Picking a Fight Over NSA Surveillance in the Post-Snowden Era

Sen. Ron Wyden is gearing up for a fight.

Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has long railed against threats to privacy and Internet freedom, is looking ahead to a contentious debate in Congress over what checks lawmakers should put in place on the government's intelligence gathering activities, particularly the bulk collection of phone records and digital surveillance operations that came to light following the disclosures of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

[ Slideshow: The NSA Quiz ]

[ Slideshow: The NSA Security Quagmire ]

Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act

Late last month, Wyden joined with Senate colleagues Mark Udall (D-Colo.) Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in unveiling the Intelligence Oversight and Surveillance Reform Act, legislation that would, among other things, bar the wholesale collection of telephone and other records and establish an advocate that could argue against government eavesdropping requests before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

[Related: NSA Leaker Snowden May Have Had Help]

"The goal of our bipartisan bill is to set the bar for measuring what really constitutes real intelligence reform," Wyden said Wednesday in a keynote address at an event hosted by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

"The more information people learn about these programs the less they actually like them. The fact is most Americans think their government can protect our security and our liberty. These are not mutually exclusive." --Sen. Ron Wyden

"And the reason our bipartisan group wanted to put this marker down early is because we know in the months ahead we are going to be up against what I call the 'business-as-usual brigade.' They're the influential members of the government's intelligence leadership, their allies in think tanks and academia, retired government officials and sympathetic legislators. And their objective, and I want to state this clearly right at the outset, is to fog up the surveillance debate and convince the Congress and the public that the real problem here is not overly intrusive, constitutionally flawed domestic surveillance. The real problem is all that sensationalist media. And their end game is ensuring that any surveillance reforms are only skin deep," he said.

It was Wyden who at a hearing in March memorably asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper if the NSA collects any form of data on millions of Americans, to which Clapper responded, "No, sir."

Then in June, following the first wave of the Snowden revelations, Wyden called for public hearings on the matter, and, without accusing Clapper of having lied, said that "the American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives."

National Security Argument Challenges Efforts for Privacy and Reform

Wyden acknowledged that the reforms to achieve stronger oversight he is advocating will face a tough road through Congress. The leaders of the intelligence committees in both the Senate and House of Representatives have defended the government's surveillance activities in the name of national security.

Just last week, Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House panel, offered a vigorous defense of the programs, saying that they are subject to strong oversight and criticizing the way they have been portrayed in the media in much the way Wyden described (Rogers rejects the term "surveillance," for instance).

But Wyden insists that he is ready for the fight, and urges citizens to contact their representatives to make their voices heard.

He envisions a groundswell of opposition to the government's secretive intelligence operations that could sway lawmakers in large numbers, recalling the grass-roots, largely Internet-driven protests to a pair of anti-piracy bills -- dubbed SOPA and PIPA -- that critics argued would be an affront to Internet freedom and open the door to censorship of the Web.

The outcry against SOPA and PIPA effectively killed the bills, and Wyden is hoping that shifting public opinion will eventually produce a similar level of criticism of the NSA's activities.

"The more information people learn about these programs the less they actually like them," Wyden said. "The fact is most Americans think their government can protect our security and our liberty. These are not mutually exclusive."

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.

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