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Democratic Senator: Obama Administration Is Failing On Domestic Spying

Sen. Ron Wyden says the U.S. government is still spying on Americans and administration officials aren't being held accountable.

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Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat and one of the sharpest critics of the Obama administration's domestic surveillance programs, isn't satisfied with the changes to those programs and he wants to know why President Obama hasn't just stopped the NSA bulk-data collection.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Wyden bluntly warned that even after the NSA scandal that started with Edward Snowden's disclosures, the Obama administration has continued programs to monitor the activities of American citizens in ways that the public is unaware of and that could be giving government officials intimate details of citizens' lives.

Asked if intelligence agencies have domestic surveillance programs of which the public is still unaware, Wyden said simply, "Yeah, there's plenty of stuff."

But the Oregon Democrat would not specify what those programs were. "I can't give you that answer, because there's things that I know that are classified," he said.

Questions from Wyden in the past have signaled other, bigger problems. His 2013 questioning of former NSA Chief James Clapper about his agency's bulk data collection partially inspired Snowden to leak documents outlining the administration's bulk-data collection program.

Even in cases where the public has been informed of government practices, Wyden warned the government still collects far too much information on millions of citizens with virtually no accountability. "You have all of this data and you can tell whether somebody called the psychiatrist three times in 24 hours, once after midnight? You can't tell me that that doesn't tell you a whole lot about somebody," Wyden said.

Wyden also raised concerns with administration efforts to expand its current surveillance system, including a push for tech companies to include so-called "backdoors" into their hardware and software that could be used for surveillance purposes.

"I'm going to fight that with everything I've got … Once the good guys have the keys, the bad guys have the keys and this is going to be incredibly damaging to innovation," Wyden said.

Wyden criticized the few changes announced by the Obama administration, arguing they do nothing to substantively protect American citizens. "There's no there there," he said, arguing "Why can't we stop bulk collection today? The president has the authority to stop all these phone records on millions and millions of law abiding Americans."

"They understand now that people are going to be paying more attention … but there is very little there that is new or is going to assure more accountability."

Wyden made clear he has little faith serious changes will be made so long as the current leaders of the intelligence community, like Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan, retain their jobs. "The ways this works is, these are individuals who serve at the pleasure of the president … [and] the president wants them there."

"All of these officials … work for the president of the United States, so you can ask him about it. But I don't have confidence in [CIA Director] Brennan," Wyden added bluntly.

Wyden was particularly harsh in his assessment of how the White House has handled the CIA's spying on Senate staffers working for the Intelligence Committee.

"If a 19-year-old kid who worked at BuzzFeed or a blog or something like that did what the CIA did with respect to the Senate's files, the kid's in jail," Wyden said. "The kid's in jail. There's still substantial questions about whether the computer fraud and abuse act got violated. I've got some very serious questions about that."

Wyden clearly relishes his role as a check on the intelligence community's ever growing push for more authority. Over the years, the Obama administration has ignored dozens of questions from Wyden made either in public hearings, open letters, or private communications.

For instance, asked whether agencies are collection geolocation data on American citizens, Wyden said, "I know the answer to that question, I asked that very question [during an October 2013 hearing], I did not get an answer to it, and you can draw your own conclusions from that. And I'm going to keep asking it" until officials come clean.

"I continue to believe there is a culture of misinformation that is spawned by the leadership at the agencies," Wyden said, arguing pushing Brennan and other leaders both in public and private can force fundamental changes in the various intelligence agencies.

Although opponents of domestic surveillance programs have criticized Wyden for not coming forward and explicitly warning the public when he learned of them, he argued to do so would substantially limit his ability to conduct oversight of the nation's intelligence services.

"You don't get to be on the intelligence committee if you do that, number one," Wyden said.

"But number two, it seems to me that there is an important role to play to have some people in the room that are going to ask some questions that aren't going to get to be asked — which is what I've tried to do," he added.

John Stanton is a senior national correspondent for BuzzFeed News. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.

Contact John Stanton at john.stanton@buzzfeed.com.

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