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Q&A: Senator Ron Wyden on NSA Surveillance and Government Transparency

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Edward Snowden has said publicly that he, too, tried to play by the rules, and made the decision to leak only after realizing the depth of that culture of misinformation you speak of. Do you think he acted correctly, or was there some other way this information could have come out?
Years ago, because I made the judgment of how important it was to try to drive these policy reforms – and because when you're on the Intelligence Committee and you get into making these comments, it just never stops – I said, "I am not going to comment when somebody in the intelligence field is part of an ongoing criminal investigation." And [Snowden] has, of course, been charged with espionage. So I'm just gonna stick to that one.

But do you think a charge of espionage is appropriate? Many people believe Snowden is a whistleblower.
I've made my statement about Mr. Snowden. But setting that aside, what's happened in the last eight weeks really takes your breath away. I mean, eight weeks ago, we would not have had a debate on the floor of the House of Representatives on these issues. Eight weeks ago, we would not have gotten two hundred or more votes. Eight weeks ago, we would not have the NSA taking down fact sheets after members of the United States Senate took them on. Eight weeks ago, we would not have had bills coming in from both chambers on a whole host of subjects. These issues, which were unheard of eight weeks ago, I now have people coming up to me at the barbershop, asking me about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

There has been a huge expansion of private contractors since 9/11, especially in the intelligence arena. Isn't it time for Congress to draw a line on what contractors should be doing for the NSA and other US intelligence agencies?
Yes. And I think this is an extremely important issue. We can't even get our arms around how many there are and what it is they're doing, and this is another area that is really urgent business on the reform agenda. I think there are certainly areas where contractors can perform a useful role. But when you're talking about an inherently governmental function, I think that's where I draw the line. It is clearly time for the Congress to get to the central policy question here, and that is to recognize that there is a difference between a whole host of functions that contractors can perform that are not inherently governmental and these roles for contractors that are inherently governmental. One that is going to be part of an upcoming debate, I hope, which is something Senator Udall and I and others are pushing, is to declassify that report on torture. I think it will give us new momentum for drawing a sharp line on the contractor issue . . . and I think when Americans get to read about the role of contractors in some of those interrogations, they're going to share our view.

What, finally, do you think is the best way to make sure we don't go backwards? Should there be prosecutions? Are there other ways to encourage more transparency?
The way we deal with this best, in my view, is to recognize this is a unique time in our constitutional history. These digital technologies have grown so rapidly, and we really can't even get our arms around it. It used to be that the limits on technologies were to a great extent a form of protection for the American people. A lot of that seems to be going to the wind. We're sitting here with computers in our pockets, smartphones, with the ability to track people 24/7. These issues are as important as it gets. And Americans have a right to real debate [on] the way you deal with the constitutional teeter-totter of liberty and security. It's hard to think of anything more important to our country and our bedrock values. And I think what will protect people now will be the laws that we write to rein in this omnipresent, ever-expanding surveillance state. And if we don't do it now – if we don't recognize that this is a truly unique moment in America's constitutional history – our generation's going to regret it forever.

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