Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden told members of the Council of Europe Tuesday that the United States has spied on workers at major human rights groups.
Speaking via VideoLink from Moscow, where he currently lives, Snowden said the NSA spied on groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Both groups have been highly critical of a number of U.S. policies, from treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay to the use of drones in targeted killings, to abuses in the American prison system.
Snowden told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, “The NSA has in fact specifically targeted the communications of either leaders or staff members in a number of purely civil or human rights organizations of the kind described.” Members of the Council asked if the NSA or Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s counterpart agency were actively monitoring the communications of human rights advocates.
Snowden also said he believed the NSA should scrap its entire mass surveillance program and take up a more targeted approach aimed at known suspects, and that encryption is the only way for civilians to maintain some level of security.
Responding to the allegations, Dinah Pokempner, Human Rights’ Watch’s general counsel, said, “If it’s true that the NSA spied on groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, it’s outrageous, and indicative of the overreach that U.S. law allows to security agencies. Such actions would again show why the U.S. needs to overhaul its system of indiscriminate surveillance.”
Amnesty International also raised concerns over possible threats to the safety of the organization’s sources. “This raises the very real possibility that our communications with confidential sources have been intercepted. Sharing this information with other governments could put human rights defenders the world over in imminent danger. When these concerns were raised before the U.S. Supreme Court, they were dismissed as being ‘speculative’. Snowden’s latest revelation shows that these concerns are far from theoretical – they are a very real possibility,” said Michael Bochenek, Senior Director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International.
“We now need a full and frank disclosure of the extent of these surveillance programs as well as water-tight legal guarantees against such indiscriminate surveillance in the future.”