A diverse coalition of groups gathers in downtown Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26 for a march to the Capitol to protest NSA activities.
(Photo: Bart Jansen, USA TODAY)
By Bart Jansen and Carolyn Pesce
WASHINGTON - Thousands rallied against NSA's domestic and international surveillance on Saturday by marching to the Capitol and calling for closer scrutiny of the agency as more details of its spying are leaked.
Holding signs that said "Stop mass surveillance," "Thank you, Edward Snowden" and "No NSA mass spying," and chanting slogans like "no secret courts," the protesters gathered under a blue sky to hear various speakers.
Craig Aaron, head of the group Free Press, said "this isn't about right and left -- it's about right and wrong."
Stop Watching Us organized the march and is a diverse coalition of more than 100 public advocacy groups aiming to deliver a petition to Congress on Saturday calling for an end to mass surveillance of the National Security Agency. The group includes civil liberties watchdogs like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and more broad-based groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Koch brothers' FreedomWorks and Occupy Wall Street-NYC, according to a press release.
The NSA spying controversy has been growing amid new revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the U.S. monitored the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It was the latest in revelations of spying on foreign countries - leaders of France and Italy have protested NSA surveillance as well as Brazil's president, who has canceled a visit to the U.S.
Germany is sending an intelligence team to Washington to discuss the issue. On Friday, the prime minister of Spain announced plans to call in the U.S.ambassador to discuss surveillance.
Jesselyn Radack, national security director for the Government Accountability Project, one of the rally organizers, read the crowd a statement from Snowden decrying the government's ability to examine call records and internet transactions.
"Our representatives in Congress tell us this is not surveillance. They're wrong," Radack quoted Snowden as saying. She gestured toward the Capitol building behind her and added, "We are watching you."
David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, one of the grass-roots groups that helped organize the event, said before marching from Union Station to Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the Capitol that the goal is to put a face to opposition to surveillance.
Members have been lobbying this week for legislation to curb surveillance after a near-miss in July, with a 205-217 loss in the House, for a provision to block bulk collection of data such as phone records. The provision was sponsored by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who is scheduled to speak to protesters on the National Mall.
Other legislation is expected next week from Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., Segal said: "I think that what the NSA has been doing is so transparently egregious that we have a real shot at winning this fight."
Dave Miller of Bloomfield, N.Y., near Rochester, held a sign saying "What part of 'shall not' don't you understand?" At 56, he was attending his first political rally because of his concerns about surveillance.
"The natural progression is more control, more power," Miller said. "No matter what they say, we're going down the path toward tyranny."
Miller wore a dark-blue windbreaker with "U.S. Citizen" in yellow letters to mimic FBI jackets and send the message that citizens are in charge of the country. He brought enough jackets to sell.
"I just decided I was going to get off my duff and do something," said Miller, an unemployed engineer. "It's to demand respect from authority."
Holmes Wilson of Worcester, Mass., and a founder of the grass-roots group Fight for the Future, wore tape across his mouth and held a walking banner that said "Spying is censorship."
"I'm terrified by the ability the U.S. has to do surveillance here and all over the world," Wilson said, referring to the NSA gathering information from people's phones and e-mail. "They know who we associate with and where we are at any given time. It's only getting worse."
Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at NSA who was charged with 10 counts of spying but who pleaded to a misdemeanor for exceeding authorized use of a computer, exhorted the crowd gathered in front of the Capitol to push for repeal of the Patriot Act.
"It's time to roll back the surveillance state," Drake said. "It is time for the U.S. government to stop watching us."