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Experts, Public Debate Warrantless Surveillance At Packed Town Hall Meeting

Experts debated with a standing-room-only crowd of New Yorkers last night at a Town Hall Meeting that produced open dialogue on the implications of the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program and other federal incursions into private affairs.

The town hall meeting, which the New York Civil Liberties Union held at New York University Law School, began with short talks by a panel of experts – some critical of the programs in question, some supportive of those programs – and then transitioned into an open conversation between the panelists and the crowd. Two lively hours later, the dialogue was still going strong.

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman and Field Director Udi Ofer opened the meeting by encouraging New Yorkers to engage in informed debate about liberty and security. “With our government conducting so much of its work these days in secret meetings and secret trials and signing secret executive orders and issuing secret gag orders,” Lieberman said, “we though it appropriate to provide a forum where New Yorkers could discuss these important issues in a free, open, public forum.”

Panelists and audience members made connections between warrantless wiretapping and recent revelations that the Bush administration has assumed expanded power to open American’s personal mail and collect citizens’ private financial records.

Arguing against warrantless wiretapping were Patrick Radden Keefe of the Century Foundation; Tara McKelvey, senior editor for The American Prospect and a plaintiff in the ACLU’s case against the NSA; Ann Beeson, Associate Legal Director of the ACLU and lead attorney in that case; and Congressman Jerrold Nadler, addressing the audience via recording.

Nadler suggested that the president’s usurpations of power may “constitute high crimes and misdemeanors in the Constitutional sense” and promised that the U.S. House of Representatives Constitution Subcommittee, which he chairs, would hold investigations into the warrantless domestic surveillance program.

McKelvey explained that she joined the lawsuit after realizing that she could not promise her interviewees confidentiality in their telephone conversations. She recalled once interviewing the sister of a former high-level Baathist official, who had herself been subjected to aggressive interrogation techniques by the United States military and was worried about revealing the painful details of her experience. Because of the possibility that their conversation was being monitored, McKelvey was not able to guarantee the woman’s confidentiality on this incredibly sensitive issue.

Andrew McCarthy, former supervisor of the U.S. Attorney’s Anti-Terrorism Command Post in New York City, made a case for the NSA’s surveillance program. McCarthy argued that the Fourth Amendment only prohibits “unreasonable” search and seizure and that, in a time of war, warrantless domestic surveillance is a reasonable practice.

Also arguing in favor of warrantless wiretapping and other federal incursions into private activities were Timothy Bakken, Professor of Law at West Point Military Academy, and Tim Connors, Director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center on Policing Terrorism.

Transcripts of some panelists’ initial presentations and a video recording of the event will be available later this week on this website.

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