Sen. Ron Wyden on balancing the ‘teeter-totter’ of security and liberty

December 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., believes that when it comes to government surveillance, security and liberty are not mutually exclusive. Margaret Warner talks to the NSA critic about why he thinks the administration needs to do a better job of striking a balance between protecting Americans while respecting their privacy.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Wyden, thank you for joining us.

SEN. RON WYDEN, D-Ore.: Thanks for having me back.

MARGARET WARNER: As you know, the president is now reviewing NSA surveillance policy. If were you advising him, what would you say to him is the most important problem he needs to fix?

RON WYDEN: The most important issue is to make it clear that security and liberty are not mutually exclusive. We can have both.

For example, on this whole matter of collecting millions and millions of phone records on law-abiding Americans, now, this country wants to be safe, and all of us on the Intelligence Committee know it’s a dangerous world. But the evidence doesn’t support the proposition that there is a significant measure of safety that’s added as a result of collecting all these records on law-abiding Americans.

MARGARET WARNER: The head of the NSA, Keith Alexander, said in testimony that 50 terrorist plots had been foiled by this exhaustive surveillance.

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You don’t buy that? I mean, you’re a member of the Intelligence Committee.

RON WYDEN: Congressional testimony doesn’t support that proposition.

In fact, John Inglis, one of the deputies there, when he was asked actually unpack that assertion that really found, when he had to address it specifically, that it was at most a couple. And part of this is that there has been what I call a culture of misinformation among the intelligence, you know, leadership. Consistently over the last few years, the intelligence leadership has said one thing in public and then quite another in private.

MARGARET WARNER: With its growing technological reach and prowess, do you think the NSA has been given license to collect data overseas in too aggressive a manner? Is the technology outstripping the policy?  

RON WYDEN: There’s no question that the technology has dramatically changed this debate.

For example, it used to be that, because there were technological limitations, those technological limitations provided a measure of privacy for Americans. Now, with essentially no technological limitations, the technology can do practically anything, the only way to strike the appropriate balance between liberty and security is to embed that balance in the law.

MARGARET WARNER: What did you make of the eight big U.S.-based Internet giants this week, Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Microsoft, coming out and actually saying they thought the balance between the power of the state and the rights of individuals has gotten out of whack?

RON WYDEN: The statement from the companies has enormous implications.

One very thoughtful technology organization which Intel belongs to, an important employer in my state, estimated that the damages in terms of lost revenues as a result of these NSA practices would approach $35 billion between now and 2016. And I think they think it’s going to be bad for the country, bad for their customers here, bad for their brand overseas.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you even know how many Americans are being swept up, have been swept up in this NSA surveillance that is actually targeted on overseas terror threat?

RON WYDEN: Suffice it to say, we have asked this question in classified sessions, in public sessions, and largely have been stonewalled.

Now, of course, some of the information that has been declassified, you know, recently indicates that thousands of Americans have had information, you know, collected on them. And that really leads to the central privacy question.

The advocates of the bulk collection of all these phone records on law-abiding Americans say this is not surveillance. They’re saying it is data collection. And they’re saying, we’re not listening in and, for that reason, it’s not surveillance.

I want it understood for your viewers that, when your government knows who you called, when you called and for how long you called, they’re getting a lot of private information about individuals. For example, if the government knows that you called a psychiatrist three times in 24 hours, once after midnight, they know a lot about you.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, they say they have no intention of abusing this to control, harass, prosecute, intimidate American citizens. It’s to understand their connections with other people who may be connected to foreigners, foreign terrorists who mean harm to the United States.

RON WYDEN: The argument that we’re not going to abuse them because we have a bunch of our own little internal, you know, rules, that’s not in synch with the Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment doesn’t say, you can invade people’s privacy, but it’s really kind of OK if the government then sets up some sort of general rules to make it OK. The Fourth Amendment, in effect, says you have got to have reasonable grounds to believe somebody is involved in terrorist activity, nefarious activity in order to get — get this information.

All along, people like me were told, look, you’re raising all these concerns, but the reality is, the FISA court is going to make sure that everything is OK. Well, what we have learned in the last few weeks is the FISA court repeatedly said things were not OK, in effect saying that they were lied to repeatedly, to the point where they couldn’t see how there was much of a system of rules at all.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about another thing that came up that was very, very contentious, at least internationally.

And that was spying, eavesdropping on leaders of friendly countries. Have we reached the point in which the diplomatic and political risk outweighs the benefits of having that information?

RON WYDEN: If you are on the Intelligence Committee, you do know that we have been interested in the intentions of foreign leadership for a long time.

I do believe that, while it’s appropriate to do a review with respect to foreign leaders, for the reasons you’re talking about — because, obviously, there has been great concern among foreign leaders and statements made that could affect national security relationships and trade relationships.

MARGARET WARNER: In this post-9/11 world, however, is there any reluctance on the part of lawmakers to second-guess the intelligence professionals, given that the cost of being wrong is so high?

RON WYDEN: The government has emergency authorities that basically say, when there’s a threat, they can go get the information, get the warrant later.

Of course protecting the safety of the public has to always come first. And I don’t take a backseat to anybody in terms of that. What concerns me is that what’s always been the constitutional teeter-totter, and what you think about the founding fathers, it really comes back to that. They always said, our system works when you have liberty and security in balance. The teeter-totter is just kind of right here.

We haven’t done a good enough job of striking that balance. We can be fair and respectful of the intelligence leadership and do a better job of striking that balance.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Ron Wyden, thank you.

RON WYDEN: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The White House said the president’s own policy changes now are not expected until January.