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Obama Had Five Years to Host Debate on NSA, But Refused, says former Senate Staffer

Jon Queally, staff writer

A former high-level aid to Senator Ron Wyden (D-Or.) has taken President Obama to task in recent days following his defense of NSA spying programs at a late afternoon press conference on Friday.

Jennifer Hoelzer served as deputy chief of staff for Wyden, one of the few members of Congress who repeatedly expressed concern with NSA overreach and obfuscation by the White House regarding secretive legal interpretations of controversial sections of the Patriot Act and other surveillance laws. During her time with the senator, Hoelzer was intimately involved with his efforts to provide greater transparency to the programs.

Despite statements from the president that he welcomed the debate on the NSA, Hoelzer says the president proved time and again that this simply wasn't the case. "The fact of the matter is," she contends, "the president of the United States had five years to make that happen, and he didn’t."

It was because of her role in Wyden's office, according to a lengthy blog entry posted on TechDirt over the weekend, that Hoelzer says she offers unique, critical perspective of Obama's rhetoric about how he "wanted" and "valued" a debate on the subject following leaks by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

 "I think it's hard for the American people to trust the President when his administration has repeatedly gone out of its way to silence critics."

 "I think it's hard for the American people to trust the President when his administration has repeatedly gone out of its way to silence critics," Hoelzer wrote.

After illustrating numerous examples in which the Obama administration over the course of more than five years actively blocked requests by Wyden and others to come clean on the controversial programs, Hoelzer explained why she found the president's remarks to the press on Friday so incredulous:

[...] A big part of the reason the American people are having a hard time trusting their government is that the public's trust in government is harmed every time the American people learn that their government is secretly doing something they not only assumed was illegal but that government officials specifically told them they weren't doing. Hint: When the American people learn that you lied to them, they trust you less.

I think it's hard for the American people to trust their President when he says he respects democratic principles, when his actions over the course of nearly five years demonstrate very little respect for democratic principles.

I think the American people would be more likely to trust the President when he says these programs include safeguards that protect their privacy, if he -- or anyone else in his administration -- seemed to care about privacy rights or demonstrated an understanding of how the information being collected could be abused. Seriously, how are we supposed to trust safeguards devised by people who don't believe there is anything to safeguard against?

I think it's understandably hard for the American people to trust the President when he says his Administration has the legal authority to conduct these surveillance programs when one of the few things that remains classified about these programs is the legal argument that the administration says gives the NSA the authority to conduct these programs. This is the document that explains why the Administration believes the word "relevant" gives them the authority to collect everything. It's also the document I'd most like to see since it's the document my former boss has been requesting be declassified for more than half a decade. (A reporter recently asked me why I think the Administration won't just declassify the legal opinion given that the sources and methods it relates to have already been made public. "I think that's pretty obvious," I said. "I believe it will be much harder for the Administration to claim that these programs are legal, if people can see their legal argument.")

Subsequent to her piece, Hoelzer appeared on Monday's broadcast of Democracy Now! where she again recounted the motivations behind her piece, why Obama's public comments made her "very angry" and why they should not be so readily swallowed by a public hoping for real reform on the laws that govern the government's secret surveillance programs:


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