By Hiroko Sato
Roger Coutu isn’t sure how the National Security Agency’s tracking of the phone records of millions of Americans would help prevent terrorism.
But what’s clear, said the Hudson, N.H., selectman, is the chilling effect the now-exposed surveillance has had on him and many others.
“If we allow this, where do they go from there?” he said.
It’s a question U.S. Rep. John Tierney, D-Salem, heard repeatedly on the floor of Congress in 2001 before the passage of the Patriot Act. Ambiguity about how much power the law would grant the government had him voting against it, he said. The potential violation of civil liberties and the effectiveness of colossal data collections as an anti-terrorism tool were all part of the debate as “Civil liberties of ordinary Americans are being compromised.” State Rep. Marc Lombardo, R-Billerica
“What did (people) think they were going to do?” Tierney said of the Patriot Act and the government.
Some say secret monitoring is necessary to outsmart would-be terrorists. Others say the existing surveillance hasn’t affected them.
“The horse is out of the barn now, so why does it matter?” said Jim Williams, Tewksbury’s veterans services officer.
But for Michael Bouchard, it’s a matter of principle.
“It’s an invasion of privacy. It feels anti-American,” said Bouchard, Groton’s town clerk.
Residents from across the region continue to look for answers after the revelations of the sweeping collection of phone records by the NSA. The White House has acknowledged the government has been collecting phone data on all Verizon users. While former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, who identified himself as the source of the leak last week, remains in hiding overseas, security experts and lawmakers debate what else the government may have been monitoring and what they are doing with the information.
The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration over the data collection, “If we allow this, where do they go from there?” Roger Coutu, Hudson, N.H., selectman.
Saying the practice not only violates the right to free speech and association and privacy under the First and Fourth amendments, but also exceeds the authority granted to the government under the Patriot Act.
Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the ACLU of Massachusetts, rejected Tierney’s claim that people shouldn’t be surprised as Congress has debated the Patriot Act’s potential negative consequences.
“In some sense, we didn’t know,” she said.
That’s because the Patriot Act — which ACLU says “vastly expanded the FBI’s power to spy on ordinary people living in the United States — left much open for interpretation.
“I’m astounded and outraged,” Crockford said of the surveillance.”More research and investigation is needed to determine whether this is a risk to us.” Scott Harker of Groton. “The U.S. government has not been forthright about what Patriot Act means.”
U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas was not available for comment, but her communications director, Michael Hartigan, said the Lowell congresswoman was “surprised to learn of the scale to which intelligence agencies are collecting Americans’ information, both as it pertained to phone records and internet providers.
“She believes we need to continue to work to find the balance between making our homeland more secure and doing everything we can to prevent another terrorist attack without weakening our civil liberties,” Hartigan added.
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, said “it’s very scary” for the federal government to monitor the public’s calls and emails.
“I don’t mind security cameras, but the government monitoring conversations is something else.” George Malliaros, former Dracut selectman
“I am very concerned about the infringement on civil liberties,” Eldridge said. “Even though large internet companies, such as Google, are said to be collecting vast user-related data, gathering of information by the government presents a different level of problems because no federal policies should keep people from saying what they want to say.”
Rob Mullin, a Tyngsboro Finance Committee member who worked as a bank manager in 2001, said he found the new rules about opening accounts and other aspects of the business under the Patriot Act disturbing.
“It gave the government carte blanche,” Mullin said of the law. “That was the beginning of the breaking down, a very fast way of trying to take away the liberties of people in this country and their privacy,” he said, calling for a repeal of the Patriot Act.
“The whole thing stinks. The transparency promised by this administration turned opaque,” said retired state Rep. Robert Hargraves, R-Groton. “Like Benjamin Franklin said: ‘They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
“While I understand the need for security in this very dangerous world we are living in, I think that what we are seeing time and time again with this administration is civil liberties of ordinary Americans are being compromised far beyond the name of national security, and it gives me great pause,” said state Rep. Marc Lombardo, R-Billerica.
But Groton resident Scott Harker hasn’t concluded the surveillance is doing ordinary Americans any harm.
“More research and investigation is needed to determine whether this is risk to us,” Harker said.
There are those who say people shouldn’t leave electronic footprints that lead to private information that is so important to them. Others believe the existing surveillance may continue.
“I think that if it is managed properly — and it appears it has been — it seems reasonable,” Lowell City Manager Bernie Lynch said.
“I don’t do anything wrong, so it doesn’t bother me,” Justin Keefe, 31, of Billerica, who received a Purple Heart for his service as an Army reservist in Baghdad in 2004. “If it’s going to stop another Boston Marathon, then I’m all for it.”
The majority of people are looking for a middle ground while acknowledging the need for some surveillance.
“I’m kind of torn, and I think there has to be some middle ground in terms of transparency,” said Greg Meagher, 30, of Tewksbury.
“I am very patriotic. I want to have faith in and trust my government,” said Janice Strong, a stay-at-home mother from Chelmsford. “However, I am not in line with those that support hacking and think everything and anything should be in the public domain either.”
“Do I want to live in a place where you are sure a bomb won’t go off or a child won’t be abducted? Absolutely. But at what cost?” said Tom Moses, Lowell’s chief financial officer.
Crockford said people should also scrutinize surveillance activities at the state level. State laws give the government the authority to collect information it wants through administrative subpoenas. This means the government doesn’t need to present a court with probable cause to get a warrant for the information, she said.
Rep. Benjamin Swan, D-Springfield, recently filed a bill to remove this power.