"This means that the government’s authority to collect information on law-abiding American citizens is essentially limitless"

"This means that the government’s authority to collect information on law-abiding American citizens is essentially limitless"

by digby

Senator Ron Wyden is not an Obama hating emo-prog. He is a US Senator with Top Secret clearance and he knows all the details of these NSA surveillance programs and understands the implications of them in a free society. It would be advisable for those who think that this story can be discounted because you think Edward Snowden is a traitor or Glenn Greenwald is a twitter asshole to read Wyden's entire speech today to Center for American Progress.

Here are some excerpts:

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Tuesday urged the United States to revamp its surveillance laws and practices, warning that the country will "live to regret it" if it fails to do so.

"If we do not seize this unique moment in our constitutional history to reform our surveillance laws and practices, we will all live to regret it," Wyden said during a keynote address on the National Security Agency's data collection programs hosted by the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

"The combination of increasingly advanced technology with a breakdown in the checks and balances that limit government action could lead us to a surveillance state that cannot be reversed," he added.

Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that people's smartphones can be used as a tracking device to monitor their whereabouts and activities. He argued that privacy protections need to be put in place so the government cannot engage in mobile phone tracking in the future.

"The piece of technology we consider vital to the conduct of our everyday personal and professional life … happens to be a combination phone bug, listening device, location tracker and hidden camera," he said.

"Without adequate protections built into the law there’s no way that Americans can ever be sure that the government isn’t going to interpret its authorities more and more broadly, year after year, until the idea of a tele-screen monitoring your every move turns from dystopia to reality," Wyden added.

The Oregon Democrat said the government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act beyond the intent of the law to operate controversial surveillance programs. He criticized senior intelligence officials for making "misleading statements" to the public and Congress about the surveillance programs.

Wyden was unsparing in his criticism of the government's interpretation of surveillance laws and derided the oversight power of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The government has essentially kept people in the dark about their broad interpretations of the law, he said. Wyden tells constituents there are two Patriot Acts: One they read online at home and "the secret interpretation of the law that the government is actually relying upon."

"If Americans are not able to learn how their government is interpreting and executing the law then we have effectively eliminated the most important bulwark of our democracy," he said.

The National Security Agency has come under scrutiny for using the Patriot Act to collect the telephone records — including the numbers that consumers call and the duration of those calls — of U.S. citizens. The phone metadata collection program came to light after former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified documents about them to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

But Wyden claims "there is nothing in the Patriot Act that limits this sweeping bulk collection to phone records." He said the government could use its authority under the law to collect and store sensitive information such as medical records or credit card purchases, or "develop a database of gun owners or readers of books and magazines deemed subversive."

"This means that the government’s authority to collect information on law-abiding American citizens is essentially limitless," he said.

I have not been able to understand why so many otherwise responsible liberals and progressives have so blithely dismissed these revelations when we have Senators like Wyden, Udall and Merkley running around with their hair on fire about it. This didn't start with Edward Snowden --- these people have been trying to sound the alarm for years and nobody listened. That's what happens when these programs are classified, the people in the know are appalled and cannot say anything about it.

Wyden's speech lays out all the reasons why these programs are wrong and intimates strongly that we still don't know the full scope of what they are doing. Has he committed treason too?

When the Patriot Act was last reauthorized, I stood on the floor of the United States Senate and said “I want to deliver a warning this afternoon.When the American people find out how their government has interpreted the Patriot Act, they are going to be stunned and they are going to be angry.” From my position on the Senate Intelligence Committee, I had seen government activities conducted under the umbrella of the Patriot Act that I knew would astonish most Americans.

I joined the Senate Intelligence Committee in January 2001, just before 9/11. Like most senators I voted for the original Patriot Act, in part, because I was reassured that it had an expiration date that would force Congress to come back and consider these authorities more carefully when the immediate crisis had passed.

As time went on, from my view on the Intelligence Committee there were developments that seemed farther and farther removed from the ideals of our Founding Fathers. This started not long after 9/11, with a Pentagon program called Total Information Awareness,which was essentially an effort to develop an ultra-large-scale domestic data-mining system. Troubled by this effort, and its not exactly modest logo of an all-seeing eye on the universe, I worked with a number of senators to shut it down.

Unfortunately, this was hardly the last domestic surveillance overreach. In fact, the NSA’s infamous warrantless wiretapping program was already up and running at that point, though I, and most members of the Intelligence Committee didn’t learn about it until a few years later. This was part of a pattern of withholding information from Congress that persisted throughout the Bush administration - I joined the Intelligence Committee in 2001, but I learned about the warrantless wiretapping program when you read about it in the New York Times in late 2005.

The Bush administration spent most of 2006 attempting to defend the warrantless wiretapping program. Once again, when the truth came out, it produced a surge of public pressure and the Bush administration announced that they would submit to oversight from Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also known as the FISA Court.
Unfortunately, because the FISA Court’s rulings are secret, most Americans had no idea that the Court was prepared to issue incredibly broad rulings, permitting the massive surveillance that finally made headlines last month.

It’s now a matter of public record that the bulk phone records program has been operating since at least 2007. It’s not a coincidence that a handful of senators have been working since then to find ways to alert the public about what has been going on. Months and years went into trying to find ways to raise public awareness about secret surveillance authorities within the confines of classification rules.I and several of my colleagues have made it our mission to end the use of secret law.

When Oregonians hear the words secret law, they have come up to me and asked, “Ron, how can the law be secret? When you guys pass laws that’s a public deal. I’m going to look them up online.” In response, I tell Oregonians that there are effectively two Patriot Acts -- the first is the one that they can read on their laptop in Medford or Portland, analyze and understand. Then there’s the real Patriot Act -- the secret interpretation of the law that the government is actually relying upon.

The secret rulings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have interpreted the Patriot Act, as well as section 702 of the FISA statute, in some surprising ways,and these rulings are kept entirely secret from the public. These rulings can be astoundingly broad. The one that authorizes the bulk collection of phone records is as broad as any I have ever seen.

This reliance of government agencies on a secret body of law has real consequences. Most Americans don’t expect to know the details about ongoing sensitive military and intelligence activities, but as voters they absolutely have a need and a right to know what their government thinks it is permitted to do, so that they can ratify or reject decisions that elected officials make on their behalf.

To put it another way, Americans recognize that intelligence agencies will sometimes need to conduct secret operations, but they don’t think those agencies should be relying on secret law. Now, some argue that keeping the meaning of surveillance laws secret is necessary, because it makes it easier to gather intelligence on terrorist groups and other foreign powers. If you follow this logic, when Congress passed the original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act back in the 1970s, they could have found a way to make the whole thing secret, so that Soviet agents wouldn’t know what the FBI’s surveillance authorities were.

But that’s not the way you do it in America.It is a fundamental principle of American democracy that laws should not be public only when it is convenient for government officials to make them public. They should be public all the time, open to review by adversarial courts, and subject to change by an accountable legislature guided by an informed public. If Americans are not able to learn how their government is interpreting and executing the law then we have effectively eliminated the most important bulwark of our democracy.

That’s why, even at the height of the Cold War, when the argument for absolute secrecy was at its zenith, Congress chose to make US surveillance laws public.Without public laws, and public court rulings interpreting those laws, it is impossible to have informed public debate. And when the American people are in the dark, they can’t make fully informed decisions about who should represent them, or protest policies that they disagree with. These are fundamentals. It’s Civics 101. And secret law violates those basic principles. It has no place in America.

Indeed. Read on and see how these secret laws have enabled a series of programs that enable idea of a government "tele-screen monitoring your every move turns from dystopia to reality." Truly, this is not about whether Edward Snowden is someone you'd want to have a beer with. Ron Wyden is not a narcissistic freak. He's pretty low key, actually. And he's basically saying that Snowden's revelations are real and they are a threat. Isn't it important that we know that?