Wyden's standard: Secret programs must provide 'unique value'

PORTLAND, Ore. - Sen. Ron Wyden wants straight answers about the intelligence community's secret programs, and he vows to keep asking questions until he gets them.

His goal? To provide the kind of congressional oversight that is needed to have a society that can have both liberty and security.

"I don't think liberty and security is mutually exclusive," he said Thursday during a conference call with Oregon reporters after the recent revelation of classified government programs that collect phone and Internet data of millions of Americans. "I think it is possible to fight terror ferociously and at the same time be very sensitive to individual liberties."

Wyden, who is a member of the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, has a clear sense of the standard that he believes will secure the liberties and the safety of the American people.

"To me, when the intelligence community comes before us and tries to make the case for a particular program that can have a significant impact on privacy rights, on these liberties issues, I believe they have an obligation to show how the program that they are advocating for provides unique value - value that they cannot obtain through any other program."

For years Oregon's Democratic senior U.S. senator has fought to get information that he says he needs to evaluate whether secret national security programs trample upon the rights of Americans.

Even while sitting on the committee where he's supposed to be kept informed on sensitive national security topics, Wyden says at times he's still been left in the dark or left with unanswered questions.

This year, cracks in the dam of resistance among members of the intelligence community and the Obama administration have appeared. Notably, and in a public way, Wyden threatened to hold up President Barack Obama's nomination for CIA director, John Brennan, earlier this year until the senator was able to view the secret legal opinions the administration uses to justify drone attacks.

He won that battle, but the opinions remain classified - thus, hidden from public view.

Classification rules prevent Wyden from publicly discussing the secret intelligence he learns on the committee.

But during Thursday's telephone conference, it was clear Wyden is bent on working to figure out ways to pressure the executive branch and the intelligence community to be more transparent with him and the American people.

Now, after U.S. citizen Edward Snowden reportedly leaked top-secret information about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs to collect data on the phone calls of millions of Americans, another opportunity has opened up for Wyden to publicly ask more questions and get more answers.

"Where I believe we are now is that we're going to have the kind of more open, more public discussion that should have taken place years ago," he said.

One goal for the senator is getting a debate going on the Patriot Act so it can be changed to strike a better balance between liberty and security.

"I'm not going to accept the idea that you can have only liberty or security, and I'll be making the case in the public hearings about how if you make it a priority and you're persistent, you can do both."

Private contractors and national security

In an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos earlier this week, Republican U.S. House Speaker John Boehner called Snowden a "traitor" for leaking classified documents. On Thursday, Wyden declined to comment on Snowden's actions. Wyden said he doesn't comment on ongoing investigations "into sensitive matters."

Snowden, as a private contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton, had access to America's secrets. Almost 500,000 people work in positions with similar access, raising the question whether too many people have access to the country's top secrets.

Wyden said he's been concerned for a long time about the increased reliance on contractors for national security and said that during the public hearings he will be "zeroing in on the growing use of contractors in the intelligence arena, specifically."

The leak of the secret surveillance programs and the debate over privacy rights and security will be the topic of KATU's political show "Your Voice, Your Vote" this Sunday, June 16 at 9 a.m.

Portland civil rights attorney, Elden Rosenthal; former U.S. attorney for Oregon, Dwight Holton; Lewis and Clark law professor, Tung Yin; and Timothy Gleason, dean of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, will join KATU's Steve Dunn to discuss these issues. reporting on Sen. Ron Wyden's push for transparency: