Senator Patrick Leahy on Wednesday called for the U.S. Congress and President George Bush to convene a conference on privacy, in the wake of recent reports that federal agencies spied on U.S. citizens and monitored protestors of the Iraqi war.
Without a new direction from the government, the U.S. is in danger of turning into a "micro-monitoring" state, where the everyday actions of normal citizens are routinely tracked, Leahy said at the Association for Computing Machinery's Life, Liberty and Digital Rights conference in Washington, D.C.
"If this continues, it won't be long before we think of privacy as a quaint 20th century idea," said Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. "Our government has no business spying on law-abiding citizens."
Leahy called on Congress and the Bush administration to convene a high-level summit, with U.S. citizens included, where participants could debate the balance between security and privacy. "Let the American people be part of this dialog," he said.
Leahy targeted the Bush administration, saying officials continue to refuse to release information about the domestic wiretapping program run by the National Security Agency. Leahy also questioned why the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security have been monitoring war protestors such as members of the Quaker religion in recent years.
"If you want to find somebody protesting the war in Iraq, you don't have to send out a surveillance crew," he said. "Turn on C-SPAN; I do it on the Senate floor all the time."
Some of the surveillance is aided by new technologies, but policies are the culprit for privacy concerns, Leahy said. It's Congress' job to check the actions of law enforcement agencies, and Congress needs to do a better job, he added.
"The technologies available today offer tools that are better, faster, smarter with scales of magnitude that are unprecedented," he said. "It changes the way we understand privacy. It's easier to delve more deeply into our private lives."