Wyden is trying to tell us something about the opinion justifying the phone records program

October 14, 2013

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), arguably the most important person on the hill to listen to when it comes to NSA surveillance. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

If the public and the media should learn one thing from the revelations from former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, it's to pay very careful attention to what Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) says. So if he hints that there's something worth reading in the original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court opinion justifying the NSA's bulk collection of domestic phone records, that should serve as a bat signal to privacy advocates. And a report from our Post colleagues Carol Leonnig and Ellen Nakashima shows he is doing just that:

"The original legal interpretation that said that the Patriot Act could be used to collect Americans’ records in bulk should never have been kept secret and should be declassified and released," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement to The Washington Post. "This collection has been ongoing for years and the public should be able to compare the legal interpretation under which it was originally authorized with more recent documents."

That last part suggests that there are some meaningful differences between what has been disclosed so far and the full story. There is an ongoing effort to declassify the original 80-odd page opinion from then-Chief FISA Court Justice Colleen Kollar-Kotelly. But as of right now, the only things available are the leaked reauthorization from Snowden, a Justice Department white paper, and a 29-page opinion from August defending the phone records program.

As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wyden has access to more details about intelligence community activities than almost anyone not part of them carrying them out. And for years he has asked very pointed questions in public hearings, argued for declassification of significant FISA Court opinions, and introduced legislation aimed at curbing spying programs. You might remember that time just months before the NSA documents came out that one of Wyden's questions caught Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in what sounded an awful lot like a lie about if the U.S. collected any sort of data on U.S. persons. If not, we've helpfully included the video below.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) recently called him a sort of "congressional whistleblower." But because of the classified nature of many of the things he is objecting to, often Wyden has been forced to keep his warnings vague. For instance, he warned that "when the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry,” on the Senate floor in May 2011.

But there are other times his efforts have been more explicit — for instance, his repeated suggestions that Americans should be worried about the privacy of their geolocation data. Not only did he bring it up during speeches and hearings, he's introduced legislation addressing the topic for the past several years.

Wyden has been so dogged about geolocation that the NSA did finally give him some sort of on-the-record response, admitting that they ran a test program a few years ago. But he has implied that that's not a full answer, saying their response still leaves "most of the real story secret."

Considering Wyden's history of nudging the conversation toward meaningful disclosure, I'd be willing to bet there's more for us to learn about geolocation programs. Just like I'm willing to bet there's something interesting in the original FISA Court justification for the bulk collection of domestic phone records. Because if the ongoing surveillance debate is a coal mine, Wyden is the canary for privacy issues.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Andrea Peterson · October 14, 2013