He said America was "abandoning its role as a champion of human rights", and called on Washington to "reverse course and regain moral leadership".
Revelations that US officials were targeting people including their own citizens abroad were "only the most recent disturbing proof" of how far such violations had extended, he wrote in the New York Times.
At a time when popular revolutions were sweeping the globe, the US should be strengthening, not weakening, "basic rules of law and principles of justice", Carter said.
Attacks on human rights after 9/11 had been "sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public", he said. "As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues."
Carter added: "While the country has made mistakes in the past, the widespread abuse of human rights over the last decade has been a dramatic change from the past."
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 with US leadership, "has been invoked by human rights activists and the international community to replace most of the world's dictatorships with democracies and to promote the rule of law in domestic and global affairs," he said. More