NSA Director US Army General Keith Alexander at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on recently disclosed NSA surveillance programs. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Senator Ron Wyden’s speech at the Center for American Progress on Tuesday morning was a pivotal moment in the emerging debate over domestic surveillance—the senator, who was one of the first to warn the public that the government was interpreting the Patriot Act in a “shocking” fashion, issued yet another important warning.
Without immediate action to address an ever-expanding surveillance state, the country risks entrenching an apparatus that “cannot be reversed,” he said.
The Patriot Act and the subsequent expansion of its authority by both Congress and the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has led to “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,” he said.
“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,” Wyden continued. “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.”
Wyden wants the administration to disclose the FISC opinions that have created a secret body of law governing domestic surveillance by the NSA. He has co-sponsored a Senate bill to that effect, and repeatedly hammered at the problem of secret laws in his speech.
“When the American people are in the dark, they can’t make fully informed decisions about who should represent them, or protest policies that they disagree with. These are fundamentals. It’s Civics 101,” Wyden said. “And secret law violates those basic principles. It has no place in America.”
The speech offered an elevated platform for that demand, but also came at a pivotal time in Washington, as real signs of action towards curbing domestic surveillance are beginning to materialize.
Before Wyden took the stage, John Podesta—a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and a well-respected figure in the Democratic apparatus in DC—called for a presidential-level commission to evaluate laws around domestic surveillance and data-gathering, both by the government and private companies.
And across town on Tuesday, Congress was also preparing for the first real legislative challenge to the NSA’s surveillance power as we understand it now, post–Edward Snowden.
Representative Justin Amash created an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that would strip funding for the NSA (which is part of the Pentagon) to conduct broad, dragnet surveillance of American citizens. It would leave in place funding for surveillance of specific communications and records of a non-US person that is under investigation, which is how most people originally understood the government’s authority under the Patriot Act.