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NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers To Self-Censor

"In October 2013, PEN partnered with independent researchers at the FDR Group to conduct a survey of over 520 American writers to better understand the specific ways in which awareness of far-reaching surveillance programs influences writers' thinking, research, and writing," PEN, the world's leading literary and human rights organization, revealed on Monday.

"The results of this survey - the beginning of a broader investigation into the harms of surveillance - substantiate PEN's concerns: writers are not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result."

Let's take a look at some of PEN's key findings.


"Freedom of expression is under threat and, as a result, freedom of information is imperiled as well.

"Fully 85% of writers responding to PEN's survey are worried about government surveillance of Americans, and 73% of writers have never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today.

"PEN has long argued that surveillance poses risks to creativity and free expression. The results of this survey - the beginning of a broader investigation into the harms of surveillance - substantiate PEN's concerns: writers are not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result."


"28% have curtailed or avoided social media activities, and another 12% have seriously considered doing so.

"24% have deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or e-mail conversations, and another 9% have seriously considered it.

"16% have avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic, and another 11% have seriously considered it."


"PEN's survey allowed participants to offer long-form comments on surveillance; PEN also invited members to share their thoughts and personal experiences via e-mail. In reviewing the responses, themes emerged centering on writers' self-censorship and fear that their communications would bring harm to themselves, their friends, or sources.

1. PEN writers now assume that their communications are monitored.

2. The assumption that they are under surveillance is harming freedom of expression by prompting writers to self-censor their work in multiple ways, including:

a) reluctance to write or speak about certain subjects;

b) reluctance to pursue research about certain subjects; and

c) reluctance to communicate with sources, or with friends abroad, for fear that they will
endanger their counterparts by doing so.


Some of the survey responses:

[D]uring the Nixon years, I took it for granted that the administration had an eye on me, and if it didn't, I wasn't doing my job. For a political cartoonist, active early on against Vietnam, one expected tax audits and phone taps. Irritating, but not intimidating. In fact, just the opposite: I was inspired. I view the current situation as far more serious, and the culpability and defensiveness of the president and his people deeply and cynically disturbing.


I write books, most recently about civil liberties, and to protect the content of certain interviews, I am very careful what I put in e-mails to sources, even those who are not requesting anonymity.

I'm also circumspect at times on the phone with them - again, even though they may not be requesting anonymity and the information is not classified.

For example, I have recently interviewed reporters who write about national security and prefer to meet in person rather than talk with me by phone. This makes the work cumbersome and time-consuming.

Some also want playbacks of their quotes so they don't inadvertently identify sources or describe precautions they take to protect them.

Some of those precautions remind me of my days as Moscow Bureau Chief of [a major news outlet] under Communism, when to communicate with dissidents and refuseniks we had to avoid substantive phone conversations, meet in person in public, etc. It's not a good feeling to have reporters' work in your own country's capital resemble ours in Moscow in the bad old days.


I was considering researching a book about civil defense preparedness during the Cold War: what were the expectations on the part of Americans and the government? What would have happened if a nuclear conflagration had taken place? What contingency plans did the government have? How did the pall of imminent disaster affect Americans?

But as a result of recent articles about the NSA, I decided to put the idea aside because, after all, what would be the perception if I Googled 'nuclear blast,' 'bomb shelters,' 'radiation,' 'secret plans,' 'weaponry,' and so on? And are librarians required to report requests for materials about fallout and national emergencies and so on? I don't know.

I guess what's most pertinent is that when I was writing my book . . . which deals with a lot of difficult material, I hesitated to research anything that could be related to child abuse/pornography (hesitate to even write that now).

I feel that increased government surveillance has had a chilling effect on my research, most of which I do on the Internet. This includes research on issues such as the drug wars and mass incarceration, which people don't think about as much as they think about foreign terrorism, but is just as pertinent.


One ramification of what the U.S. government does is that it may be taken as a blueprint for what other governments do. I am fairly sure that some of my e-mails and calls in another country have been subject to varieties of surveillance. So I'm just as concerned for what becomes 'business as usual' globally without serious pause and dialogue, as surveillance of all sorts (private and public information 'harvesting,' etc.) continues to escalate.


'Selected' for a special security search returning to the United States from Mexico twice last summer, I learned I was on a U.S. Government list. I was searched for 'cocaine' and explosives. I suspect . . . that I must have been put on the government list because of an essay I wrote . . . in which I describe finding a poem on a Libyan Jihad site, and ultimately express some sympathy for young men on the other side of the world who are tempted into jihad . . . one can see how [the poem] might be a comfort to jihadists.



"The findings of this survey and subsequent responses from PEN writers substantiate significant impingement on freedom of expression as a result of U.S. Government surveillance.

"While it may not be surprising that those who rely on free expression for their craft and livelihood feel greater unease about surveillance than most, the impact on the free flow of information should concern us all.

"As writers continue to restrict their research, correspondence, and writing on certain topics, the public pool of knowledge shrinks. What important information and perspectives will we miss? What have we missed already?"


* Filed: 22 Firsthand Accounts Of How NSA Surveillance Chilled The Right To Association.

* Claim On 'Attacks Thwarted' By NSA Spreads Despite Lack Of Evidence.

* Obama Vs. The World.

* How A Telecom Helped The Government Spy On Me.

* UN Member States Asked To End Unchecked Surveillance.

* Government Standards Agency: Don't Follow Our Encryption Guidelines Because NSA.

* Five More Organizations Join Lawsuit Against NSA.

* A Scandal Of Historic Proportions.

* Item: NSA Briefing.

* The Case Of The Missing NSA Blog Post.

* The NSA Is Out Of Control.

* Patriot Act Author Joins Lawsuit Against NSA.

* Obama's Promises Disappear From Web.

* Why NSA Snooping Is A Bigger Deal In Germany.

* Item: Today's NSA Briefing.

* NSA Briefing: It Just Got Worse (Again).

* Song of the Moment: Party at the NSA.

* It Not Only Can Happen Here, It Is Happening Here.

* What NSA Transparency Looks Like.

* America's Lying About Spying: Worse Than You Think.

* Obama Continues To Lie His Ass Off About The NSA.

* The Surveillance Reforms Obama Supported Before He Was President.

* America's Spying: Worse Than You Think.

* Has The U.S. Government Lied About Its Snooping? Let's Go To The Videotape.

* Who Are We At War With? That's Classified.

* Six Ways Congress May Reform NSA Snooping.

* NSA Says It Can't Search Its Own E-Mails.

* Does The NSA Tap That?

* Obama Explains The Difference Between His Spying And Bush's Spying.

* FAQ: What You Need To Know About The NSA's Surveillance Programs.

* NSA: Responding To This FOIA Would Help "Our Adversaries".

* Fact-Check: The NSA And 9/11.

* The NSA's Black Hole: 5 Things We Still Don't Know About The Agency's Snooping.

* Defenders Of NSA Surveillance Citing Chicago Case Omit Most Of Mumbai Plotter's Story.

* Obama's War On Truth And Transparency.

* ProPublica's Guide To The Best Stories On The Growing Surveillance State.


See also:
* Jimmy Carter: America's Shameful Human Rights Record.

* James Goodale: Only Nixon Harmed A Free Press More.

* Daniel Ellsberg: Obama Has Committed Impeachable Offenses.


Comments welcome.


Posted on November 12, 2013

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