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Dave Eggers: US Writers Must Take a Stand Against NSA Surveillance

As McCarthy-era survivor, screenwriter Walter Bernstein says: 'Resist, resist, resist!'
 
 
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Dave Eggers
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Most citizens would object to their government searching their homes without a warrant. If you were told that while you were at work, your government was coming into your home and rifling through without cause, you might be unsettled. You might even consider this a violation of your rights specifically and the Bill of Rights generally.

But what if your government, in its defense, said: "First of all, we're searching everyone's home, so you're not being singled out. Second, we don't connect your address to your name, so don't worry about it. All we're doing is searching every home in the  United States, every day, without exception, and if we find something noteworthy, we'll let you know. In the meantime, proceed as usual."

Yes, it's been strange to live in the USA in this, the era of the  NSA. Not just because of the National Security Agency's seemingly boundless and ever-more-invasive collection methods, but because, for the most part, Americans have been proceeding as usual. In the wake of the Snowden revelations, there's been some outrage, and a flurry of lawsuits filed by organisations such as the ACLU, but most polls show about 50% of the population – including a shockingly high percentage of Democrats – find the  NSA's domestic spying programme more or less acceptable.

No doubt many moderate Democrats have been caught in a paralysis of cognitive dissonance. That is, on a gut level, this level of spying seems horrific and unconstitutional, but, then again, would President Obama, himself a constitutional scholar, actually endorse – much less expand – a domestic spying programme unless it were morally acceptable and constitutional? And thus moderates twist themselves into pretzels trying to defend, or at least allow, the NSA's collections.

And so it has been up to an unlikely coalition to bang the drum. It surely has to be the first time the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tea Party have found themselves (somewhat) politically aligned. And in one of the more significant, if not unexpected, developments, Richard J Leon, a federal judge appointed by George W Bush,  on Monday issued a 68-page decision denouncing the NSA's surveillance as "Orwellian" and saying: "I cannot imagine a more 'indiscriminate' and 'arbitrary invasion' than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analysing it without prior judicial approval." He added: "Surely, such a programme infringes on 'that degree of privacy' that the founders enshrined in the fourth amendment." Will this, finally, turn the tide of US opinion? Don't count on it. Judge Leon's ruling has no binding effect at the moment, and could be reversed on appeal.

In an effort to illuminate the NSA's effect on free expression, PEN America Centre recently surveyed its US members on their feelings about the NSA's unbounded reach. The resulting report, " Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives US Writers to Self-Censor," reveals that 88% of the writers polled are troubled by the NSA's surveillance programme, and that 24% have avoided certain topics in email and phone conversations. Most disturbingly, 16% of those answering the survey said they had abandoned a project given its sensitivity.

The survey is troubling on many levels. First, it's deeply dismaying that any writer would give up so easily – that any writer would be so readily cowed into submission. After all, to date, the NSA's surveillance hasn't landed any writers in jail, and, though there's no doubt a watchlist, so far no one on PEN's membership has been hauled in for questioning based on their phone calls, searches or internet activity. But living under the cloud of suspicion, or wondering not if, but when this collected data will be misused, runs, shall we say, counter to the idea of freedom of expression in a democracy.