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'Stop Watching Us' sees a chance to reform the NSA

An unusual coalition of activists marched on the Capitol Saturday to protest NSA surveillance.
Demonstrators with tape over their mouths take part in a protest against government surveillance on October 26, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Demonstrators with tape over their mouths take part in a protest against government surveillance on October 26, 2013 in Washington, DC.

When close to two thousand people marched to the Capitol Reflecting Pool Saturday afternoon to protest the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, it was if the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street had clasped hands. 

"It's very important that the American people be allowed to talk about what they want to talk about, with whom they want to talk about it, and not have the government paying attention to anything," said David, a consultant with the Public Health Service who described himself as more Tea Party than Occupy.

The rally was sponsored by Stop Watching Us, a coalition of groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, was meant to build support for forthcoming legislation that would end the National Security Agency's bulk collection of communications data under the Patriot Act. Reauthorized several times by Congress, the full scope of the programs were not known to the public until the leak of a secret surveillance court order by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Since Snowden's revelations, public opinion has begun to shift away from government surveillance programs, for the first time since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Top intelligence officials claims about the usefulness of the programs for preventing terrorism have withered under scrutiny

The crowd at the protest reflected the strange political hodgepodge that has found common cause in protesting the NSA (though perhaps no stranger than the NSA's supporters). Protesters held signs that read "Stop Mass Spying" and thanked Snowden for leaking information to the press. Some of the protesters wore buttons from Occupy Wall Street or said "Free Bradley Manning," others wore t-shirts from the libertarian group Young Americans for Liberty.

Several protesters purchased blue jackets fashioned to look like the raid jackets worn by federal agents, which said "U.S. Citizen" on the back. Medea Benjamin, the head of the anti-war group Code Pink, was weaving through the crowd on a pink bicycle, wearing oversized glasses and carrying a giant pink sign shaped like a hand that said "hands off our data." Supporters of the conspiracy-minded Lyndon LaRouche were also there, holding signs depicting President Barack Obama with a Hitler mustache.

But if some fringe activists were there, many of the protesters had practical concerns. Sam and Blake, a couple from San Francisco, said they were there because of how revelations about NSA spying had affected the tech industry. "People around the world don't trust the American government and the companies that are subject to American laws anymore because they want their data to be kept private," said Blake. 

Amina Rubin, an activist with the Council on American Islamic Relations, said she was there to take a stand against mass surveillance. 

"As a Muslim I've been aware that it's been happening at least for our community for a long time, but we've recently been learning it's been happening to everybody," said Rubin. "It's really important for people to show we're not just going to let it happen." 

As the crowd marched toward the reflecting pool, protesters carried a large blue banner inscribed with the language of the Fourth Amendment. Protesters chanted "get a warrant" and "wiretap? Fight back!" to the thundering beat of a drum. Kyle, a student from Philadelphia who had come to the protest with his family, said of the NSA, "they're reading my emails, they're watching the porn I watch! It's ridiculous."

When the protesters reached the reflecting pool, speakers like Thomas Drake, who was prosecuted by the Obama Justice Department for espionage for leaking information to journalists about the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance, addressed the crowd in between musical acts. The crowd cheered as Jesselyn Radack, director of the Government Accountability Project, read a statement she said was from Snowden himself, in which he said that "we declare that mass surveillance has no place in this country." Snowden is currently been granted asylum in Russia, a country whose record on domestic spying is hardly spotless.
The last two speakers personified the novel coalition that had come together in opposition to government spying. Dennis Kucinich, a former Democratic congressman from Ohio, described the national security state as a "racket" and urged the government to focus its attention on jobs, housing, and healthcare. Cheers grew more sparse as Kucinich spoke, perhaps reflecting the fact that while the protesters might have been united in their criticism of the NSA, they were far more divided on the role of an activist government. 
After Kucinich spoke, Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who more than any other sitting politican has embraced the anti-NSA coalition with open arms, took the stage. Activists carried boxes they said bore almost 600,000 signatures to a petition urging the U.S. government to end the NSA's bulk collection program and create a committee to investigate the matter, as well as "hold accountable" those responsible for the program. As Amash spoke, a woman next to the stage kissed and caressed one of the boxes, and then crossed herself. 
Amash recalled how in late July, an amendment sponsored by him and his Democratic colleague from Michigan Rep. John Conyers came within a handful of votes of defunding the NSA's bulk collection program. Amash called it "the proudest moment for me as an elected official."
Amash also recalled walking into Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's office to try and persuade him to vote for the amendment. Instead, Amash said, Sensenbrenner, the self-identified "author of the Patriot Act," spent several minutes explaining to Amash why he planned to support the amendment.  
Sensenbrenner, along with Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chair of the Judiciary Committee, will be introducing legislation to end the bulk collection program. The legislation is called the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-Collection, and Online Monitoring Act, or USA Freedom Act. (He may have switched sides in the fight over government surveillance, but Sensenbrenner still has a thing for acronyms.)
With public opinion having shifted, and the Sensenbrenner-Leahy legislation within striking distance of passage in the House, activists have an idea of how the next few weeks and months will play out. 
"First they ignore us, then they laugh at us, then they fight us, and then we win," Khalilah Barnes, an activist with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, paraphrasing a famous quote from Mahatma Ghandi. "We are fighting to win."