Authors group pushes for NSA reform, while there’s still time


Authors are already self-censoring in response to revelations about surveillance by the NSA, said PEN America Center executive director Suzanne Nossel. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

With yet another attempt to reform the National Security Agency up for debate on Capitol Hill this month, 29 writers, including Dave Eggers and Edward Albee, wrote an open letter to Congress last week, outlining their concerns with some of the NSA's surveillance programs and calling on lawmakers to act quickly to pass "meaningful reform."

The letter, written in cooperation with the PEN American Center, follows other efforts from the writers advocacy and education group, which has become a vocal presence in the debate on national surveillance following the leaks from former national security contractor Edward Snowden. Last year, the group conducted a  a study of the effects the Snowden leaks were having on freedom of expression and found nearly a quarter of authors were self-censoring -- avoiding writing or talking about certain topics -- due to surveillance fears.

Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN American Center, spoke with The Washington Post about the group's letter, its advocacy on this issue and the role Nossel believes writers must play in discussions about surveillance. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you think it's important for PEN America -- and writers in general --  to speak out on this issue? And what advocacy have you done on this issue to this point?

Suzanne Nossel:  This not a new issue for us. One of the early leaders of PEN was Arthur Miller, who was surveilled by the FBI and called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. We already had a concern as an organization that had a lot of concern about global work, looking at threatened and vulnerable writers overseas. Now we've learned that a far greater swatch of writers' communications, e-mails and research can be swept up through dragnet surveillance.

Over the last year, we've become very concerned about mass surveillance and dragnet surveillance that we've all learned is going on in our in-boxes, on our phone lines and in everyday communications.

We have stepped up efforts this year, believing that this is the last realistic chance for NSA reform in the current Congress. The window is closing quickly, so we wanted to put the voice of important writers into this debate. We've been speaking as advocates, but we thought that it was important to have the writers that so many Americans know and love and read show they really are concerned about this issue.

We feel writers are the canaries in the coal mine. If their rights are impinged upon, they feel it first and most acutely because they rely on free expression to do their jobs.

For a lot of Americans it’s intangible. We've forfeited a lot of privacy in the course of daily life as we adopt mobile technologies and news services, come to grow accustomed that our lives are more open. I think there’s a kind of acquiescence in a boundless surveillance of our activities because of the way things have changed.

But it's in an insidious way that changes how we think and connect. And our view is that before that becomes set in stone we have to understand the cost of keeping us safe -- understand it and debate it -- and writers have a role to play in that debate.

Your authors laid out some policy recommendations in their letter. Can you describe what you'd like to see in terms of legislation on this issue?

I do think that [Sen. Patrick] Leahy’s bill includes some very important steps, including an end to government bulk collection and the important principle of keeping information in the hands of providers and platforms rather than of the government. And it requires the U.S. government to be more discerning and craft requests much more narrowly.

We also support the establishment of a special advocate for the FISA court and the declassification provision [to allow private companies to disclose more information about government requests] to fuel an ongoing debate.

One of the biggest problems [before Snowden] has been that this has all happened out of view --  out of the public, out of media -- and there was no debate going on. This bill will help ensure that debate can happen.

That said, we still have concerns about what is not being addressed. The surveillance done under section 702 and surveillance of Americans and foreigners is important to us as an organization. To know that those communications are not secure is a huge inhibitor of our work and something we worry about every day. Writers worry about what are sensitive topics, what language to use, what to say and what they shouldn't say.

The U.S. government is not the only concern in that regard, but as an American organization it's shocking that our own government is an entity that we need to worry about at all. That’s a key piece that’s not addressed that we want to see addressed.

The letter also mentioned Executive Order 12333, which authorizes the broad collection and storage of communications in the United States. Can you outline PEN America's concerns on that issue?

Like many, we are now becoming more focused on the order and the powers that it asserts and arrogates.  And we think this cannot be exempt or must be considered alongside a focused effort on what the executive branch’s authority must be here. With that authority, even if other reforms would be enacted, those powers would be extremely broad.

I think that one of the concerns that we have is that it feels like such a crowded moment. With so many international crises, an election looming and a crowded domestic agenda, there may be a sense that these concerns are not uppermost of people’s mind.

That's why it’s the job of an organization like ours, that are custodians of free expression, to step up and address a set of issues that shocked us. It takes a catalyst on the order of the Snowden revelations to get us motivated, and so we think -- not withstanding this full agenda -- that it’s critical not to lose this window of opportunity.

As part of an international organization, what sort of reaction are you hearing from other branches of PEN on this issue?

There is some disagreement. We have some writers from around the world saying that the U.S. is an authoritarian state. We don’t agree with that.  Frankly, it doesn't help to indulge in hyperbole.

We have confidence in American institutions to strike a balance here. But they need to step up.

 

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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