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Sen. Ron Wyden On NSA Spying: It’s As Bad As Snowden Says

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Via AlterNet:

Editor’s note: This is a transcript from a speech given on Tuesday, July 23, at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

When the Patriot Act was last reauthorized, I stood on the floor of the United States Senate and said, “I want to deliver a warning this afternoon. When the American people find out how their government has interpreted the Patriot Act, they are going to be stunned and they are going to be angry.”

From my position on the Senate Intelligence Committee, I had seen government activities conducted under the umbrella of the Patriot Act that I knew would astonish most Americans. At the time, Senate rules about classified information barred me from giving any specifics of what I’d seen except to describe it as “secret law”—a secret interpretation of the Patriot Act, issued by a secret court, that authorizes secret surveillance programs; programs that I and colleagues think go far beyond the intent of the statute.

If that is not enough to give you pause, then consider that not only were the existence of and the legal justification for these programs kept completely secret from the American people, senior officials from across the government were making statements to the public about domestic surveillance that were clearly misleading and at times simply false. Senator Mark Udall and I tried again and again to get the executive branch to be straight with the public, but under the classification rules observed by the Senate we are not even allowed to tap the truth out in Morse code ­ and we tried just about everything else we could think of to warn the American people. But as I’ve said before, one way or another, the truth always wins out.

Edward Snowden’s Revelations

Last month, disclosures made by an NSA contractor lit the surveillance world on fire. Several provisions of secret law were no longer secret and the American people were finally able to see some of the things I’ve been raising the alarm about for years. And when they did, boy were they stunned, and boy, are they angry.

You hear it in the lunch rooms, town hall meetings and senior citizen centers. The latest polling, the well­-respected Quinnipiac poll, found that a plurality of people said the government is overreaching and encroaching too much on Americans’ civil liberties. That’s a huge swing from what that same survey said just a couple years ago, and that number is trending upward. As more information about sweeping government surveillance of law­abiding Americans is made public and the American people can discuss its impacts, I believe more Americans will speak out. They’re going to say, in America, you don’t have to settle for one priority or the other: laws can be written to protect both privacy and security, and laws should never be secret.

After 9/11, when 3,000 Americans were murdered by terrorists, there was a consensus that our government needed to take decisive action. At a time of understandable panic, Congress gave the government new surveillance authorities, but attached an expiration date to these authorities so that they could be deliberated more carefully once the immediate emergency had passed. Yet in the decade since, that law has been extended several times with no public discussion about how the law has actually been interpreted. The result: the creation of an always expanding, omnipresent surveillance state that ­­ hour by hour ­­ chips needlessly away at the liberties and freedoms our founders established for us, without the benefit of actually making us any safer.

So, today I’m going to deliver another warning: If we do not seize this unique moment in our constitutional history to reform our surveillance laws and practices, we will all live to regret it. I’ll have more to say about the consequences of the omnipresent surveillance state, but as you listen to this talk, ponder that most of us have a computer in our pocket that potentially can be used to track and monitor us 24/7. The combination of increasingly advanced technology with a breakdown in the checks and balances that limit government action could lead us to a surveillance state that cannot be reversed.

What’s Happened Since 9/11

At this point, a little bit of history might be helpful. I joined the Senate Intelligence Committee in January 2001, just before 9/11. Like most senators I voted for the original Patriot Act, in part because I was reassured that it had an expiration date that would force Congress to come back and consider these authorities more carefully when the immediate crisis had passed. As time went on, from my view on the Intelligence Committee there were developments that seemed farther and farther removed from the ideals of our founding fathers.

This started not long after 9/11, with a Pentagon program called Total Information Awareness, which was essentially an effort to develop an ultra­ large-­scale domestic data­mining system. Troubled by this effort, and its not-exactly-modest logo of an all­-seeing eye on the universe, I worked with a number of senators to shut it down. Unfortunately, this was hardly the last domestic surveillance overreach. In fact, the NSA’s infamous warrantless wiretapping program was already up and running at that point, though I, and most members of the Intelligence Committee didn’t learn about it until a few years later. This was part of a pattern of withholding information from Congress that persisted throughout the Bush administration ­ I joined the Intelligence Committee in 2001, but I learned about the warrantless wiretapping program when you read about it in the New York Times in late 2005.

The Bush administration spent most of 2006 attempting to defend the warrantless wiretapping program. Once again, when the truth came out, it produced a surge of public pressure and the Bush administration announced that they would submit to oversight from Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA court. Unfortunately, because the FISA court’s rulings are secret, most Americans had no idea that the court was prepared to issue incredibly broad rulings, permitting the massive surveillance that finally made headlines last month.

It’s now a matter of public record that the bulk phone records program has been operating since at least 2007. It’s not a coincidence that a handful of senators have been working since then to find ways to alert the public about what has been going on. Months and years went into trying to find ways to raise public awareness about secret surveillance authorities within the confines of classification rules. I and several of my colleagues have made it our mission to end the use of secret law.

When Oregonians hear the words “secret law,” they have come up to me and asked, “Ron, how can the law be secret? When you guys pass laws that’s a public deal. I’m going to look them up online.” In response, I tell Oregonians that there are effectively two Patriot Acts ­­the first is the one that they can read on their laptop in Medford or Portland, analyze and understand. Then there’s the real Patriot Act—the secret interpretation of the law that the government is actually relying upon. The secret rulings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have interpreted the Patriot Act, as well as section 702 of the FISA statute, in some surprising ways, and these rulings are kept entirely secret from the public. These rulings can be astoundingly broad. The one that authorizes the bulk collection of phone records is as broad as any I have ever seen.

This reliance of government agencies on a secret body of law has real consequences. . .

Continue reading.

I continue to think Edward Snowden should get a medal. He did violate his confidentiality agreement with Booz Allen, but that is not a crime. And he has palpably helped the country by telling us what our government was doing, though of course that made the government angry since it wanted to keep all that secret from the public. But what he did was very good. And doesn’t Obama constantly tell us how he wants transparency?

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2013 at 9:53 pm

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