In the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act, a law that expanded the government's powers of surveillance and intelligence-gathering. While Sen. Ron Wyden voted for the Act in 2001, he has since changed his mind. In 2006, Sen. Wyden was one of the few lawmakers who voted against the Act's reauthorization.
In 2011, Sen. Wyden spoke against the Act on the Senate floor, saying, "The Patriot Act was passed a decade ago during a period of understandable fear, understandable fear having suffered in our nation the greatest terrorist attack in our history." Wyden continued, "Now is the time to revisit this, revisit it and ensure that a better job is done of striking that balance between fighting terror and protecting individual liberty."
After many months of bureaucratic wrangling, Sen. Wyden has been granted permission to share some information about secret intelligence gathering under the Obama Administration. According to the Senator, the National Security Agency under President Obama has violated the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable search and seizure.
"In effect, [this entails] searching through a pile of communications that are collected without a warrant to deliberately search for the phone calls or emails of specific Americans," Wyden says. "I understand that that may sometimes happen by accident, but I don't think the government should be doing this on purpose without getting a warrant or emergency authorization on the American that they are looking for. That's what I'm concerned about."
"Of course, the government has not admitted whether backdoor searches have actually been conducted or not. There is a loophole in the law, and that's what I want to close." What really concerns Wyden is that the executive branch's interpretation of the Patriot Act may differ considerably from how the public believes the law to work.
"What I believe the American people need to know is that very often, the laws that they read when they go online, they believe that that public law is actually how the law is being interpreted, I am of the view that that's not the case," Wyden says. "There is a significant gap between what the public believes the stated law is and the secret interpretation that is been made by the executive branch."
The Senator calls the balance between national security and civil rights a "teeter-totter." "I think that when you have the government acknowledging in a declassified context that there has been a violation of 4th Amendment privacy protections, that's an indication that the constitutional teeter-totter is out of whack," he says.