In the wake of leaks to the press of extremely sensitive NSA programs by former NSA technician Edward Snowden, some are lionizing Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) for his supposed lonely quest objecting to these programs.
Senator Wyden claims he has long objected to the programs leaked by Snowden as serious threats to the civil liberties of Americans but was unable to say anything publicly about his objections or force changes to end these programs because of Senate Intelligence Committee rules on classified matters.
This is not true.
First, it is important to emphasize that the NSA programs in question which involve collecting and storing cell phone metadata and internet activity by Americans are under strict controls and oversight. There is no evidence these programs have ever been abused and it is unclear whether some controversial new NSA monitoring efforts have ever been used.
The House and Senate intelligence committees carefully oversee programs like those leaked to the news media by Snowden. From my five years on the House Intelligence Committee staff, I can attest that these types of intelligence programs are vigorously debated by both intelligence committees. There are many people inside and outside of Congress that have faulted congressional review of these programs not because these reviews have been lacking but because they don’t like the outcome.
Senator Wyden objected to the NSA programs leaked by Snowden, but the majority of House and Senate intelligence committee members disagreed with him. This included liberal Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and the liberal Democratic ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.).
Wyden unsuccessfully tried to pass amendments to stop these programs in closed Senate Intelligence Committee sessions and his concerns were fully debated. Since the intelligence committees don’t operate on the basis of consensus, some members – usually more radical members like Wyden – do not always get what they want.
Simply put, most Senate Intelligence Committee members – including most Democratic committee members as well as Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) – thought Wyden was wrong.
Unable to win over the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Wyden claims there was nothing more he could do about his objections to the NSA programs for classification reasons.
In fact, there are many things a senator on the intelligence committee can do to express his or her concerns in a situation like this. Wyden could have put holds on nominations. He could have filibustered legislation. Wyden could have written to President Obama and demanded a meeting with him.
If these steps failed, Senator Wyden – if he truly believed the NSA programs were a serious threat to the civil liberties of Americans – could have denounced them from the floor of the Senate and explained his concerns. Under the speech and debate clause of the U.S Constitution, Wyden could not be prosecuted or kicked out of the Senate for doing this.
Wyden probably would have been kicked off the intelligence committee if he revealed the NSA programs from the Senate floor, but I believe if he truly felt these programs posed a threat to the American people, he was morally obligated to do this. Being thrown off the intelligence committee would have been a small price to pay for his convictions.
So why didn’t Senator Wyden start this debate himself by going to the floor of the Senate? I see two possible reasons for this.
First, despite his claims to the contrary, Wyden may not have thought these programs were as bad as he is now claiming, certainly not bad enough to be forced off the intelligence committee. He also knew other intelligence committeeDemocrats disagreed with him and would not back him up.
Second, Wyden might have thought the NSA programs were a serious threat but he also did not want to lose the power, access and status of membership on the intelligence committee.
Either way, Wyden is hardly the lonely crusader against NSA abuses that his supporters claim he is.
Senator Ron Wyden did not need Edward Snowden to start a debate over the NSA programs. If Wyden felt the NSA programs were a serious threat to the civil liberties of Americans and he was unable to stop them through other means, he should have started a public debate about them himself by denouncing these programs from the floor of the Senate. Because Wyden did not do this, it is hard to take seriously his claims about this issue and his demands for reforms.
Fred Fleitz served for 25 years in U.S. national security positions with the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee. He is currently Chief Analyst with LIGNET.com, Newsmax Media’s global intelligence and forecasting service.
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