Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders held a town hall meeting in Montpelier over the weekend to discuss the National Security Agency's surveillance of telephone and email records and the implications on constitutional rights and privacy.
The town hall, which was streamed live, featured two speakers considered authorities on civil liberties: Georgetown Law School Professor David Cole and National Lawyers Guild Executive Director Heidi Boghosian. Vermont Congressional Representative Democrat Peter Welch also attended. Senator Sanders began the meeting noting that while this is one of the major issues the country faces, it is complicated and has no magical solutions. “Terrorism is a very and serious issue. And in my view, the United States government should be doing everything that it can to prevent another terrorist attack. The second issue that we have is that technology is exploding . It’s the ability of those who have that technology to know virtually everything about our lives is real and it is only going to become more dangerous in years to come. And then the issue is how do we, in fact, protect the American people from a terrorist attack, but do it in a way that does not undermine the constitutional rights and the civil liberties and the privacy rights that make us a free country.”
Georgetown University Professor David Cole teaches constitutional law, national security and criminal justice. He is also the legal affairs correspondent for the weekly publication, The Nation. Cole focused on the NSA’s phone metadata program - the agency’s accessing and cataloging every call made by every American. “We should be concerned about the secrecy. There is a role for secrecy in our society. But there’s also a role for democracy in our society. And when our government is adopting programs which affect every last one of us, and doing it in secret and lying about it to keep it secret, we have frustrated democracy. We also have a reason to be concerned about it because privacy matters. The framers understood that privacy is essential to political freedom. To know that you have the ability to talk and to associate without having the government watching over you. What a democracy needs is transparency from the government and privacy for the citizens.”
Sanders posed the question: What does freedom mean if the U.S. government or corporate America knows the details of every call, purchase or private record of individuals? Many questions from the packed auditorium at Montpelier City hall reflected that concern. “What can we do to protest this type of action?” asked one of the first questioners. Another stepped up “ Are there any corporations and companies who are actively fighting to protect privacy?” A woman was nervous amidst the crowd. “I think I’m the only Republican here. What’s been presented here didn’t rub me the wrong way at all, as I thought it might, it’s been very interesting.” Senator Sanders hoped she was not the only Republican attending. “To be very honest with you if I were a conservative Republican and I believed in small government, I would be leading this effort against the type of government surveillance, because this is Big Brother government, very much in opposition to small, conservative government.”