Ron Wyden: FISA court ‘anachronistic’

July 28, 2013

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) says he is likely to support legislative proposals to overhaul the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and is once again raising concerns over how intelligence agencies are tracking the cellphones of law-abiding Americans.


Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). (By Dennis Brack/Bloomberg News)

Wyden said in an interview airing Sunday that the secret surveillance court used by federal officials to seek further permission to track terrorism suspects "is just anachronistic."

"They're using processes that simply don't fit the times," Wyden said. "When the FISA Act was passed in the [1970s], nobody envisioned, for example, some of the astounding reach that the court has gone to with respect to the Patriot Act and its definition of relevance. The statute talks about relevance, in nowhere does it even suggest that you can collect the phone records of millions and millions of law-abiding Americans."

Wyden spoke on Sunday's episode of C-SPAN's "Newsmakers," which included questioning by a Washington Post reporter. He is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a leading critic of how the NSA has been collecting telephone and Internet records of U.S. citizens.

The senator said he is likely to support legislative proposals to overhaul the secretive court, because "it's the most one-sided legal process in the United States. I don't know of any other legal system or court that really doesn't highlight anything except one point of view." He said later that lawmakers should seek to "diversify some of the thinking on the court."

In that vein, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, is pushing a new plan to require the surveillance court to hear both sides of classified cases. And Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is proposing that judges selected to serve on the court first be confirmed by the Senate instead of just chosen by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The senator's concerns with how the intelligence community tracks Americans have gained greater attention in the months since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began leaking details of the agency's operations to The Washington Post, the Guardian newspaper and other news outlets.

When asked whether the revelations made by Snowden amounted to the only lingering concerns he had about the NSA, Wyden said that he remains troubled by how intelligence agencies might be tracking American cellphones -- a point he's been making for several days after repeated requests for clarification by top government officials.

"The government's official position is first they have the authority to do it," he said, adding later that intelligence officials "will not spell out what the rules are today with respect to the rights of Americans, law-abiding Americans with respect to cell phone-tracking.

(After the interview was taped Friday, Wyden and other senators once again complained that Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. has inadequately responded to their requests to explain how intelligence agencies are tracking telephone usage.)

Can intelligence agencies track how a person is using a cellphone to make calls, send text messages and use the Internet? Wyden couldn't say, because he is barred from publicly discussing information he's learned as a member of intelligence panel.

But, he added this: "Having that computer in your pocket increases the potential that certainly people could be tracked 24/7. And when the FBI director says in public forums when we have asked and asked repeatedly, what are the rights of law-abiding Americans with respect to cell phones, yes, I think there's a reason to be concerned."

Watch the full C-SPAN interview with Wyden, which also includes his thoughts on Syria, the state of the U.S. Senate and tax reform, by clicking here.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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