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Demanding Abolition of Secret Spy Court, Chelsea Manning Pens Reform Bill from Prison

129-page document proposes 'concrete' solutions to the rampant and unchecked violations of privacy and civil liberties by U.S. government

U.S. military whistleblower Chelsea Manning says that her experience researching and writing the bill while in prison was her "most difficult undertaking yet." (Photo: torbakhopper/cc/flickr)

U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning on Tuesday announced her solution to the rampant and unchecked violations of privacy and civil liberties by U.S. government: Abolish the secret surveillance court.

In a 129-page bill (pdf), the former intelligence analyst argues that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court system charged with processing government surveillance requests should be dismantled, and subsequent requests should instead be made to "the oldest and most tested court system in America: the U.S. district courts and courts of appeal," Manning writes in a Guardian op-ed introducing the legislation.

Because of its lack of transparency, the current FISA court system has had a host of "systemic" oversight problems, Manning notes.

"The U.S. intelligence community is in a very poor position to be trusted with protecting civil liberties while engaging in intelligence work," she writes. "When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail; when you’re a skilled intelligence professional, everything looks like a vital source for collection."

Despite the passage of the USA Freedom Act last June, Manning notes, "the major concerns over 'bulk collection' and 'mass surveillance' of citizens have not yet been substantially addressed in the U.S., because the legislation leaves mostly in place the secret courts."

The bill also includes some limitations for electronic surveillance permitted under the so-called Cybersecurity Bill, CISA, which passed the Senate last week.

The document was penned from inside the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Manning is currently serving a 35-year sentence for leaking classified information that exposed the U.S. military's crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other things.

In a blog post published at Medium on Tuesday, Manning says that her experience researching and writing the bill while in prison was her "most difficult undertaking yet."

Manning describes how the months-long process was slowed down by unexpected cell search in July and later was derailed for a month after a military court found her guilty of four bogus charges.

She writes:

I didn’t start back up for over a month, until I began my eventual punishment — rec. restriction for 3 weeks without library time (except for law library), recreation yard and running track time, or time in the gym.  In that 3 weeks, I wrote my bill.

Then I spent nearly 5 days typing up on a word processing computer that doesn’t save anything — I had to print it our in sections, slowly, hoping I didn’t make any typos.

Manning further elaborates on her personal struggles resulting from these undue punishments in a series of letters published at Shadowproof on Tuesday.

Digital rights group Fight for the Future has launched a petition calling on lawmakers to consider these "concrete alternatives and policy changes" as well as to take Manning's  "analysis into account on all votes related to privacy and surveillance."

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