The ACLU Educates Community Members on Drones and NSA Surveillance

By Deborah Brancic, Pasadena Now Correspondent

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) held a forum Tuesday night to discuss the details surrounding the National Security Agency (NSA) and its intrusion into the basic civil liberties enjoyed by U.S. citizens.

Topics of the night included data collection and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), detention centers, drones, and several court cases involving these issues. A few dozen attendees listened and participated in the discussion at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena.

The forum, Challenging America’s Surveillance and Detention State, was led by two experts and legal fellows: Matthew Kellegrew from the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and James Burch from the ACLU of Southern California. The goal of the night was to educate and inform the community to clear up false perceptions surrounding the issues.

“I think the purpose of having this event is to talk about surveillance issues with more granular detail than perhaps sometimes can get revealed in news articles, specifically because the discourse around surveillance tends to be one of shock and revelation,” said Kellegrew.

Burch discussed a number of cases that made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court regarding civil liberties, including Rumsfeld v. Padilla (2002), al-Mari v. Spagone (2009), and most recently Hedges v. Obama (2012). In each case, the court refused to take a position: in Padilla the Court claimed the petition was improperly filed, in al-Mari, the case was considered moot, and in Hedges the Court refused to lift the stay pending appeal on a clause in the NDAA that allowed indefinite detainment on anyone associated with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces “including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces,” because the petitioners did not have standing to challenge it.

Kellegrew took over the discussion with a focus on technology and drones, and spoke about the ways that private citizens are being monitored: through email and data collection and other invasive methods. “We wanted to give a more formulaic and nuanced presentation about what all these technologies mean together and specifically the purpose was to talk about dynamic legislation and talk about transparency,” he said, referring to the overall purpose of the forum.

He spoke of a type of legislation that citizens of California could utilize to make it harder for the NSA to run data collection centers in the state.

“Effectively what we wanna do is this: The NSA in 2007 had to move out of Maryland, they had a detention center in Baltimore MD, because they had maxed out the Maryland power grid. They could not get enough power,” he said. After the NSA had to relocate, they built centers in several other states.

“The one in Utah takes 1.7B gallons of water every day to keep the servers cool,” said Kellegrew. “There’s no private utilities companies capable of providing this level of resource to any federal government.” He said that since the states make the contracts, and the electorate can use the legislative process to impact state policy, any state with an in-state data collection center can pass a law that would block the contract if it is with an organization with a constitutionally questionable directive.

“All it can do is preclude the state from renewing the contract with the federal government and that will effectively shut off the water,” he said. This would make it difficult for the NSA to maintain servers in the state.

“The first step is to get somebody to sponsor the legislation,” said Kellegrew. “Then it would go through the traditional political process… The idea is to promote a level of community awareness that’s going to make it impossible to not pass the bill, ideally, if we do our job well.”

Many of the people who attended the forum wanted to see a more international focus on the issue, including the discussion of drones, but Kellegrew said that unfortunately, that was not the focus of his organization, which dealt with constitutional issues. However, both he and Burch thought the dialogue went well and that attendees had left with a better understanding of the subject matter.

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