Senator Ron Wyden (D, OR) offered a grim outlook on civil liberties today in a speech at the Center for American Progress, warning US citizens that they will "live to regret" inaction on surveillance reform. Wyden, one of the leading Congressional critics of domestic spying programs, railed against the controversial legal provisions that have enabled surveillance efforts like the Associational Tracking Program: a massive telephone metadata dragnet that collects information about every call placed in the United States. Wyden challenged the government's authority and discretion to conduct broad surveillance on innocent US citizens, and urged both the public and his colleagues to take action.
"The combination of increasingly advanced technology with a breakdown in the checks and balances that limit government action could lead us to a surveillance state that cannot be reversed," Wyden said. "What happens to our government, our civil liberties, and our basic democracy if the surveillance state is allowed to grow unchecked?"
While a growing number of lawmakers have come to scrutinize the government's wide-ranging surveillance programs — uncovered this year through a series of high-profile leaks — Wyden's comments represent a rare admission that post-9/11 surveillance efforts may become indefinite.
"How close are we to James Madison's 'very definition of tyranny?'"
Earlier this year, Wyden expressed confidence that some of the biggest pain points for civil liberties advocates and critics of government spying may be reversed. In January, before details of PRISM and government telephone surveillance leaked, Wyden took part in a fight against unchecked renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows the government to conduct widespread warrant-less electronic monitoring of suspected terrorists. (Incidentally, as later leaks revealed, FISA has been used by the government to collect information on US citizens suspected of no wrongdoing or connection to terrorism.) While Wyden and his allies failed in January, he said that "we will win this," emphatically stating that "it's not a question of 'are we,' but when." But today, Wyden's confidence was muted.
"By allowing the executive to secretly follow a secret interpretation of the law under the supervision of a secret, non-adversarial court and occasional secret congressional hearings, how close are we to James Madison's 'very definition of tyranny?'", Wyden said. "I believe we are allowing our country to drift a lot closer than we should, and if we don't take this opportunity to change course now, we will all live to regret it."