Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) believes now is the time to begin to rein in the secret government surveillance that began in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Speaking at the Center for American Progress Action Fund on Tuesday, the senior senator from Oregon said, “If we do not seize this unique moment in our constitutional history to reform our surveillance laws and practices, we are all going to live to regret it.”
The “unique moment” Wyden is referring to follows the leaks of classified documents by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden earlier this year, including one that showed a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court decision authorizing mass collection of cellphone metadata from millions of Americans.
Wyden used his speech to trace how America got to this point, noting that he voted for the original PATRIOT Act in 2001 under the belief that increased governmental powers were temporarily necessary in the wake of the unprecedented terrorist attack on American soil.
He noted that the Bush administration had a “pattern of withholding information from Congress.” He joined the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2001 but didn’t learn about NSA’s warrantless wireless surveillance until he read about it in the newspaper in 2005.
Under pressure, the Bush administration submitted the program to the FISA court. But that court has led to what Wyden calls “secret laws.”
“There are effectively two PATRIOT Acts,” he said. There’s one you can read and the secret rulings that interpret the law, which are not available to the public. I can tell you that those rulings can be astoundingly broad.”
The senator stated that Americans recognize intelligence agencies sometimes need to conduct classified activities but the laws that guide them should not be secret. “That’s not the way we do it in America,” he said. “We do not keep laws secret.”
He added historical context by invoking an era when America actually faced an existential threat from a foreign enemy.
“Even at the height of the Cold War, the Congress said we’re going to make surveillance laws public.”
Wyden stated, “Secret law has no place in America” because “when Americans are in the dark they cannot make informed decisions about who they want to represent them.”
He then turned to the FISA court, which he joked that few people had heard of a few months ago but now he gets asked about at the barber shop.
The court was designed to review requests for intelligence wiretaps in the late 1970s. It was actually a governmental reform enacted in the wake of revelations of government spying on such figures as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After 9/11, the court got new powers to interpret broad laws in “startling” ways.