Every day, but especially on Constitution Day, Sept. 17, we should be aware that the “national security” net has permeated even our local lives.
Federal law enforcement agencies such as the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security have assumed an unprecedented amount of authority to detain and spy on individuals, and to monitor whole communities based on crude ethnic and racial stereotypes. Yet the public has been kept unaware of how these powers have been used. Government secrecy is a concept completely at odds with the idea of government accountability.
Over the last few years, the federal government has returned to the bad old days of unchecked spying on ordinary Americans, as part of a broad pattern of executive abuses that use national security as an excuse for encroaching on our privacy and free speech rights without adequate -- or any -- judicial oversight.
We now know that the National Security Agency, a component of the Department of Defense, is engaged in unconstitutional surveillance of Americans' communications, including their telephone calls and emails. The NSA is conducting sweeping surveillance of Americans' communications, both domestic and international, while the rules that supposedly protect Americans' privacy are weak and riddled with exceptions.
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The American Civil Liberties Union has testified about these civil liberties concerns in Congress, sought further information about NSA activities via Freedom of Information Act filings, and filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the NSA's mass phone records collection program.
Closer to home in South Carolina, we have reason to be concerned about growing government surveillance at the local and state level. We increasingly see surveillance cameras in public places and a push for local police and government authorities to use drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, to monitor citizens without a warrant or approval by another branch of government.
The ACLU in South Carolina supports state legislation such as H 3514, which would restrict and regulate the warrantless use of drones (already in use in some of our municipalities) by police and other government agencies. We support another measure (H 3059) that would prohibit unlawful seizure of cell phones by police. There is growing non-partisan support for protecting our privacy by limiting widespread government surveillance of us citizens.
The ACLU will continue fighting all of these attempts by government, in the absence of reasonable suspicion of wrong-doing, to gather information about the lives of the vast majority of law-abiding citizens. While it is good to pause and remember the freedoms and rights enshrined in the Constitution on Tuesday, we know that freedom’s victories never stay won. Keeping the Constitution alive requires constant vigilance and the commitment of us all.
The writer is executive director of the ACLU in South Carolina.