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2006-01-17

Gore Calls For Special Counsel on Eavesdropping, Civil Rights Groups File Lawsuits Challenging Bush on NSA Wiretaps

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Former Vice President Al Gore gave a major speech in Washington Monday accusing President Bush of "repeatedly and persistently" breaking the law by authorizing the NSA wiretaps. We play an excerpt of the address and the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union are filing separate lawsuits challenging President Bush’s order for the NSA to conduct domestic spy operations without legally-required court warrants. We speak with a staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights. [includes rush transcript]

Millions of Americans paid tribute to the Reverend Martin Luther King this weekend on the national holiday commemorating the civil rights leader. While Martin Luther King Day is an official federal holiday, the US government tried to break King many times while he was alive, including arresting him and him throwing him in prison as well as closely monitoring him–opening his mail and tapping his phone.

At an address in Washington DC on Monday, former Vice President Al Gore recalled the FBI’s secret surveillance of Martin Luther King and called for a special prosecutor to investigate whether President Bush broke the law when he ordered the National Security Agency to conduct domestic spy operations without legally required court warrants.

The New York Times reveals today that after the Sept. 11th attacks the NSA began sending a flood of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and names to the F.B.I. in search of terrorists. This forced the FBI to send out hundreds of agents to check out thousands of tips every month. According to the Times virtually all of the tips led to dead ends or innocent Americans. The NSA had collected most of the intelligence it fed to the FBI by eavesdropping on Americans making international phone calls as well as by conducting searches of phone and Internet traffic.

Meanwhile, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union are filing separate lawsuits today challenging President Bush’s order for the NSA to conduct domestic spy operations without legally required court warrants.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is an excerpt of Al Gore’s address.

AL GORE: Republican as well as Democratic members of Congress should support the bipartisan call of the Liberty Coalition for the appointment of this special counsel to pursue the criminal issues raised by the warrant-less wiretapping of Americans by the President, and it should be a political issue in any race, regardless of party, section of the country, house of Congress, for anyone who opposes the appointment of a special counsel under these dangerous circumstances when our Constitution is at risk.

Secondly, new whistleblower protections should be immediately established for members of the executive branch who report evidence of wrongdoing, especially where it involves abuse of authority in the sensitive areas of national security.

Third, both houses of Congress should, of course, hold comprehensive and not just superficial hearings into these serious allegations of criminal behavior on the part of the President, and they should follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Fourth, the extensive new powers requested by the executive branch in its proposal to extend and enlarge the PATRIOT Act should under no circumstances be granted unless and until there are adequate and enforceable safeguards to protect the Constitution and the rights of the American people against the kinds of abuses that have so recently been revealed.

Fifth, any telecommunications company that has provided the government with access to private information concerning the communication of Americans, without a proper warrant, should immediately cease and desist their complicity in this apparently illegal invasion of the privacy of American citizens. Freedom of communication is an essential prerequisite for the restoration of the health of our democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Vice President Al Gore speaking Monday in Washington. The New York Times reveals today that after the September 11 attacks, the N.S.A. began sending a flood of telephone numbers, email addresses and names to the F.B.I. in search of terrorists. This forced the F.B.I. to send out hundreds of agents to check out thousands of tips every month. According to the Times, virtually all the tips led to dead ends or innocent Americans. The N.S.A. had collected most of the intelligence it fed to the F.B.I. by eavesdropping on Americans making international phone calls, as well as by conducting searches of phone and internet traffic. Meanwhile, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union are filing separate lawsuits today, challenging President Bush’s order for the N.S.A. to conduct domestic spy operations without legally required court warrants. We are joined in our Firehouse studio by Shayana Kadidal, staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Thanks for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Explain what this lawsuit is about that you’re filing today.

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Sure. Well, usually when you start a lawsuit, you have more questions about the law than the facts, but here the law is absolutely clear. Congress has made it a felony for government officials to engage in electronic surveillance outside of the two statutes that provide for it, the Wiretap Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. So here, it’s absolutely clear that this program is illegal. And the big questions really for us are, factually: were we targets of this surveillance; and, you know, beyond that, why did they do it? And those are the things that we hope to find out with the lawsuit.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, with a lawsuit, it’s usually based on something that happened to you. So you don’t have evidence that this has happened, that you have been surveilled, monitored, phone-tapped, wiretapped?

SHAYANA KADIDAL: That’s right. Obviously, there’s no way to really know with a secret program. We don’t have hard documentary evidence that we were surveilled, so the basis of the lawsuit, first of all, is that we sort of fit the categories that the Attorney General has said are the categories for targets of this program, and I’ll just read it. Alberto Gonzales, in his first press briefing, said that anyone who is a member of al-Qaeda or affiliated with al-Qaeda or a member of an organization that might be supportive of it are targets. And so, if you look at the kind of cases that the Center for Constitutional Rights brings, and we brought the case on behalf of the Guantanamo detainees, on behalf of Maher Arar, who was, you know, a Canadian citizen on his way home to Canada, stopped at JFK and deported to Syria for torture, and then on behalf of lots of immigration detainees in the sweeps after 9/11, who were suspected of some sort of involvement, based on no evidence at all, in the terrorist attacks.

And so we communicate with those clients or their family members overseas regularly, so we make these international calls and emails as part of our work, and so, you know, to us, we kind of fit the description of — those conversations fit the types of conversations that they would have surveilled based on what little they’ve told us about it. You know, but then, beyond that, we feel, as attorneys who regularly work with clients internationally that the existence of this kind of program inhibits our ability to do our work. You know, at this point, we’ve got to explain to every potential client who gets in touch with us that you’ve got to be careful about talking to us. It makes us look suspect. It inhibits our ability to have conversations that allow us to work on these cases. It just makes it incredibly difficult.

AMY GOODMAN: Looking at the Justice Department refusal to respond in The New York Times today about you, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU suing over federal eavesdropping, Justice Department officials refusing to comment on any specific individuals who might have been singled out under the N.S.A. program and said that the department would review the lawsuits once they were filed. A spokesperson for the Justice Department added that the N.S.A. surveillance activities described by the President were conducted lawfully and provide valuable tools in the war on terrorism to keep America safe and to protect civil liberties.

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Right, well, you know, I mean, the ironic thing about it is that The New York Times ran another story today that said that the N.S.A. was dumping huge amounts of really useless data on the F.B.I. and other criminal investigative agencies and making them trace down sort of dead ends, giving them bad leads. And at some level that really exposes what’s wrong with these kind of broad brush surveillance methods. For 200 years, we have had a system where judges have to approve warrants on the basis of probable cause, that law enforcement has to go to a judge with a little bit of evidence of criminal wrongdoing for the judge to approve of the wiretap.

And the reasons for that are twofold. One is to make sure that innocent people don’t get surveilled, but the other reason is to make sure that law enforcement doesn’t waste its time with irrational profiling or pointless broad searches. It’s to make sure that we have efficient law enforcement. And the other New York Times story that ran this morning basically shows that this N.S.A. program resulted in inefficient law enforcement. It made us less safe. You know, people always think that there is this tradeoff between liberty and security and that if they’re taking away our liberties, it’s always going to make us a little bit more safe. And here, you know, it has worked in the opposite way: We’ve become less free, and we’ve become less safe.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the specific lawyers that you are suing on behalf of the ACLU plaintiffs, among them Larry Diamond, who we’ve had on this program, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute, said that a Stanford student studying in Egypt conducted research for him on political opposition groups and that he worried communications between them on sensitive political topics could be monitored. He said, "How can we communicate effectively if you risk being intercepted by the National Security Agency?" Also named as plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit, journalist Christopher Hitchens, who has written in support of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; Barnett Rubin, scholar at NYU, New York University, who works in international relations; Tara McKelvie, a senior editor at American Prospect; National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; Greenpeace, the environmental group; and the Counsel on American-Islamic Relations, the country’s largest Islamic advocacy group. What about the specific people in your case and who they represent?

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Sure, well, the ACLU has a nice mix of people from both the political left and the right. Our plaintiffs are all people who work at the Center, primarily attorneys, also one paralegal who does a lot of communications internationally. So, for instance, one of the attorneys is the person who works closely with Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen who was deported to Syria by the U.S. from JFK Airport, for purposes of being tortured and interrogated under torture. So she’s got to call him and email him routinely. And it’s that kind of situation that’s really problematic when you’ve got this sort of surveillance. We really have to think every time a communication is made about whether it makes sense to put it off for an in-person visit or something like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Shayana Kadidal, I want to thank you very much for being with us, lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights.

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Thanks for having me.

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