Good morning and welcome to the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m John Podesta, Chair of the Action Fund. I’m very pleased to welcome Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon to talk about one of the defining challenges facing the United States today—that is, how to reconcile the tension between personal privacy and national security.
We are particularly glad to have Sen. Wyden here today because of his long and outspoken history on this issue. In 2006 Sen. Wyden was one of only 10 senators who voted against reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act. This year, of course, he pressed Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in a Senate hearing about whether the government collects any kind of data on Americans’ online activity. That hearing was just a few months before the recent revelations that resulted from the Snowden leaks about the extent of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance capabilities and practices. Sen. Wyden has consistently been a thoughtful and forceful voice speaking out in support of constitutional principles and on behalf of the rights of average Americans, and I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say to us today.
But I want to first offer a few brief reflections of my own on surveillance and privacy, a topic which I’ve been working on for quite a long time. In 1984—the real year, not the book—when I was working for Pat Leahy, we sent a letter to the attorney general asking whether the 1968 Wiretap Act—Title 3 of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act—applied to electronic mail and other forms of electronic communications. We heard back from the deputy attorney general, who said the answer to that question “was neither clear nor obvious.” That—and Sen. Leahy’s dedication to the issue—led to the passage of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which updated the law in light of new technology.
Today we are once again faced by rapid technological change that has simply swamped our existing legal regime. The media’s focus in recent weeks has circled almost exclusively around Edward Snowden’s attempt to earn the world record for longest airport layover. But the individual focus on Snowden, I think, distracts from what is most problematic about the information he provided to the media. That is, unlike the last time we had a national conversation about the NSA and domestic surveillance during the days of “warrantless wiretapping” in 2005, a legal framework exists today to support PRISM and the other programs recently brought into public view.
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