When Edward Snowden's revelations about the scope and extent of NSA surveillance activities started breaking on the pages of the U.K. Guardian, it was a wake-up call for Internet freedom activists that many of our worst suspicions had come true.
As the flow of stories continued, both in the pages of Guardian and now in many other media outlets, including the Washington Post, Der Speigel, The New York Times and Pro Publica, the American public grew more and more convinced of government over-reach and an overly loose interpretation of the Bill of Rights. These perceptions crossed partisan dividing lines and reached 75 percent of the population. Half a million people signed a petition at http://www.stopwatching.us demanding an end to the programs.
When Justin Amash, a libertarian-leaning Republican congressman, teamed up with Democrat John Conyers to amend an appropriations bill to remove funding for telephone metadata collection, it seemed like a moment when the will of the people was manifesting in D.C. across party lines. But when the votes were counted, Amash-Conyers came up a dozen votes short in the House. What shocked many was prominent Democrats, from the party usually identified with concerns about civil liberties, were essentially responsible for the defeat of the amendment. The nay-sayers included Democratic stalwarts like DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, former whip Steny Hoyer, Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee and, from one of the most left congressional districts in the country, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
What happened? Putting cynicism aside, Bay Area-based media watchdog group Media Alliance (a member of the national Stop Watching Us coalition) decided to find out. The best way to answer a question is to ask. So we asked for a meeting with Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco District Office on NSA surveillance. After a few rounds of messages, I received a call on August 15. I was told the meeting was not going to happen in August. Short-staffed. I asked if the meeting could be scheduled in September. Short-staffed. I asked if any date was available for a meeting at any point in the future. I was told no date could be set, but I would be emailed Representative Pelosi's position paper on blanket surveillance.
Short-staffing can be a legitimate issue (although as a tiny nonprofit organization, I would venture to say we deal with levels of short-staffing unknown to congressional offices). But on an issue of such popular interest and backed by a petition signed by more than half a million people, the refusal was startling. It's an awkward analogy, but for a moment there I felt the quandary of the White House press corps: Do I kick up a fuss and risk being blackballed forever? Media Alliance sent an email blast to 10,000 people the next day saying we had been refused the meeting. The meeting then got scheduled within a week.
By meeting day, a group was assembled that represented the breadth of the Stop Watching Us coalition: ACLU, EFF, Bill of Rights Defense Center, Hackers and Founders, and Restore the Fourth. We were meeting with Dan Bernal, Nancy Pelosi's chief of staff.
Did we get an answer to the question? Not really. And It wasn't because we didn't ask. Representative Pelosi was on the record voting not to reauthorize the Patriot Act in 2011, but seemed to see no direct contradiction between that vote and the Amash-Conyers vote.
The quickest way to describe the 45-minute meeting is as a tug-of-war between two ideas:
a) blanket surveillance is fundamentally unconstitutional and needs to stop
b) NSA surveillance programs need to be tweaked to rein in some level of over-reach.
The second position present in the room revolved around the discussion of vehicles (as in legislative vehicles). The vehicle focus was strangely lacking in urgency, considering that the issue has been in the headlines nonstop for months. It was as if we were casually sitting at a road stop debating the proper choice of vehicle to continue a leisurely journey to our destination.
I think most of us were saying, "stop, we want to get off."
A few things should be added. I appreciate the opportunity for dialogue and am glad to live in a country where I can struggle to make an appointment with legislative leaders -- and succeed.
And I'd rather have a conversation where there is disagreement than no conversation at all.
But I am left with the feeling of a massive perceptual gap between the constitutional liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights and a country where that is just a piece of quaint history no one takes seriously any more.