Monday, July 20, 2009

Important News from PEN

Dear PEN Members, Friends, and Supporters,

Next week, PEN will be in court challenging the U.S. government’s massive warrantless surveillance program. We believe our own communications, which include sensitive phone calls and e-mails with writers at risk around the world, are vulnerable under the program. And we know, based on the experiences of our colleagues in countries where governments had unchecked surveillance powers (including the United States as recently as the 1970s), that programs that allow governments to spy on their own citizens are often directed against writers and intellectuals, and that domestic surveillance in general poses a serious threat to the intellectual and creative freedoms of all citizens.

The hearing will take place next Wednesday at 10:00 a.m. in U.S. District Court in New York. It comes amid new revelations that the National Security Agency’s telephone and Internet surveillance program has been collecting the private communications of Americans in clear violation of longstanding legal limits on such domestic surveillance activity.

The NSA program was implemented in secret by the Bush Administration late in 2001 and its scope remains unknown, though concerns about its legality have surfaced repeatedly. In 2004, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and other senior Justice Department officials refused to provide the legal certification necessary for reauthorization of the program, believing it was violating the rights of ordinary Americans.

Last year, in a tacit acknowledgment that elements of the program were illegal, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act, which granted immunity to telecommunications companies for participating in the NSA program and supposedly authorized its controversial aspects.

Next week’s hearing is the first in a suit challenging the constitutionality of the FISA Amendments Act; meanwhile, ongoing Congressional investigations have uncovered information suggesting that the NSA is scrutinizing e-mails on a scale that may even violate the FISA Amendments Act.The Bush Administration, Congress, and now the Obama Administration insist that the powers are necessary to protect the country from individuals and groups that threaten national security.

In fact, the laws that the NSA program and other post-9/11 surveillance powers circumvent were specifically crafted to ensure the U.S. government can spy on suspected terrorists and other foreign threats. What those laws also guaranteed, however, was that the constitutional right of American citizens and residents to be secure against unreasonable searches was protected. History has repeatedly shown how, without such protections, surveillance in the name of national security often extends to spying on peaceful political activists, journalists and writers, and other ordinary, law-abiding citizens. As part of our Campaign for Core Freedoms, PEN has been challenging a range of post-9/11 surveillance powers that threaten the right of our members, and all American citizens and residents, to read, write, and communicate freely, without fearing that our government is listening in or compiling private, First Amendment-protected information.

We have been fighting to restore confidentiality protections for bookstore and library records and curb the ability of the FBI to use National Security Letters to gain sensitive personal information. We have made progress—but there is still work to be done to ensure that only those who are suspected of involvement in terrorism or other criminal activities are targeted.

Watch for information from PEN and from the Campaign for Reader Privacy in the coming days about what you can do to help us rein in excessive surveillance powers. Please visit PEN's resource page for information on NSA surveillance, the FISA Amendments Act, and how to take action.

With thanks for your support and all best wishes,

K. Anthony Appiah


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