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Editorial: Support Wyden on spying disclosure

The (Eugene) Register-Guard, Nov. 19, on Wyden’s bill on surveillance disclosure

The U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection Monday of a challenge to a National Security Agency program that sweeps up the telephone records of millions of ordinary Americans underscores the need for Congress to pass legislation forcing public disclosure about the scope of the federal government’s communications surveillance.

Over the past three years, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has introduced several measures that would have brought greater transparency to these activities. None has withstood the unrelenting and unreasonable opposition of the Obama administration.

Neither Democratic nor Republican leaders show interest in dealing with NSA issues in the current session. Some cite national security concerns, accepting without question warnings from counterterrorism officials that the vast powers granted the government under the Patriot Act and other laws are essential to preventing a terrorist attack on the United States.

But there is no reason why the nature and extent of domestic spying activities should remain secret. In the wake of massive data leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, lawmakers — and the American public — now know the government collects the records of almost every phone call made in the United States and can capture anyone’s e-mail messages, Internet chats and other communications.

Public knowledge about the NSA’s activities has not resulted in another terrorist attack, but it has brought growing public pressure on lawmakers and the administration to end the secrecy that has made it impossible for lawmakers or the public to gauge the extent of the government’s domestic intelligence gathering.

Late last year, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced a promising measure that would have required the supersecret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to make public summaries of its rulings on domestic surveillance activities. The bill did not pass. Wyden, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., then wrote the court asking for similar disclosures. In a patronizing response, the chief judge responded that the public might be confused by such summaries and that they might put national security at risk.

Wyden, a veteran member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, disagrees with that perspective, and in recent weeks has been gathering support for an amendment that would impose an array of disclosure requirements on the nation’s intelligence agencies. Those requirements include public reports on how often intelligence agencies conduct the digital sweeps that enable them to track Americans’ cell phones, and how often intelligence agencies have breached their own privacy rules.

Wyden’s proposal would not restrict NSA data collection, thus undermining the administration’s argument that it would endanger national security. There is a glaring need to eventually restrict or eliminate some NSA programs, but Wyden recognizes that transparency is an essential first step.

He plans to attach his amendment to a defense bill now headed for a Senate vote. “I think there’s an opportunity to work with senators of varying different views to set the record straight about the government’s surveillance authority and jump-start the broader debate about intelligence reform,” he told The New York Times.

Senators should support Wyden’s bill and protect this nation’s civil liberties by requiring the government to be transparent about its surveillance.

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