2013 06 07 NYT Senators Wyden and Udall Warned About Surveillance – NYTimes.com
Sounding the Alarm, but With a Muted Bell
Published: June 6, 2013
WASHINGTON — When the Senate was dragooned back to the Capitol in the final days of 2012 to vote on a last-minute deal to avert a sudden tax increase, most senators bristled at the inconvenience. Senator Ron Wyden, an earnest and wonky Democrat from Oregon, instead saw opportunity to again sound his cryptic but insistent warning about the alarming scope of government surveillance.
For hours before a C-SPAN camera and a mostly empty chamber, he expounded about his concerns over the nine-year renewal of a broad Bush-era surveillance law, loading his remarks with references to Ben Franklin, colonialists and obscure semiannual intelligence reports.
“I do not take a back seat to any member of this body in terms of protecting the sources and methods of those in the intelligence community,” Mr. Wyden said. But he warned that those efforts “should never be a secret from the American people.”
Late Wednesday, the secret was exposed, bringing to light the scale of government collection of communication information in the name of national security that Mr. Wyden and another serious-minded Western Democrat — Mark Udall of Colorado — have been hinting at for years.
“The intelligence community can target individuals who have no connection to terrorist organizations,” Mr. Udall warned back in May 2011. “They can collect business records on law-abiding Americans.”
Yet shackled by strict rules on the discussion of classified information, Mr. Wyden and Mr. Udall, members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence could not — and still cannot — offer much more than an intimation about their concerns. They had to be content to sit in a special sealed room, soak in information that they said appalled and frightened them, then offer veiled messages that were largely ignored.
But after the disclosure of an April court order directing a subsidiary of the phone giant Verizon to turn over to the National Security Agency logs of virtually every business phone communication “between the United States and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls,” Mr. Wyden acknowledged that the surveillance effort outlined “is one that I have been concerned about for years.”
Still for Senators Wyden and Udall, their “I told you so” moment was as frustrating on Thursday as all of the lonely floor speeches and legislative proposals that have gone nowhere, since they still cannot publicly explain the workings of the program that has set them to worrying.
Mr. Udall was almost rueful he had not done more.
“I acted in every possible way short of leaking classified information,” he said. “I’m not going to do that.” He added, “I only wish the administration had been the first to tell the American people about this program.”
Mr. Wyden turned his palms to the air. “It’s against the Senate rules to get into the details,” he said. “Complying with those rules is what gives me an opportunity to be a watchdog for striking the balance between security and liberty.”
Becoming leading voices against federal power is not a role one might expect for two lawmakers not known as headline-grabbing prophets against government abuse of power. But they have been dogged if restrained on the issue.
“They are doing exactly the right thing,” said Russ Feingold, a Democratic former senator from Wisconsin who was also among those warning of potential abuses of the surveillance programs before losing his re-election bid in 2010. “They were trying to warn the American people.”
During his long Christmas week speech on the Senate floor in 2012, Mr. Wyden offered an amendment that would have forced public disclosure of the impact of secret surveillance on the privacy of ordinary citizens. The amendment failed 43-52, with five senators not bothering to vote.
“I have felt occasionally like I was on a mountaintop shouting across to another mountaintop at Senator Wyden,” Mr. Udall said, “but we have been persistent.”
To some colleagues, the news of the surveillance program was vindication for the two senators. Senator Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont and perhaps the Senate’s most liberal member, was almost grudging in his commendation.
“People like Ron Wyden and Mark Udall have been doing their best to try to talk about it,” Mr. Sanders said. “They’ve been talking about it as best they could.”
But Senators Wyden and Udall are no Bernie Sanders, nor are they Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who has made his name railing against all manner of national security intrusions. Mr. Rand called the surveillance revelation “an astounding assault on the Constitution.”
Mr. Wyden is a policy iconoclast who infuriated his party last year by joining with Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, on a sweeping Medicare proposal that took some of the sting out of Democratic attacks on Republican Medicare plans during the 2012 elections.
Mr. Udall has made a name for himself by climbing some of the largest peaks in the world and joining with Republicans on proposals that have gotten little traction, like his effort with Senator Susan Collins of Maine to give all agencies more flexibility to deal with the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
But just because their moment on national security may have come does not mean changes to the surveillance program are inevitable. The most senior voices on Capitol Hill on Thursday were either silent or defended the telephone dragnet.
“We’re always open to changes, but that doesn’t mean that there will be any,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee. She was the senator who went to the Senate floor in December to slap Mr. Wyden’s last effort down.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.