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Government Surveillance Threatens Journalism, Law and Thus Democracy: Report

Interviews with dozens of leading journalists and attorneys found that U.S. government overreach is eroding critically important freedoms

Lauren McCauley

The impunity with which the American government spies on journalists and attorneys is undermining the American people's ability to hold their leaders accountable, thus threatening the core of our democracy, charged a joint report published Monday by two leading rights organizations.

The report—With Liberty to Monitor All: How Large-Scale US Surveillance is Harming Journalism, Law, and American Democracy, published by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch—draws from extensive interviews with dozens of top journalists, lawyers and senior government officials. What the authors found is that recent revelations of widespread government surveillance have forced many professionals to alter or abandon work related to "matters of great public concern."

According to the report, "Surveillance has magnified existing concerns among journalists and their sources over the administration’s crackdown on leaks." With increasing prosecution of whistleblowers, restrictions on communication between intelligence officials and the media, and snitch programs for federal workers, journalists say that their sources have become "increasingly scared to talk about anything."

"It's a terrible time to be covering government," NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten told the report authors.

Further, journalists are forced to employ elaborate means of communicating with their sources, such as encryption and "burner" phones, which hampers their work.

The report argues that these increasing impediments have resulted in "less information reaching the public," thus having a "direct effect on the public’s ability to obtain important information about government activities, and on the ability of the media to serve as a check on government."

"Secrecy works against all of us," said Dana Priest, a reporter for the Washington Post. "What makes government better is our work exposing information. It's not just that it's harder for me to do my job, though it is. It [also] makes the country less safe."

Similarly, lawyers say that government surveillance has crippled their ability to maintain confidential correspondence with their clients, threatening the trust, free exchange of information, and potentially the security of those involved.

Jason Wright, a member of the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps who does work before the Guantanamo commissions, told the researchers that he and his colleagues are "fearful" that their communications with witnesses abroad are being monitored and consequently, attempts to build their case "might put people in harm's way."

The authors charge that this amounts to the "erosion of the right to counsel," which they say is a "pillar of procedural justice under human rights law and the US Constitution."

"The US holds itself out as a model of freedom and democracy, but its own surveillance programs are threatening the values it claims to represent," said report author Alex Sinha, Aryeh Neier Fellow at HRW and the ACLU. "The US should genuinely confront the fact that its massive surveillance programs are damaging many critically important rights."

Along with the report, the groups published this video highlighting their work.


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