Amash, along with Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), sponsored an amendment that would have severely limited the government’s ability to collect Americans’ telephone records. It failed Wednesday in the House by a surprisingly close vote of 217 to 205.
“I have come to admire him very much,” Amash said of Wyden.
So Wyden finally has the audience he sought. All it took was Snowden. This is an awkward fact of Wyden’s success: To get anyone’s attention, the senator needed somebody else to break the laws that he would not.
“This debate should have started long, long, long ago. And it should have been started by elected officials and not by a government contractor,” Wyden said Friday.
He said he spent years trying to start the debate, without actually saying what the debate was about.
This was strange work. Many members of Wyden’s staff did not have security clearances, so even they had trouble figuring out what he was trying to say.
“It’s like Minesweeper,” former Wyden staffer Jennifer Hoelzer told The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein in June, referring to the computer game in which players slowly probe unknown territory, looking for bombs. “You just have to ask questions to try to get the outlines of what they’re not telling you. Because they can’t tell you what they’re not telling you.”
In public, Wyden began a kind of Mad Libs campaign, leaving big blanks for others to fill in. He said a “secret law” had begun to guide U.S. intelligence-gathering. The George W. Bush administration, and then the Obama administration, had privately stretched the powers granted by the Patriot Act far beyond the letter of the law.
But he didn’t say how or how far.
The answer wasn’t learned until Snowden appeared: The government had persuaded a secret court to allow the “bulk collection” of records on Americans’ phone calls.
Instead of targeting just the calls of terrorism suspects, the program records “metadata” for millions of calls between average Americans. This includes the numbers dialed and the duration of calls, but not the content of calls. Intelligence officials have defended this program, saying their ability to connect phone numbers has led them to disrupt dozens of terrorist plots in the United States and overseas.
A separate program collected metadata on e-mail and other online communications. It stopped in 2011; Wyden said he lobbied hard to close it in secret meetings with intelligence officials.
‘Trolling for leaks’
Today, Wyden’s wink-and-nod activism is praised by electronic privacy groups. They said the senator told them where to look for abuses, mentioning specific sections of the law that were being misused.
Others see something less laudatory: a senator who was tip-toeing on the edge of secrecy rules.