08/12/2013 12:41 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2013

Senate Insider Speaks Out: Ex-Wyden Staffer on Secret Laws, Domestic Spying and Obama's NSA Reforms

As President Obama proposed a series of changes to reform the government's surveillance policies and programs, Democracy Now! speaks to Jennifer Hoelzer, the former deputy chief of staff for Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, a longtime critic of the Obama administration for using a secret interpretation of the USA PATRIOT Act to allow the NSA to conduct domestic surveillance. Her recent article in TechDirt, "Jennifer Hoelzer's Insider's View of the Administration's Response To NSA Surveillance Leaks," quickly gained attention.

"Unfortunately Edward Snowden was the only means by which we have been able to have this debate," Hoelzer said. "I worked for Senator Ron Wyden for six years. And Senator Wyden, his conscience did move him to try to speak up about these things and try to draw attention and try to start a debate, and, quite frankly, there were no other avenues to bring this information to light. When the president tries to make it sound like, you know, he was already moving us in this direction, he had five years to do that. ... We, working for Senator Wyden, did everything to try to encourage the administration to bring these facts to light."

When asked her thoughts about Obama speech last week about NSA reforms, she said: "If I had heard this speech five years ago, I would be standing up and applauding. I think he says a lot of terrific things, and it's definitely a step in the right direction. My concern is that over the past five years his actions have painted a much different picture. We need a little bit more than rhetoric here and vague promises about transparency."

Hoelzer said: "Obviously, I'm concerned, you know, as is the president, the only way we seem to be able to have this debate was through an unauthorized disclosure. Our national security policy should be such that there is a respect for classification procedures and that, you know, whistleblowers don't feel a need to come forward with this information. I share his concern. It would have been much, much better had we been able to have this debate and under more rational circumstances, with facts coming out on both sides. But the fact of the matter is, the president of the United States had five years to make that happen, and he didn't. And I find that concerning. "

Shortly before Obama spoke, The Guardian newspaper revealed the National Security Agency has a secret backdoor into its vast databases to search for email and phone calls of U.S. citizens without a warrant. According to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, NSA operatives can hunt for individual Americans' communications using their name or other identifying information.