"They Can’t Tell You What They're Not Telling You"

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
June 7 2013 4:44 PM

"They Can’t Tell You What They're Not Telling You"

164229492
Sen. Ron Wyden listens as members speak during a markup meeting of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on March 21, 2013

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

After years of lengthy speeches to empty Capitol Hill chambers (and slumbering C-SPAN viewers), one of the Senate’s most well­-known and determined critics of government surveillance, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, finally has his moment. Before this week’s major leak of evidence of NSA surveillance on American citizens, Wyden, along with Senate ally Mark Udall, waged a nearly-unwinnable fight to roll back these programs with the distinct challenge of being legally prohibited from talking about them.

The near impossibility of their task is illustrated quite nicely by this Washington Post interview with Jennifer Hoelzer, a former member of Wyden's press team who spoke about the challenges of getting out the word on an issue that’d be a serious crime to discuss even in the broadest terms. Making Hoelzer's job that much more difficult was the fact that her boss often was barred from giving her the very details she'd need to paint the full picture to the press and the public. You should check out the full interview, but here are a few snippets to whet your appetite.

Advertisement

On the difficulties of talking about something you can't talk about:

"There’s so much you can’t say. And sometimes people risk not saying anything because they don’t want to violate classification. If they did, Ron would lose his seat on the committee, and [intelligence committee staffer John Dickas] would lose his clearance, and they couldn’t conduct oversight. In this case, I don’t have clearance, and I didn’t know what I couldn’t say. So it’s like minesweeper. You just have to ask questions to try to get the outlines of what they’re not telling you. Because they can’t tell you what they’re not telling you."

On not being able to use adjectives(!):

"You can’t characterize intelligence. Adjectives characterize. So we would say something like, 'there is a disconnect between what people think is illegal and what is illegal.' But you can’t just say there’s this program and it’s wildly illegal. That would characterize it. So it leaves people who want to conduct oversight at a disadvantage. The administration can declassify anything it wants at any time. They can declassify things and characterize them. We can’t."

On how they tried to get creative:

"One of my favorites was during the debate over renewing the PATRIOT Act. We did this 20-minute speech on the history of intelligence programs where the government kept something secret and then it came out and blew up in their face. We had a big picture of Ollie North behind us. And the point we made was this won’t stay secret forever, and then people will lose their faith in you. We said it would be better to come out and explain it yourself. But we didn’t talk about the actual program."

Go read the full interview here, or check out Hoelzer's first-person piece over on HuffPo. Slate’s Emma Roller has more on Wyden and Udall’s crusade to make the NSA’s phone snooping policy go public here.

Read more on Slate about the NSA’s secret snooping programs, and follow the @slatest team on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 11:41 AM Klobucharmania: Catch It!
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 16 2014 10:17 AM How Jack Ma Founded Alibaba
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-era New York
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 11:40 AM How to Put Things in Your Fridge
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 7:36 AM The Inspiration Drought Why our science fiction needs new dreams.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.