Wyden Knows More Than He Can Say

I feel sorry for U.S. Senator Ron Wyden. His position on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence gives him access to classified information that is not available to the general public, or even to many of his colleagues in Congress. He has plaintively warned about privacy intrusions for years, but is forbidden by law to divulge the causes of his concerns.

In 2011, Wyden objected to the reauthorization of Public Law 107-56, better known as the PATRIOT Act. Here’s what he said from the floor of the Senate: “When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.”

Since then, we’ve gotten a taste of what Wyden knows, thanks to documents stolen and shared by security analyst Edward Snowden. Speculation abounds about our government’s secret intrusions into our daily lives. As the saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

Poor Wyden has been characterized as the canary in the mineshaft, but he’s in a more difficult position than that, because he can’t say what he knows. Dead canaries keep no secrets. Wyden is more like a cat with the canary in his mouth. Replace the grin with chagrin.

He wants to open his mouth widely and say to anyone who will listen, “I know this looks like a canary in my mouth, but please notice that the canary is dead.” He’s a lawmaker quietly outraged — stunned and angry — at the law. He’s a whistleblower where whistling is forbidden.

When Wyden is speaking before a bank of reporters’ microphones about privacy issues, he hints at some secret message, like a prisoner of war being videotaped by his captors. He wants you to know he’s alive and well, but also something else that’s maybe more important.

Is he tapping a message in Morse code, as he’s speaking from the podium? Can his body language be interpreted as a crude version of semaphore? Does he reposition his lapel flag pins to spell words he’s not allowed to utter?

He gets occasional opportunities to interview military and intelligence officials under oath. He tries to get them to put on the public record details that he already knows, but is bound by oath not to reveal. If he had used his University of Oregon law degree to become a prosecutor instead of a community organizer, he might succeed better at getting the truth out of his witnesses.

Watching him navigate between what he knows and what he can say looks like very hard work. It reminds me of science fiction characters who travel back from the future, nervous about changing how history unfolds because it might cause a rip in the fabric of space and time continuity.

The history that’s unfolding in front of us might be as dire as that, but we can’t be sure — even if Wyden can.

A computer center is being built in the desert that can store as much information as humanity has ever produced. The FBI was caught executing a “sneak and peek” against a Portland attorney. Drones are being deployed to watch over people and then bomb them if somebody doesn’t like what they see.

Secret FISA courts operate with no citizen oversight, and maybe with no meaningful oversight at all. Special ops forces execute missions anywhere in the world with unnerving efficiency. They refer to their work orders as “f-cubed”: find, fix and finish — replacing due process with split-second decisions.

Military efficiency and democratic deliberation are pulling us in opposite directions, but only Wyden and a few others know the details.

In Jeremy Scahill’s documentary “Dirty Wars” about the rising reliance on secrecy in war and peace, Wyden is the only elected official willing to speak on camera. The most chilling moment of the film came when Wyden was asked a question and he had to turn to an off-camera adviser and ask, “Can we say that?”

He clearly gets no joy from “I told you so.” He’d rather just tell us so, but he can’t.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.