Martin Scrutinizes Surveillance

On Wednesday, Sept. 17, Kate Martin delivered the Constitution Day address, “Government Surveillance and the Bill of Rights,” on the NSA’s surveillance programs. The annual address focuses on current events and the ties to the Constitution. For example, fifteen months ago, Edward Snowden began leaking NSA documents to the media, disclosing U.S. government surveillance programs. Does such surveillance make the United States more secure? Does it harm citizens? Is it even legal?

Clarke Forum facilitators presented the lecture as a counterpoint to James Baker’s 2013 Constitution Day speech, which also discussed national security. Martin directs the Center for National Security Studies in Washington, D.C.

Martin began by outlining relevant Constitutional points: the First Amendment, which protects free speech, press, assembly, etc.; and the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. This amendment ensures that you and your belongings cannot be searched without a warrant and probable cause.

On the other hand, the President has Constitutional powers to oversee foreign affairs, which today are used to justify covert action and intelligence operations. According to Martin, the two sides—the Executive branch and the people—are “talking past each other.” The government believes its actions are legal and that it has reduced the risk of abuse. The people have not yet had any kind of democratic debate about modern surveillance capabilities and their role in American society.

Martin then reviewed the history of domestic surveillance programs and the Supreme Court cases that affected them—for example, Katz v. United States, a 1967 ruling that said the Fourth Amendment protects phone calls. Domestic spying also played a major role in the Watergate Scandal, which led not only to President Richard Nixon’s resignation, but also to the government report which created the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

Finally, Martin outlined recent legislation, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and the PATRIOT Act of 2001. She spoke of threats to political dissent and open public discourse, and called for new laws and a more efficient Congress to prevent programs like the NSA’s from arising again.

Although Dickinson students were required to attend this event for at least three different classes, overall reactions were mixed. A first-year said the topic would have been more relevant to law students. Michael Lenker ’16 wondered, “Why I should be worried about metadata?” Many Dickinsonians expected something similar to what Martin herself pointed out was lacking—an open debate about the role of government surveillance in today’s world.