Covert mass automated surveillance of Internet and telephone communications by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) continued to come under fire from Capitol Hill this week even as whistleblower Bradley Manning, the army intelligence officer allegedly behind Wikileaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of confidential government documents, awaited a military judge’s verdict in the ongoing case against him.
In Washington, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden described as “anachronistic” the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, the shadowy judicial panel charged with authorising the NSA to collect data on users of services provided by major Internet companies such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook.
The NSA’s surveillance has come under closer scrutiny after Edward Snowden, a former CIA and NSA contractor, passed on information to The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers last month regarding details of a spying programme called PRISM, among others.
Last week, pressure began to mount in the U.S. Congress to review the working of the FISA Court after the House of Representatives came unprecedentedly close to passing a bill aimed at defunding the spy agency’s ongoing efforts to secretly scoop up “meta-data”, or call information, of millions of unsuspecting customers of telecom giant Verizon.
In addition to Mr. Wyden’s sharp criticism of the FISA Court, another Democratic Senator, Mark Udall said over the weekend that the phone-record monitoring programme of the NSA was “close to being unconstitutional”, and that he would much rather have that data held by the phone companies. Mr. Udall said, “If we need to get access to it, the FISA court can issue a warrant. That’s how the police operate. That's how the FBI operates.”
Even as the beltway continued to face rising temperatures over NSA’s surveillance, some 45 minutes out of Washington, Mr. Manning was on the brink of receiving a verdict from military judge Denise Lind on U.S. government allegations that include “Aiding the Enemy”, typically a capital offence.
Though prosecutors have agreed to drop pursuit of the death penalty in Mr. Manning’s case, he potentially has pleaded guilty to 10 of 22 charges which already brings his sentence, if he is found guilty, to 20 years imprisonment.
If convicted of other charges relating to aiding the enemy, espionage, stealing government property, and “wanton publication”, Mr. Manning (25) could potentially get life plus 149 years in a military prison.
The past week has witnessed media representatives on the site, including noted journalist Alexa O’ Brien and Bradley Manning Support Network writer Nathan Fuller, protest against aggressive security measures by armed military police at Fort Meade military base.