A former senior aide to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore,. in a searingly critical essay has called out the Obama administration and the president himself for saying Friday that he welcomed a public debate on the government’s surveillance programs and the privacy concerns they provoke.
Jennifer Hoelzer, a former aide to Wyden who recently left his office, harshly questioned Obama in a piece she wrote for TechDirt.com, saying she was flabbergasted to hear him say he had wanted more public scrutiny for the National Security Agency surveillance programs after Wyden had worked for years in vain to try to persuade the administration to declassify parts of the program so that debate could take place.
The Huffington Post first wrote about the TechDirt.com article Sunday.
“Really, Mr. President? Do you really expect me to believe that you give a damn about open debate and the democratic process?” she asked. “Because it seems to me if your administration was really committed to those things, your administration wouldn’t have blocked every effort to have an open debate on these issues each time the laws that your administration claims authorizes these programs came up for reauthorization, which — correct me if I am wrong — is when the democratic process recommends as the ideal time for these debates.”
The attack from the left as Obama began his first day of a week-long vacation on Martha’s Vineyard — a usual news vacuum — demonstrates just how deep the divisions in the Democratic Party run when it comes to civil liberties issues and the government’s ability to track people’s private data, as well as the issues surrounding former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, who leaked details of the surveillance programs.
During a press conference Friday, Obama said he had called for a “thorough review of our surveillance operations” before Snowden leaked the information.
“My preference — and I think the American people’s preference — would have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws,” he said, “a thoughtful, fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place, because I never made claims that all the surveillance technologies that have developed since the time some of these laws had been put in place somehow didn’t require, potentially, some additional reforms. That’s exactly what I called for.”
Wyden, as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was privy to more detailed information about the surveillance programs. Hoelzer, who served as Wyden’s communications director and deputy chief of staff, said the Obama administration repeatedly rejected attempts to initiate a public debate during critical times when it would have demonstrated his administration’s leadership to usher in a new era of accountability when it comes to the country’s counter-terrorism operations.
In June 2009, six months before Congress was set to vote on the reauthorization of a critical section of the Patriot Act, which she said gives the NSA the authority to collect records on basically every American citizen — “whether they have ever or will ever come in contact with a terrorist” — Wyden, as well as Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and former Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisc., sent Attorney General Eric Holder a classified letter “requesting the declassification of information which [they] argued was critical for a productive debate on reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act.
“Did President Obama jump at the opportunity to embrace the democratic process and have an open debate then? No,” Hoelzer writes. “Congress that year voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act without debate.”
Then in 2011 when the Senate again was scheduled to reauthorize the Patriot Act,. Wyden again called for the declassification of the administration’s “secret interpretation of Section 215.” During a 20-minute speech on the Senate floor, Wyden warned that the American people would one day be outraged to learn that the government was engaged in surveillance activities that many Americans would assume were illegal.
The Techdirt.com piece goes on to expound on a series of examples of the Obama administration’s attempt to shut down a public debate the president says he now welcomes — and even wanted to initiate.