Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., walks with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. on Capitol Hill in June 2013.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., walks with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. on Capitol Hill in June 2013. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Snowden Allies Turn Against Liberal Anti-NSA Lawmakers

In the eyes of Glenn Greenwald and Daniel Ellsberg, just about no one in Congress has clean hands. By Dustin Volz

A cohort of Edward Snowden's confidants are now casting verbal stones at a pair of liberal lawmakers long thought to be among their biggest anti-spying allies in Congress: Sens. Mark Udall and Ron Wyden.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald and Daniel Ellsberg, the famed leaker of the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers, took turns chastising the Democratic duo Tuesday evening for failing to expose what they knew about the National Security Agency's sweeping spy programs before the Snowden leaks surfaced last June.

Udall and Wyden "ran around the country for three years winking and hinting and doing everything they could to imply and suggest that something was very awry in the U.S. surveillance state," Greenwald said, appearing via a taped video recording before a crowded theater at Georgetown University.

But those couched insinuations failed to accomplish anything, according to Greenwald, whose reporting on NSA surveillance recently earned The Guardian a Pulitzer Prize.

"Mark Udall and Ron Wyden lacked the courage to do what they should have done, which is, gone to the floor of the Senate, invoke the immunity that the Constitution gives them, and reveal this information," Greenwald said to a smattering of applause. "There has been a climate of fear deliberately created by the United States government" to prevent whistle-blowing, he added.

Ellsberg piled on during a keynote address that followed Greenwald's taped remarks. He cited Wyden's well-known questioning of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper last March, when the Oregon Democrat asked him whether the NSA collects "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans."

Clapper replied, "No sir. Not wittingly," a now infamous response that he later defended as the "least untruthful" answer he could give at the time.

Despite Wyden's aggressive line of inquiry, Ellsberg said it didn't go far enough.

"Wyden did not say, 'Sir, you and I both know that statement is false. You know it [and] you committed perjury,' " Ellsberg said. "It was Wyden that joined him in the deception of the American public."

As members of the Senate's Intelligence panel, both Wyden and Udall attend secret briefings from officials such as Clapper in which classified information about government programs is discussed.

Anti-secrecy advocates frequently lambaste members of Congress seen to be defending the status quo of government surveillance in the name of national security. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers, who head their respective chamber's Intelligence panel, are among their common targets.

But Wyden and Udall, along with Republican Rand Paul, are viewed as among the harshest critics of NSA spying in the Senate. Both had been trying for years to convince government officials to declassify the NSA's secret surveillance of phone metadata before the Snowden leaks.

"The American people will also be extremely surprised when they learn how the Patriot Act is secretly being interpreted," Wyden said on the floor of the Senate in 2011, in reference to the post-9/11 bill from which the administrations of both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush derived much of the legality for the bulk collection of Americans' phone records.

But that sort of coy reference was not enough to satisfy some of the biggest faces of the anti-secrecy movement. A rolling international debate over the proper scope of government surveillance was ignited only after Snowden, a former NSA contractor, gave journalists, including Greenwald, top-secret agency documents.

After his speech, Ellsberg joined a panel to discuss the need for stronger protection for government whistle-blowers. The group, including Thomas Drake, a former NSA official who also leaked agency secrets, and Jesselyn Radack, an attorney who counsels Snowden, also expressed support for the Freedom Act, which would end much of the government's current surveillance practices. The bill is authored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and a onetime architect of the USA Patriot Act.