language in a recent reform bill that would actually “allow for domestic surveillance on everybody.”
“After an intense lobbying campaign by congressional champions of the intelligence community to reauthorize Section 215, they have fallen mysteriously quiet and apparently satisfied,” Schaerr said. “This alone should arouse suspicion.”
Suspicions were initially raised when the former chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Richard Burr, speaking on the Senate floor on March 12, claimed that an executive order (EO 12333) gives the president surveillance authority “without Congress’s permission, with no guardrails.”
On May 26, Charles Savage of The New York Times reported:
“… Stressing the continued need to investigate foreign threats, [Schiff] described the compromise as banning the use of such orders ‘to seek to obtain’ an American’s internet information.
“That formulation left open the possibility of interpreting the potential new law as banning only deliberate attempts to collect an American’s data, leaving the FBI free to ask for lists of all visitors to websites despite the risk that the list may turn out to incidentally include some Americans.”
The letter from PPSA, Demand Progress and other organizations states: “[T]he interpretation Chairman Schiff gave to the Times suggests the government may have secretly contorted the law to justify dragnet surveillance of the internet activity of people in the United States, regardless of their United States personhood.”
The group’s letter further states: “Treating domestic information and identifiers as presumptively foreign or as presumptively not belonging to a United States person would obliterate critical protections carefully negotiated by Congress to protect Americans. It would also – once again – embody a reprehensible abuse of the government’s surveillance powers.”
“We’ve seen such abuses before, beginning with a Drug Enforcement Administration bulk collection program that operated without scrutiny for twenty years,” Schaerr said. “Under an NSA program, Stellarwind, the government asserted a right to conduct mass surveillance without a warrant. They did so for almost a decade. This was a lawless violation that ignored both FISA and the Constitution.
“The American people deserve to know the basis on which federal surveillance is being conducted, and whether or not dragnets have returned,” Schaerr said. “If the government does not answer, PPSA will pry open the answers with FOIA requests and, if necessary, lawsuits.”
Other organizations that signed the letter include:
Americans for Prosperity
Demand Progress Education Fund
Defending Rights & Dissent
Due Process Institute
Fight for the Future
Free Press Action
Restore the Fourth