Wyden questions the value of NSA phone data collection

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon on Friday called into the question the value of the National Security Agency collecting large quantities of phone records without telling the public.

This week The Guardian newspaper published a classified court document from April that authorized the government to seize all of Verizon's phone records on a daily basis an estimated 3 billion phone calls a day. The government didn't eavesdrop on anyone (under this court order, at least), but it received all outgoing and incoming numbers for every call, plus the unique electronic fingerprints that identify cellphones.

Wyden, along with Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, have been longtime critics of government intelligence overreach. On Friday they released a joint statement criticizing the Obama administration and its support of the program. Here is the statement in its entirety:

"In our capacity as members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, we have spent years examining the intelligence collection operations that have been secretly authorized under the USA Patriot Act. Based on this experience, we respectfully but firmly disagree with the way that this program has been described by senior administration officials.

"After years of review, we believe statements that this very broad Patriot Act collection has been "a critical tool in protecting the nation" do not appear to hold up under close scrutiny. We remain unconvinced that the secret Patriot Act collection has actually provided any uniquely valuable intelligence. As far as we can see, all of the useful information that it has provided appears to have also been available through other collection methods that do not violate the privacy of law-abiding Americans in the way that the Patriot Act collection does. We hope that President Obama will probe the basis for these assertions, as we have.

"We also disagree with the statement that the broad Patriot Act collection strikes the "right balance" between protecting American security and protecting Americans' privacy. In our view it does not. When Americans call their friends and family, whom they call, when they call, and where they call from is private information. We believe the large-scale collection of this information by the government has a very significant impact on Americans' privacy, whether senior government officials recognize that fact or not.

"Finally, we have long been concerned about the degree to which this collection has relied on "secret law." Senior administration officials have stated on multiple occasions that the Patriot Act's 'business records' authority is "analogous to a grand jury subpoena." And multiple senior officials have stated that US intelligence agencies do not collect information or dossiers on "millions of Americans." We appreciate the recent statement from the Director of National Intelligence, which declassified certain facts about this collection, including its breadth. Now that the fact of bulk collection has been declassified, we believe that more information about the scale of the collection, and specifically whether it involves the records of 'millions of Americans' should be declassified as well. The American people must be given the opportunity to evaluate the facts about this program and its broad scope for themselves, so that this debate can begin in earnest."

Wyden previously asked about NSA data collection

In March of this year, Wyden directly asked James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, during a Senate committee hearing if the NSA collected any type of data from large numbers of Americans. Here's a transcript of that exchange. (You can also watch the exchange in the video below starting at the 6:10 mark.)

Wyden: Can you give me a yes or no answer to the question "does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Clapper: No, sir.

Wyden: It does not?

Clapper: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect but not wittingly.

Wyden: Alright.

Wyden in the news

Wyden is making many headlines today as, along with Udall, one of the only voices before this week talking about the NSA's tactics. Here's a roundup of some of the articles we've seen:

Politico: Ron Wyden, Mark Udall continue to sound alarm on privacy

New York Times: Sounding the alarm, but with a muted bell

Slate: Two senators have been harping on the Obama administration's phone data collection policy for years

PolitiFact: In context: the Wyden-Udall letters on government secrecy

CNN: Udall: 'I did everything' to alert public to gov't snooping

Salon: Dear Sunday shows: Book Wyden, not McCain

OregonLive: With Verizon surveillance case, Wyden hits a high mark in his jousts with intelligence agencies