On Feb. 25, spectators packed into a gymnasium at David Douglas High School in East Multnomah County.
Despite a rare spate of sunshine gracing the Portland area that day, an estimated 3,500 people had decided to spend their Saturday afternoon indoors listening to a politician answer questions.
It was U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s 800th town hall since he was elected to the Senate in 1996.
“How many have never been to a town hall?” he asked the audience from the stage.
From the highest bleachers on the balcony level to the rows of folding chairs across the gymnasium floor, hands everywhere popped upward.
“That says it all,” he said.
The election of Donald Trump has elevated the already-popular senator to a superstar-like status, with constituents flocking to his town meetings, which in years past were more sparsely attended.
At David Douglas High School, Wyden fielded questions about everything from the Affordable Care Act and corporate taxes to impeaching Trump and efforts to destroy labor unions.
After he left the town hall, which had gone into double overtime, Wyden headed to the Street Roots office in Old Town for an interview.
We wanted to know his thoughts on issues he’s fought long and hard for, such as net neutrality and civilian privacy, now that a business-minded administration that has exhibited a willingness to conduct witch hunts is occupying the White House.
The interview kicked off with a few questions from Street Roots vendor Dennis Chavez.
Dennis Chavez: Since the dawn of the Patriot Act, it’s a constitutional issue where people cannot feel free to voice their opinion without repercussion, so I just want to know how the government feels about that.
Ron Wyden: Well, I can tell you I’ve been voting against the various extensions of the Patriot Act for a long time.
D.C.: I know you have.
R.W.: I think what’s particularly unfortunate is people want security and liberty, and they’re now getting policies that would give them less of both. And what really illustrates that is weakening strong encryption. Strong encryption is what keeps your information safe, and Donald Trump and some of these senior Republicans want to weaken it. What it’s going to do if you weaken strong encryption is give a big gift to terrorists and hackers; your data will be much less protected – your personal information, whether it’s health or financial or whatever – and then our companies are really going to get hurt because then they’d be required to put backdoors into their products, and then that helps their competition overseas. So when you and I and everybody else wants security and liberty, a lot of these policies that are coming out of Washington, D.C., give you less of both, and that seems to me to be foolish, even by Washington, D.C., standards.
D.C.: I agree totally.
R.W.: Good on you. You’ve been really studying the Patriot Act and these privacy issues and the like? What got you interested in this?
D.C.: Well, I have a bachelor’s degree in political science.
R.W.: Where’d you get your bachelor’s degree?
D.C.: At Washington State University. And I have a minor in anthropology, so I’ve kind of been studying how human beings have been manipulating human beings since the dawn of human beings – and I’m not happy about that. I’m a military veteran; I spent four years in the Army as a Chinook helicopter mechanic. But you know, I’m just like, the country we have now is not the country I swore to defend. And I’m unhappy about that. What can I do about it?
R.W.: Well, what I tell people is that now is really a crucial time. The reality is that people from all over the world still want to come here, and hardly anybody from here wants to move there. But you’re absolutely right, this is also a really ominous time. When the Democratic National Committee was hacked by the Russians, Donald Trump said, “I wish I had that power.” And I just looked at that and I said, “He can’t possibly be saying that!” But he is, and that’s why you’re right about this really being a crucial time for people to be involved. I just had 3,500 people out at David Douglas High School. Incredible. What a showing of representative democracy!
Emily Green: We want to know about your town halls in more rural areas of Oregon, like in Medford or La Grande. Are you seeing that Oregon Republicans are concerned about the Trump agenda?
R.W.: Let’s put it this way: On this trip, first I was in Albany at the beginning of the year. I had 1,500 people in Linn County – a county Trump won overwhelmingly, and over the last eight days, I’ve had 11 town hall meetings. We’ve had the most grassroots government as any part of the country here in the last week. And I was in Coos and Curry counties, and those are counties where Trump won by more than 20 percentage points. And while there were different concerns than I heard today, I heard a lot of the same points; I’d tell you that.
I heard about the Affordable Care Act, I heard about the Russians, I heard about press freedom, an independent judiciary, a lot of concern about protecting our air and water, so there’s a lot more in common this trip – this last eight days – a lot more in common than there were differences.
E.G.: You’ve been a longtime champion of protecting Americans’ privacy. I think a lot of people want to know: Should they be worried about their digital footprint – especially if they might be seen as an adversary to the Trump agenda?
R.W.: As I just said to your partner Dennis, when the DNC was hacked, Trump said, “I wish I had that power.” I don’t know anything that sums it up more clearly – now his nominee to head the CIA (Mike Pompeo) – and I led the opposition to the nominee – has proposed something that is more sweeping than anything that’s been discussed. You can see a very long op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal where he advertised it. He advocated for creating a centralized database, sweeping aside a number of the protections, and then he said it ought to include lifestyle information, and I asked him about all these things, and (he said), “Oh, I don’t do policy,” and I said, “Wait a minute, the CIA director is in the room when the president is talking about intelligence matters.”
Editor’s note: In a Jan. 3, 2016, op-ed, Pompeo, who was then a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote:
“Congress should pass a law re-establishing collection of all metadata, and combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database. Legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance should be removed.”
E.G.: At his confirmation hearing, you had requested he submit whatever limitations might be placed on such a sweeping program. Has he submitted any such list?
R.W.: No. He would say things like, “Well, current law doesn’t allow this,” but the whole point is he wrote a very long article advocating changing current law. And his supporters would always try to weave in matters relating to current law. The point is, in his article, he called for a major transformation in the protections the American people have. And as I’ve said repeatedly, I don’t take a backseat to anybody in terms of protecting our security. I wrote section 102 of the Freedom Act that says when there is really a threat to the country, the government can get the information and come back and settle up later with respect to the warrant process. That’s not what we’re talking about here. The question is whether or not we’re going to have an enormous – beyond anything that we’ve had in the past because as you know Congress, with the Freedom Act, reined it in – are we going to have something that’s more encompassing than ever before with respect to collecting information on law-abiding Americans?
E.G.: What about right now, if the Trump administration, let’s say they wanted to go on some sort of a witch hunt and started plucking people out, who knows, maybe they have a climate change agenda or undocumented immigrants …
R.W.: We’ve seen a lot of scientists be worried. I talked today about the fact that I’m co-chair of the Whistleblower (Protection) Caucus, and I told people, “If you know of instances where there is improper conduct and you can’t get it addressed, I want to hear about it.” My philosophy is, as I touched on today, when you see something that’s wrong, speak out, push back and offer smart alternatives. So if the Trump administration insists on saying, “Millions of people are voting fraudulently,” I’ve got a response: Let’s take Oregon’s vote by mail national, which would give a paper trail for every ballot and would respond to things like fraud and hacking.
E.G.: Let’s say the Trump administration did want to do some sort of witch hunt. Do they have access to the kind of digital information that they would need, on innocent Americans, to be able to find those people? Are there any programs that you are particularly concerned about?
R.W.: There is a section in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that will be coming up for renewal before long, and what the law says is when there’s grounds to do so, you can follow a foreign threat – an individual overseas that’s a foreign threat – and we typically understand that there can be validity in that kind of approach. But what’s happened is communications systems now are no longer stopping at national lines – it’s really become globally integrated, and my concern has been, for a number of years, a number of law-biding individuals get swept up in those searches, and their data is reviewed without a warrant. So I really hope to be able to plug what I call that “backdoor search loophole.” In the hands of someone who was unscrupulous, that would be a very serious threat.
Editor’s note: Wyden is referring to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, titled “Procedures for Targeting Certain Persons Outside the United States Other Than United States Persons,” which expires at the end of 2017.
FURTHER READING: Wyden vs. the culture of misinformation (2013 Street Roots interview)
E.G.: I also wanted to ask you about net neutrality. The new FCC chairman has said repeatedly it’s something he wants to go after. My question is: Do you think there is a risk in the changes that he is proposing affecting the way Americans get their news, particularly from small independent media?
R.W.: Very much so. And I’m a very strong supporter of net neutrality. I introduced, actually, the first net neutrality bill in 2006. (The Internet Non-Discrimination Act was not enacted.) And just for purposes of your readers and others, I think telecom and the lingo in the communications field can be a little daunting sometimes, but what net neutrality means is after you pay your internet access fee, you get to go where you want, when you want, how you want, and everybody’s treated equally. That’s what net neutrality, in its essence, is all about. And of course these very powerful telecommunications interests would like to change that. They would like to create almost an information aristocracy, where you could pay more for fast lanes and content and the like.
But yes, depending on how you do it, you could really limit the ability of content providers, the small news outlets you’re talking about, to be able to communicate, and I think small newspapers, community radio, these kinds of news sources, are hugely important in our state. And I’ve indicated that I will fight with everything I’ve got to protect net neutrality. I led the fight against PIPA (Protect IP Act) and SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), these bills that, in the name of fighting piracy, would have really damaged the internet. Nobody thought we could win. There were more than 40 sponsors in the Senate for supporting that legislation. I said, “We’re going to mobilize folks at the grass roots,” and five days before there was a vote on whether to override the hold block I had on this bill, 15 million Americans weighed in. So we’re going to make that kind of fight in opposition to any effort to roll back net neutrality.
E.G.: I wanted to talk about the Email Privacy Act. (This act would close a loophole that allows the government to access any email or other form of digital communication that’s more than 180 days old without a warrant). It passed the House unanimously, and it may be a tougher road in the Senate, but if it gets through and becomes law, does that mean that our emails are actually protected? And, does its passing through the House give you hope that maybe Republicans will work with you on privacy issues, such as what Pompeo is suggesting?
R.W.: Certainly, the Email Privacy Act is important because it’s updating rules that are basically from yesteryear, and the fact that the House has passed it unanimously is certainly a good sign. The challenge will be, particularly in the communications area, supposing a senator pops up – I won’t mention any names, but I can think of a couple who would want to attach a piece of legislation to gut net neutrality, and attach it to something like Email Privacy Act. I’m hopeful. It’s certainly positive news when you get something passed in the House unanimously, but we’re certainly not home free.
E.G.: At the end of the day, and perhaps your answer is “classified,” but are there any data collection programs currently being run by the National Security Agency that keep you up at night?
R.W.: I can’t get into it, but I’ll tell you, the one I talked to you about is certainly one I’m very troubled about. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is coming up – I think as I indicated, as communications systems get more sophisticated and more integrated, law-abiding people are going to get swept up in these legitimate targets, and in the hands of the wrong people, that can really be pretty ominous. We can’t even get out of the government how many law-abiding people have been swept up in these searches, which leads me to believe it’s a larger number than people think.
FURTHER READING: Jeff Merkley: Oregon’s man of the hour
Email staff reporter Emily Green at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow her on Twitter @GreenWrites