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Americas

Protest in Washington against NSA surveillance

The US government has for the most part kept silent on the widespread criticism of NSA surveillance methods. But hundreds of citizens have had enough, calling for an end to the snooping.

"Stop mass surveillance! Stop the NSA! Keep the government in check and release the whistleblowers!" Armed with a sea of signs, flags and banners, hundreds of Americans marched on Capitol Hill in Washington on Saturday (26.10.2013) to express their anger with the National Security Agency (NSA) and the recent revelations concerning its secret surveillance methods.

Taking up the challenge of numerous civil rights groups that want to prevent the US from becoming a surveillance state, about 800 protesters took part in the massive Stop Watching Us rally on the 12th anniversary of the signing of the Patriot Act. Among them were whistleblower Attorney Jesselyn Radack, civil rights activist Naomi Wolf and Republican congressman Justin Amash.

U.S. citizens demonstrate on 24.10.2013 near the Capitol in Washington DC against the surveillance by intelligence agencies such as the NSA.((Foto: Monika Griebeler / DW) - eingestellt von Andreas Grigo

Surveillance of German leader Angela Merkel inspired demonstrators in the U.S.

They were out demonstrating to put a stop to the NSA's snooping, explained one young woman. "I do feel I am being spied on in some way. You know, whether it's today or tomorrow, giving the government authority to do this is never good," she said.

"Thank you very much for telling our leaders what they couldn't see for themselves," said another protester when he saw DW's microphone. "Americans have had a happy life. We think democracy is on cruise control, and will go on forever!"

Love-hate relationship

"We are marching to protect the constitutional values we hold dear," said Laura Murphy of civil rights organization American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "We are marching to get Congress to pass legislation to end this illegal surveillance on law-abiding citizens."

On October 26, 2001, Congress approved the Patriot Act which made the unrestrained spying of the US intelligence services possible in the first place. The law was adopted following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York six weeks earlier.

On the grounds that it was necessary to secure the country, the law introduced many cuts to Americans' civil rights. For example, the Patriot Act allows the monitoring of telephone calls or emails, spying on companies and libraries, as well as the indefinite detention of terror suspects - without trial.

U.S. citizens demonstrate on 24.10.2013 near the Capitol in Washington DC against the surveillance by intelligence agencies such as the NSA(Foto: Monika Griebeler / DW) - eingestellt von Andreas Grigo

Whistleblowers on the Rise: Praise for Snowden, criticism of President Obama

President Barack Obama and party leaders from both the Democrats and the Republicans in the House and Senate have praised the Patriot Act as an important tool in the war on terror. But the protesters see things differently, including the Libertarian former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson. He had only one piece of advice for Congress: "Repeal the Patriot Act!​​"

'Far worse than Watergate'

The law gave the secret service the authority to go against the Constitution and train its eyes and ears on the country's own citizens, said Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the NSA and a whistleblower.

"We have all become subject to the state. We are losing our rights as citizens. That's not the government I took an oath to defend," he told DW. "It is the new state religion. You don't question it. You don't dissent. Or we excommunicate you. I mean - we're going backwards." Long before former NSA analyst Edward Snowden made his revelations, Drake allegedly leaking secrets about a secret NSA surveillance program, the so-called "Trailblazer" project.

Thomas Drake, a former NSA spy and whistleblower, on 24.10.2013 in civil protests against surveillance near the Capitol in Washington DC.(Foto: Antje Passenheim / DW) - eingestellt von Andreas Grigo

Drake: "We are losing our rights as citizens"

The NSA's methods have gone beyond the wiretapping scandal in the Democratic Party headquarters that happened under President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, said Drake. "Far worse than Watergate. And I think the worst is still to come because of part of what the government is covering up." Drake said he was reminded of Nazi Germany or the Stasi State of the former East Germany. "This is why the Angela Merkel affair, in terms of directly surveilling and monitoring her cell phone, is so extraordinary personal."

The chancellor and her NSA eavesdropping revelations were also on the minds of the protesters. " Send my support to Angela Merkel," said one Washingtonian.

"One of the reasons there are eight similar marches in Germany right now is that the chancellor's cell phone has also been tapped," said African-American civil rights activist Kymone Freeman, speaking to a jeering crowd. "So let's clap our hands for the chancellor of Germany right now!"

Anti-Obama sentiment

But another NSA victim was also on the mind of the protesters: the whistleblower Edward Snowden. "We consider him a hero," said a woman holding a banner, on which she called for Snowden's immunity from prosecution. "We don't believe he is a traitor. We believe in the fact that he blew the whistle on the NSA, and that he exposed to the American people and the people in the world what they are doing. It was a great service."

Members and supporters of 'Stop Watching Us', a coalition of more than 100 public advocacy groups, protest against National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance near the US Capitol in Washington DC, USA, 26 October 2013EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

"Obamacam" - demonstrators called for the repeal of the Patriot Act

The anger of demonstrators was also directed against the man vilifying Snowden and who allowed himself to elected on a platform of fairness and transparency: President Obama. "I feel duped," said a disappointed Democrat. "George Bush has been out of office for a long time. Obama is responsible." After all, Obama has extended the Patriot Act until 2015 , giving the NSA free license to continue its practices.

But on Saturday, the president probably wasn't that aware of the anger of his citizens. Obama was a few hundred meters away in the White House, brooding over the breakdown of his health care reform. Meanwhile, the protesters tried their best to have their message reach his ears: "Stop the NSA!"

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