WASHINGTON — A senator who has been instrumental in the fight for open government warned Wednesday that the government's practice of "vacuuming up the phone records of millions of law-abiding Americans" puts citizens' privacy at risk.
During a panel sponsored by the American Society of News Editors, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said while the information collected by the National Security Agency involves phone numbers, location and time of the call, it might also contain vital personal details, such as relationships, medical issues, religious matters or political affiliations.
"I have to believe the civil liberties of millions of Americans have been violated," Wyden said.
"I have not seen any evidence that demonstrates that the bulk collection of all of these records provides unique value," he added.
Wyden said he believes that the information the NSA gathers could be obtained by emergency authorization or court order and does not need to be collected automatically from millions of Americans in bulk.
"The fact is that vacuuming up the phone records of millions of law-abiding Americans can really determine and reveal a lot of private information," he said.
The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a group of nine media organizations including the ASNE, presented its annual award to Wyden for his work in stripping several provisions from the Fiscal Year 2012 Intelligence Authorization Act that would have significantly lessened reporters' ability to access even unclassified information.
One provision particular was a provision that would have prevented intelligence committee officials from becoming paid news commentators for at least a year after leaving public service.
"You could basically only have a handful of people who were designated as the ones legally allowed to talk to the press," said Wyden of the provision he worked to strike down. "They (reporters) could only get one side of the story and basically only the side that the high-level people want you to have. That's not transparency, that's not the public's right to know," he said.
In addition to Wyden, government employees Tim Crawford and Larry Gottesman were also honored by the Sunshine in Government Initiative for creating FOIAonline, a system that allows the public to manage and track Freedom of Information requests.