Three weeks ago, declassified materials revealed that in 2011 a federal judge had admonished the National Security Agency for its spying practices, a far-reaching endeavor that involved collecting tens of thousands of domestic emails without a warrant. The NSA, the judge said, was also guilty of repeatedly misleading the court about its practices.
This revelation did not come as news to Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat who has long been an outspoken critic of the NSA's surveillance techniques. Last summer, Wyden pushed the NSA to reveal more information about its wiretapping programs. It was then that he stated concern about the NSA's "back-door search loopholes"—essentially, shady spying tactics that are allowing the NSA to conduct searches of our emails and phone calls without warrants, as well as changing legal rules to allow the NSA to search massive databases for information on Americans, as well as foreigners. As more details come forward about the extent and practices of the NSA searches, Wyden has continued to make national news as the lead critic of these tactics.
This week, we award Wyden a much-deserved Glass Slipper for his plain, but outspoken, rebukes and criticisms of the NSA tactics. And, we encourage him to continue questioning and challenging an intelligence agency that has gone unchecked for too long.
Acting as a "privacy watchdog," as Wyden has dubbed himself, hasn't been easy. The senior senator is one of 15 members on the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, an oversight committee, a position that provides Wyden access to highly sensitive information that few others ever see. In this position, it is his duty to keep this information classified, but it is also his job as a public representative to call foul when he believes that the government is crossing legal and moral lines. When he learned about the apparent malpractice of the NSA, his hands were tied because he wasn't authorized to disclose details; in fact, he was sworn to do the exact opposite.
But thankfully Wyden made noise. And with the NSA practice dragged into public view, it seems clear the NSA overstepped its bounds and infringed on the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Yes Wyden's committee peers all have failed—with the exception of Sen. Mark Udall (D-Utah)—to join him in blowing the whistle.
Judge John D. Bates, the federal judge serving on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court who made the 2011 ruling that was only recently made public, validated Wyden's claims. The New York Times reported that Bates wrote: "The court is troubled that the government's revelations regarding NSA's acquisition of Internet transactions mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program."
This wasn't the first time the NSA went rogue. A 2009 ruling stated that NSA's search methods had been "so frequently and systematically violated that it can fairly be said that this critical element of the overall ... regime has never functioned effectively."
Critics will argue that, after a tragedy like 9/11, which marked its 12th anniversary at presstime, we need aggressive measures in place. Wyden wouldn't wholly disagree. And he said as much during a recent Portland City Club forum, admitting that some surveillance is needed. But, he pointed out, the hulking collection of Americans' phone records has provided little, if any, useful information.
Look, protecting our country against attack—foreign or domestic—is no easy business. We're well aware of the need for secrets and the ability to act swiftly and precisely. But when an already secretive agency admits to wrongdoing—that it was in fact analyzing more of Americans' data than claimed—then it's time for change.
Wyden is right to question the NSA's ability to search email and phone records at will, without the consent of Congress or warrants. It is our hope that more elected officials find bravery in Wyden's wise words and join him in bringing about surveillance reform.