Senate's NSA-Busting Ben Franklin Caucus

Eleanor Clift

Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden can’t remember who bumped into whom first and initiated their friendship, but shortly after Republican Rand Paul arrived in the Senate in January 2011, the two men realized they were simpatico on privacy and civil liberties issues.

“I made it possible for him to get some classified briefings,” says Wyden, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a longtime, often solitary voice on the committee opposing the government’s reach into the lives of law-abiding Americans.

“We very much needed allies, and each of us benefited,” he said, describing his relationship as an archly independent Democrat with the libertarian Paul.

Wyden was the only Democrat who went onto the Senate floor and joined Paul’s 13-hour filibuster last year protesting the Obama administration’s use of drones. Now the two men are joining forces to beef up the USA Freedom Act, passed by the House with a 3-to-1 bipartisan margin to end the government’s mass collection of data. But according to Wyden, the bill is “full of holes, riddled with vagueness and ill-defined terms.” It’s a victory for the intelligence agencies and the status quo in his mind.

Paul agrees, and together they’re penning joint op-eds and holding “pen and pad” briefings for reporters to expound on their shared views. Aides promise more to come.

“We kid we have a ‘Ben Franklin caucus,’ that anybody who would give up their liberty for security doesn’t deserve either,” Wyden says, paraphrasing the Founding Father’s famous quote.

Wyden says Paul understands the anxiety people feel about their privacy melting away even as they willingly surrender personal data in commercial transactions. In the American DNA, government is the villain. “The government can take your freedom and your liberty, private companies can just take your money,” says Wyden.

As the Senate takes up the House bill, civil liberties advocates see it as the last best chance to rein in the intelligence agencies and defeat what Wyden calls the “status quo caucus” and the “culture of misinformation” that allowed the reach of government to mushroom while critics stayed silent, unable to break through the walls erected to protect government secrets. For good or for ill, Edward Snowden brought to light the programs now being debated. With the Patriot Act set to expire in January 2015, whatever reform Congress settles on is unlikely to be revisited again for years.

“This is the first time when reformers can use every day to make their case and you better believe we’re going to do it,” says Wyden.

In a wide-ranging interview in his Capitol Hill office ten days ago, Wyden reached for a book written by his late father, Peter Wyden, published in 1979 and titled, The Bay of Pigs, the Untold Story. The jacket cover has a picture of the author shaking hands with Fidel Castro, who said, “Peter Wyden knows more than I do about what happened.”

Wyden cites his father’s inside account of the 1961 invasion, along with his many other journalistic endeavors, as instrumental in his own choice of career. “It’s the job of journalists and elected officials to ask the hard questions,” he says. “That’s where I picked it up.”

Wyden made news last year when he caught Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper in an obvious lie.  Asked whether the National Security Agency collects “any type of data at all on millions of Americans,” Clapper said, “No, sir.” Wyden said he had written numerous letters to Clapper and NSA’s then-head Keith Alexander, seeking clarification on the agency’s programs.

“They wouldn’t give us direct answers, so I became convinced I wouldn’t be doing my job of oversight if I allowed the most senior people to make statements that were flagrantly inaccurate,” Wyden says.

Over a period of months, and after consulting with lawyers, Wyden settled on his question.  He sent it to Clapper in advance, respecting the tradition of the Intelligence Committee and prepared to withdraw the question if Clapper had made that request.

“If they had asked me not to ask, I would have accepted that,” Wyden says. Instead, Clapper responded with an egregious falsehood, if not an outright lie.

“His answer was so obviously wrong,” says Wyden, recounting how his top aide went to the NSA’s counsel and “said it was wrong, you need to correct it, and they wouldn’t.” The brazenness of these intelligence leaders reinforced Wyden’s determination to rein them in. “They obviously believed they could say these things and they wouldn’t catch up with them,” he says.

Brian Darling, formerly with the Heritage Foundation and now Paul’s spokesman, says Wyden “has his own unique way of doing things.” Wyden would call the think tank seeking conservative views. “He had his own version of a flat tax, which wasn’t all that flat, but he enjoys working across the aisle. My boss is going in the same direction,” says Darling of Paul. “He likes working across the aisle.”

Just as Paul’s apostasy on some issues irks Republicans, Wyden’s assertiveness on the NSA hasn’t always been welcomed by fellow Democrats, notably Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein. The Snowden disclosures have moved more colleagues into his camp.

“If Democrats could choose between Wyden and Feinstein by a secret ballot, he would win a substantial number of votes, maybe even a majority,” says William Galston with the Brookings Institution. That’s not true of Paul, who represents more of a dissident voice within Republican ranks. That could change after November if the GOP gains control of the senate.

“As I say to Rand Paul, the Ben Franklin caucus is growing,” says Wyden, whichever party has the majority.

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