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Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton
District of Columbia Subcommittee Hearing on
Privacy v. Security: Electronic Surveillance in the Nation’s Capital
March 22, 2002




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Congress of the United States
House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 211515

Statement of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton
District of Columbia Subcommittee Hearing on
"Privacy v. Security: Electronic Surveillance in the Nation's Capital"

March 22, 2002

I appreciate the leadership of our chair, Connie Morella, in focusing our subcommittee on important issues of privacy raised by security threats and technology that have become a special concern since the September 11 attacks. The surveillance cameras at issue were initiated before September 11, however. Initially, they were not used because of terrorist threats to our security, but for law enforcement purposes at national events where lawlessness from demonstrators and others sometimes occurs. Thus, it seems clear that as technology becomes available, government, like the rest of us, gravitates toward its use. However, government is not like citizens with a new toy. There are deeply felt cultural norms and critical constitutional limits on how public officials may carry out their work, even responsibilities as important as public safety. For Americans, where cameras that view residents should be placed is not merely a security issue. Personal privacy and the right to be left alone, especially from interference by government, is an identifying characteristic of what it means to be an American. Nevertheless, much of what we focus on today is unchartered territory. Our subcommittee is one of the first in Congress to investigate surveillance cameras that are used for security purposes.

Such cameras in the District present a particularly difficult case for arriving at the appropriate balance in a society like ours. As the nation's capital, the District is a presumed terrorist target, and, as the use of the surveillance cameras here even before September 11 shows, the city also is the foremost site for many national and international events that have the potential to generate harm to residents and visitors and damage to property. The cameras are now connected to the District's Joint Operations Command Center, and I want to especially commend Council member Kathy Patterson, chair of the City Council's Committee on the Judiciary, for promptly calling witnesses and for planning further hearings concerning the surveillance cameras. The city's first hearing has uncovered important information and already is leading to remedial action.

This subcommittee has larger federal concerns that affect not only the District, but national concerns. Even the District's use of camera surveillance was motivated by security needs at national and international events, and, already, the District's system is trending toward other federal uses that may rapidly become significantly greater than local involvement. Initially, at least five of thirteen locations are related to federal sites. Already, three more federal agencies may be seeking connections. There is no way to avoid the conclusion that in the new era of global terrorism, the District's camera surveillance system is inevitably already part and parcel of the nation's Homeland defense. As such, the surveillance is likely to be imitated in other locations, especially in the many jurisdictions where there is a federal presence.

The need to assure greater security in the nation's capital and elsewhere, especially following September 11, is beyond debate. Today, however, we will want to know more about the uses to which the system is being and could be put, how and when the system is used, its limits, its known benefits and dangers, and what the surveillance has accomplished so far. As perhaps the first such surveillance system in the country, there is a heavy burden on users to set the appropriate example and to do it right.
However, public officials here are caught in a dilemma not of their own making. Like other officials throughout the country, they are being asked to respond to the unknown with no precedents to guide them. I believe that it is both unfair and dangerous for the national government to ask local and state officials to figure out the plethora of complicated issues involving security, privacy, and openness no society in the history of the world has had to face, without any federal guidance.

However, the federal government itself faces the same complicated challenge: to protect the people while maintaining their constitutionally guaranteed rights. The example that the federal government is offering leaves much to be desired. Federal officials are quickly throwing up new approaches and systems - from shutdowns, barricades, and public exclusion, to camera surveillance, wholesale round-ups and electronic surveillance, without regard to the Fourth Amendment or other constitutional protections, and without notice and public hearings, or even any public explanation.

Civil libertarians are right to question much about this response, and public officials are right to revitalize their responsibility to protect the public with new and increased seriousness. However, both the general public and public officials need more explicit guidance from the federal government. Yet, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has all he can do simply to catch up to an increasing set of new demands created by September 11, most of them just beginning to take on the basics, such as calibrated alerts and the security safeguards that are necessary to fully reopen National Airport.

Because both the local and federal governments face the same dilemma, it is particularly unjustifiable that nearly all the federal officials invited to testify today have declined. They are the Office of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Capitol Police, and the United States Secret Service. Particularly since most of the new security needs or requirements are federal in origin, the least that Congress is entitled to is the kind of testimony that can be presented without harm to national security. When even that testimony is withheld, complaints from administration agencies concerning any legislation that results will be unavailing. I believe that a more cooperative and forthright approach that faces these dilemmas head on, together trying to find solutions, is what is needed. 

To help sort out the conundrum of at once opening the society and closing down terrorism, I will shortly be introducing the Open Society with Security Act along with a Senate cosponsor. The bill would authorize a presidential commission to bring together the best minds in the society to investigate how our country can meet the high standards necessary to effectively fight the dangerous menace of international terrorism while accommodating and affirming the central American values of privacy, openness, and public access. Like the Kerner Commission, the Open Society with Security Commission would help us to chart a safe course through deep waters without surrendering the very values that lead us to insist upon defending our country and our way of life.

We can do better than blunt and often untested and ineffective instruments that crush our liberty. I spent my early years at the bar as assistant legal director for the national ACLU, and today I have responsibilities for national security as a member of Congress. My experience in both roles has reenforced my confidence that American ingenuity is ready for the new challenge of winning the struggle against dangerous and dogmatic terrorism and maintaining and enriching the free and open, democratic society that virtually defines our country.

I welcome today's witnesses and appreciate their testimony. I am certain that when we have heard them, all of us will be in a better position to find the appropriate solutions.

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