Jan 23, 2018 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

US Surveillance Programs 'Harming' Democracy, Law and Media, Says ACLU and Human Rights Watch

Jul 29, 2014 01:57 AM EDT

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a 120-page report on how the U.S. national surveillance programs are harming democracy, journalism and law.

The joint report disclosed that the U.S. government's surveillance has been "undermining media freedom and the right to counsel." As a result, the surveillance has infringed on the American people's ability to hold the government accountable.

The report, titled "With Liberty to Monitor All: How Large-Scale US Surveillance is Harming Journalism, Law, and American Democracy," consist of interviews with journalists, lawyers and U.S. government officials documenting how they are adopting methods to keep communications, sources and other confidential data safe and secure from the government.

"The United States government is collecting a huge amount of information, electronic records of emails, phone calls, actual chat conversations, photographs. Journalists are afraid that there's a record of their communications, of their interaction, and that's going to feed into a leak investigation or leak prosecution," said the report's author, Alex Sinha, an Aryeh Neier Fellow at HRW and the ACLU.

According to HRW, the U.S. has referred to itself as a "global leader on media freedom," but the 50 journalists who participated in the report found the federal government's surveillance affected their ability to report on issues concerning the public.

"We sometimes feel, or I feel, it's like you're operating like somebody in the mafia -- you have to go around with a bag full of quarters and if you can find a payphone, use it, or use what drug dealers use, throw-away burner phones," said ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross in a video for the ACLU and HRW report.

Ross said the steps some journalists have to take for the protection of the data and sources makes them feel like criminals, "like we're doing something wrong and I don't think we are. I think we're providing a useful service to Americans to know what's going on in their government and what's happening."

The ACLU and HRW noted the government's surveillance has expanded the administration's "crackdown" on leaked information. The crackdowns include restrictions between the media and intelligence officials and increased leak prosecutions. An additional concern is the Insider Threat Program, which allows federal officials to report a colleague for "suspicious" behavior such as potentially and intentionally leaking information.

Due to the expanded surveillance by the U.S. government, journalists' sources have become hesitant to converse due to losing security clearances, becoming unemployed or subject to criminal investigation.

Lawyers have also encountered difficulties. The surveillance programs have hindered lawyers' ability to keep confidential information about their clients, exposing them to discipline from their professional organizations or risk of lawsuits. Lawyers, who aim to to build a level of confidence with their clients, have also resorted to using methods to eliminate digital trails, such as burner phones or in-person meetings. The ACLU and HRW noted the "anxieties" of maintaining confidentiality harms the Constitutional right to counsel.

The ACLU and HRW, in a statement, recommends the U.S. reform its surveillance programs in order to ensure they are "targeted and legitimate," improve transparency on national security and surveillance issues and further protect the media and whistleblowers.

To read the 120-page report, click here.

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