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Activists push uphill to curtail NSA surveillance

First came the leaks. Then came the outrage, and the knee-jerk response.
Photos of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), and U.S. President Barack Obama are printed on the front pages of local English and Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong in this illustration photo June 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Bobby Yip)
Photos of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), and U.S. President Barack Obama are printed on the front pages of local English...

First came the leaks. Then came the outrage, and the knee-jerk response. But now that the initial shock of Edward Snowden's revelations has faded, the real struggle for anti-surveillance activists begins.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) is among those organizations trying to keep the National Security Agency's phone and Internet record surveillance practices in the spotlight. On Wednesday, the group delivered a petition demanding a congressional investigation to Senate Judiciary Chair Pat Leahy, D-Vt., as well as two prominent supporters of the surveillance program, Sens. Dianne Feinsten, D-Calif., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The petition has nearly 97,000 signatories.

"When news broke that the government is spying on the phone and Internet records of millions of Americans, progressives jumped into action," said PCCC's Zaid Jilani at a Wednesday press conference. "Within just a few days, 100,000 Americans from the groups standing here today demanded that Congress investigate this NSA program, offer a full disclosure of the results of the investigation, and take action to change the law."

Joining PCCC at the press conference were Demand Progress and the Free Press Action Fund. All three groups are members of the Stop Watching Us coalition, a left-right alliance that also includes organizations such as the Mansfield North Central Ohio Tea Party Organization. Stop Watching Us is demanding that Congress reform Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act and create a special committee to investigate government surveillance.

While the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will look into the NSA surveillance programs on Thursday, the results of that hearing may not be much to the coalition's liking. Committee chair Feinstein has been unreservedly supporting of the NSA in her public statements, claiming that Snowden is guilty of "treason," and that the leaked phone and email surveillance programs helped prevent terrorism attacks.

"It's called protecting America," she told reporters not long after news broke that the NSA had sought all Verizon customers' phone records.

"You've seen people like Feinstein defend this program over and over, but I hope this scandal will get them to wake up," Jilani told msnbc after the press conference, noting that some 20,000 of the petition's signatures came from Feinstein's constituents in California.

This is not the first time in recent years that Congress has had to deal with a domestic NSA spying scandal. In 2005, the New York Times reported that the Bush administration had authorized the NSA to listen to phone calls within the United States without the permission of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court which is supposed to grant warrants for such wiretaps.

The legislative branch's response was decisive, albeit not exactly punitive: Congress approved the Protect America Act in 2007, a law crafted by the Bush administration to relax oversight on government surveillance. Congress also ensured that all telecom companies which had complied with the warrantless surveillance program would be retroactively immune from prosecution. While then-Senator Obama originally opposed retroactive community, he changed his position in early 2008.

But this time is different, said Jilani.

"I think this time, we're ready," he said. "We've hit the ground running." PCCC's petition was online just hours after the Guardian broke the news regarding Verizon phone records.

While Stop Watching Us leans on the legislative branch, the ACLU is demanding action from the judiciary. On Monday of this week, the civil liberties group filed a motion requesting disclosure of court documents related to NSA surveillance, and on Tuesday they sued Director of National Intelligence James Clapper over the program, saying that the attempted acquisition of Verizon phone records was in violation of the First and Fourth Amendments.

"We requested documents related to the government's secret interpretation of section 215 of the PATRIOT ACT, and they have claimed that the documents are classified," said ACLU national security fellow Brett Kaufman. But invocations of state secrets privilege might not get the government very far in the ACLU's lawsuit against Clapper.

"So long as our claims track the things that have been discussed publicly, they don't really have a basis to make that argument," said Kaufman, noting that Clapper and President Obama have already discussed NSA surveillance on the record.

“The president has full faith in Director Clapper and his leadership of the Intelligence Community,” said a National Security Council spokesperson when asked about the calls for Clapper to resign.