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House Intelligence Committee Report on Snowden Unsupported

Real Oversight and Reform on Surveillance Needed in the US

What a coincidence – just as we launch a Campaign to Pardon Edward Snowden, and as the new Oliver Stone movie opens, the House Intelligence Committee issues a report arguing against clemency for Snowden, alleging overwhelming damage he supposedly caused US national security. The report might have been an opportunity to seriously assess the claims of the intelligence agencies of harm or evaluate benefit to the public. But unfortunately, devoid of accurate and hard evidence, it seems to do neither.

Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden appears live via video during a student organized world affairs conference at the Upper Canada College private high school in Toronto, February 2, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

Only a three-page summary of the 36-page report is available to the public and all we can see from two years of investigations are the same unsupported assertions: now that we all know that the US and its allies are engaged in massive data sweeps, it will be harder to track wrongdoers. What they won’t admit is that those deeply involved in illegal activities were probably already taking precautions – it’s the rest of us who found the revelations shocking and valuable.

But perhaps it’s not surprising the committee put out a report that’s noticeably light on evidence. National security and intelligence gathering are by definition shrouded in secrecy and therefore hard to subject to effective public oversight – which makes it all the more important that we have laws and systems in place to prevent abuse. An important safety valve for any democratic society is genuine whistleblower protection that enables people to safely report abuse even when the relevant hierarchy is complicit. This is absent for national security whistleblowers in the US, and one important reason Snowden deserves a pardon.

Snowden revealed some of the most sweeping and invasive surveillance programs ever known – programs so disproportionate they threaten the very notion of privacy and rights. Today, the US government uses its PRISM program to demand what is likely to be an extremely large number of private internet communications – including e-mails, instant messages, and photos – from companies such as Google, Facebook, and Skype. It is also monitoring all the communications that flow over an untold number of cables that connect the US with the rest of the world, as well as capturing hundreds of millions of text messages and cell-phone location updates every day.

Through these programs, the US has breached the privacy of hundreds of millions of people worldwide who are under no suspicion of wrongdoing (including many of you reading this). Our own research has shown the chilling effect of mass surveillance on the work of journalists and lawyers, undermining a range of other rights. These programs also violate international human rights law and raise important constitutional issues.

As Snowden pointed out on Tuesday, “privacy is the fountainhead of all other rights,” including freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Digital privacy is also crucial to the way most of us live our (law-abiding) lives today. President Obama should pardon Snowden and Congress should act urgently to end the human rights violations he exposed.

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