Panel led by congresswoman explores tug-of-war between privacy and security

By Gary Walker

The ACLU’s Gabe Rottman and author Julia Angwin speak during the forum at LMU

The ACLU’s Gabe Rottman and author Julia Angwin speak during the forum at LMU

Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Los Angeles) and a panel of constitutional law experts engaged in spirited debate with students last Thursday during a Loyola Marymount University forum weighing the need for domestic electronic surveillance against citizens’ rights to privacy.

The panel, moderated by Waters, represented a diversity of viewpoints on the ethics and effectiveness of National Security Administration spying at home and abroad.

Julia Angwin, a reporter for the news website ProPublica who led a team reporting on NSA wiretapping for The Wall Street Journal, said government surveillance has become an unfocused pursuit that unjustly entangles Americans who are not suspected of criminal activity.

“To me, as a citizen, that feels less fair than targeted surveillance directed at a known bad guy,” said Angwin, who recently published the book “Dragnet Nation.” “I think we need more information to evaluate these dragnets … but I do feel that dragnets inherently feel unfair. Indiscriminate surveillance — ubiquitous surveillance of me when I’m not a suspect — would not have happened previous to this technological era.”

John Eastman, founding director of the Claremont Institute’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, countered that the threat of terrorists operating in the shadows requires such vigilance.

“We are in a war and we don’t have divisions of troops or ships and planes that we can point to. The most significant front in this war is the information front. And if that’s true, then collecting that information is critically important, and so is having the kind of public accountability and transparency that we all want in every other part of our government,” Eastman said.

“You cannot run a war and have it be played out simultaneously across the pages of our nation’s newspapers. So somewhere we’re going to have to reconcile these two significant competing interests — our national security and the interests in the government not having too much information on us,” Eastman said.

During the audience Q-and-A portion of the forum, LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Rachel Horning asked a succinct question: “Edward Snowden: whistle blower or traitor?”

“If we assume that the programs [that Snowden leaked] lost effectiveness, than he is a traitor,” Eastman responded.

Angwin countered that there is no evidence that any of the programs that Snowden disclosed had been rendered less effective.

Waters, who last year backed legislation to limit the NSA’s ability to collect electronic data on American citizens, asked panelists whether information unrelated to national security that is obtained through government wiretapping might nonetheless be used against the surveillance target.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney and legislative policy advisor Gabe Rottman responded that the use of information obtained unintentionally was a complicated issue.

“When you have these types of programs, the inadvertent misuse of this kind of information is almost as dangerous as the adverted, malicious use of information,” Rottman said. “It could be exploited and used for political gain, and that’s why we understand that the twin evils that we need to be concerned about are secrecy and discretion. That’s why we need transparency and oversight by neutral arbiters to ensure that our investigative tools are being employed effectively.”