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US citizens descend on Washington over NSA surveillance

Thousands target Capitol Hill over government spying

Thousands of protesters have swarmed around Capitol Hill in Washington to protest against the US government's online surveillance programmes.

People carried signs reading: "Stop Mass Spying," "Thank you, Edward Snowden" and "Unplug Big Brother" as they gathered at the foot of the Capitol to demonstrate against online surveillance by the National Security Agency.

Organisers said more than 2,000 attended from both ends of the political spectrum, as privacy advocates walked alongside members of the ultra-conservative Tea Party movement in opposition to unlawful government spying on citizens.

The event was organised by a coalition known as Stop Watching Us, which consists of over 100 public advocacy groups and companies, including the American Civil Liberties Union, privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation and Occupy Wall Street NYC.

The groups have been urging Congress to reform the legal framework supporting NSA online data-gathering since former US government contractor Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the vast NSA spying programme.

The Obama administration has defended the NSA programmes as crucial in protecting US national security, claiming that it has helped to thwart past militant plots. 

It has claimed the programmes are overseen by Congress and the courts.

But Mr Snowden's disclosures have raised concerns that NSA surveillance may span not just foreign but domestic online and phone communication.

"We are calling on Congress to take immediate action to halt this surveillance and provide a full public accounting of the NSA and FBI data collection programmes," Stop Watching Us said in a letter to members of Congress, calling for reform of the Patriot Act.

The law marked its 12th anniversary on Saturday. 

It was passed in 2001 and is now under scrutiny by privacy advocates who say it allows "dragnet" data-gathering.

"Our representatives in Congress tell us this is not surveillance. 

"They're wrong," Mr Snowden said in a statement before Saturday's rally. 

His latest disclosures showed that the US may have tapped the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, adding to growing outrage against US data-gathering practices abroad and prompting frantic phone calls between Ms Merkel and President Barack Obama.

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