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Reform Jewish Movement Coordinates Interfaith Letter on “Warrantless Wiretapping”

Saperstein: This letter is grounded in a shared commitment to liberty and respect for the individual that is prevalent both in our respective faith traditions and in American values.

Contact: Emily Kane or Liz Kaplan
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WASHINGTON, DC , JUNE 23, 2006 – After the Senate Judiciary Committee again postponed consideration of several bills addressing the National Security Agency’s (NSA) program of domestic warrantless wiretapping, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism today sent a letter to the Senate on behalf of  11 major denominations and faith groups that expresses concerns about the program. Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center, noted that the letter is “Grounded in a shared commitment to liberty and respect for the individual that is prevalent both in our respective faith traditions and in American values.”  The letter, Saperstein explained, “urges – at minimum – further investigation of the NSA program before Congress allows it to continue without significant oversight.”  A copy of the letter and its signatories is below.

Dear Senator Specter and Senator Leahy:

As a matter of faith and conscience, we, the undersigned religious organizations, urge you to further investigate the National Security Agency’s (NSA) program of conducting warrantless electronic surveillance on citizens and non-citizens inside the United States.

In the 1970s, the Church Committee released findings of widespread, unregulated surveillance by multiple intelligence agencies. Among the Church Committee’s findings was: “Domestic intelligence activity has threatened and undermined the constitutional rights of Americans to free speech, association, and privacy… It has done so primarily because the constitutional system for checking abuse of power has not been applied.”

That system led Congress to pass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978 to be the “exclusive means” by which electronic surveillance may be conducted. In part, FISA was approved in response to revelations that former President Nixon was using “national security” claims to spy on American citizens. Designed to oversee surveillance of agents of foreign powers, FISA intentionally sets a low standard of proof for obtaining a warrant. Additionally, if in an emergency the government needs to begin electronic surveillance of a suspect before it can obtain a warrant, FISA allows the government to initiate surveillance of a target for up to 72 hours before applying for a warrant. The question as to why, given such broad powers under FISA, the government needs to ignore the laws passed by Congress requires – at minimum – further investigation.

Our faith traditions cherish liberty, respect for every person and the freedom to speak out without fear of retribution. We are equally committed to our nation’s security and do not find these two goals mutually exclusive. Indeed, respect for civil liberties and human rights strengthens any nation.

We believe that to allow the NSA program to continue without full understanding of its scope and impact violates basic American values and endangers civil liberties protections enshrined in the Fourth Amendment. It also accepts as normal an atmosphere of government secrecy, distrust, and ambiguous legality—representing a step backward on our quest to create a just, moral, and equitable society.

We urge you to do everything in your power to ensure that the NSA wiretapping program is fully and transparently investigated in a non-partisan fashion. Upon completion of such an investigation, we hope that should any individuals or entities be identified as breaking our nation’s laws, they will be held accountable, and that Congress will consider legislation aimed both at preventing further abuses and at addressing any shortcomings that are revealed in our intelligence system. Our nation needs a system that can react quickly to real terrorist threats, but that does not place unchecked power in the hands of any one individual or government agency.

We have faith that America can maintain its security without being driven by fear to surrender the liberties secured through the sacrifices of past generations. Equally, our collective conscience compels us to oppose such reversals.

In faith,

African American Ministers in Action
American Friends Service Committee
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Jewish Reconstructionist Federation
The Interfaith Alliance
The Rabbinical Assembly
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society
Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations
Union for Reform Judaism

CC:  Members of the Senate

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the
Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 1800 Reform rabbis.

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