STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When Republicans declassified a memo attacking the FBI, Senator Ron Wyden had a distinctive response. The Democrat from Oregon wrote that if Republicans want to declassify that, he'd love to declassify a lot more information about federal surveillance. Now Wyden is among the senators who questioned the leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies at a hearing today, which comes at a moment when agencies face criticism from many corners. Ron Wyden is in our studio.
Senator, welcome back to the program.
RON WYDEN: Thanks for having me back.
INSKEEP: So what's going wrong with intelligence gathering?
WYDEN: There have been, over the years, lots of abuses of the classification system. And that's essentially what my quote was trying to highlight. But it has really gotten out of hand lately, particularly with the release of the Nunes report and the burying of the Russian oligarch report. And so what I have been trying to do is to say, look, we need to deal with national security; that needs to be protected. It's my job to ask tough questions; I'll continue to do it. But the idea that you will just sort of cherry-pick, hand-pick facts from these classified documents and use them to protect your political allies - that's wrong.
INSKEEP: The Nunes memo was released. The Democratic response from the House Intelligence Committee has not been released, although there's still discussion about whether it can be cleaned up and released. You wanted that memo to see the light of day?
WYDEN: Absolutely. And the real question here is, is there going to be a double standard? And that was what my comment that you asked about, with respect to classification, was all about. You know, I have found...
INSKEEP: But you, like some Republicans in this very specific case related to President Trump, have been concerned about the powers of intelligence agencies and whether they're really following the Constitution - haven't you?
WYDEN: I am all for more transparency when it comes to government spying on Americans. But here's an example of the double standard. Devin Nunes said this was all about transparency. It was about transparency, about privacy. It was about accountability. And Devin Nunes, who really has not shown any real interest in civil rights, had just driven through Congress a six-year extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. And when I and a big group of bipartisan senators tried to ensure that we had policies that would promote security and liberty, Devin Nunes stood in the way.
INSKEEP: And we should remind people that don't follow this every day, Devin Nunes, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and author of the Republican memo that questioned FBI surveillance of a former Trump aide.
So we are at a moment when there's going to be so much else to ask intelligence agency leaders about. As Tim Mak, our colleague, has reported, the NSA has recently lost a lot of sensitive tools. A CIA agent was said to have given up names of CIA assets, people working for the United States in China. This doesn't sound like a good moment for intelligence agencies.
WYDEN: There's no question that a lot of the professionals in the intelligence field really feel like they are under attack. You know, they have watched an administration - and we're talking about the rank and file. I've always said, look, the people who come to hearings, they deserve the tough questions. They make political judgments. You can't argue otherwise. But I think the rank and file is increasingly concerned about the politicizing of intelligence. That's why I mention, when you take, for example, secret warrants and you just kind of pluck out of them a few facts, that's contrary to everything they do in their daily jobs.
INSKEEP: Politicizing, you're saying that there are rank and file, you believe, concerned that the Trump administration is pushing them in a particular way to...
INSKEEP: ...Find particular things or not find particular things. But what about on the level of basic competence, which is what this loss of secrets gets to? Do you think that on a day-to-day basis that the intelligence community is doing its job and doing its job well?
WYDEN: I think we have incredibly loyal, committed people. But you look at our policies around the world - I think our policies around the world, for example, make it harder for us to get allies, harder for us to get informants. Certainly, what we've said about immigration has taken a toll in terms of getting the cooperation we need in very dangerous times.
INSKEEP: One other thing, Senator - Susan Rice, President Obama's national security adviser, wrote a memo that Republican senators are now very interested in on her way out of office, on her way out the door. And she's summarizing a conversation with President Obama. This is after the election. It's right before the inauguration. The Russia investigation is getting going.
And in this memo, Susan Rice says, do the investigation by the book. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies should act by the book. And we'd like to know if there is anybody in the incoming administration with whom we should not share information about Russia. The suggestion seems to be Obama is asking, is there anybody in the new administration who you can't be trusted when it comes to Russia? Do you believe that would have been a reasonable concern by the outgoing president of the United States?
WYDEN: I just heard this quote. It just came across. And I'll tell you - you just described it to me, and there are a lot of Russia questions that need to be asked starting, you know, this morning. We're talking about election security. We're talking about social media. We're talking about an issue that I've really focused on, the follow-the-money questions...
INSKEEP: What about people in the administration...
WYDEN: Let me just get through this.
INSKEEP: ...Who can't be trusted?
WYDEN: Follow-the-money questions because that's counterintelligence 101. That's how you compromise people. Based on what you have read me and we've had the previous administration talking about following the book, that doesn't seem to rate with the things I just described.
INSKEEP: Doesn't seem to rate - what do you mean, doesn't seem...
WYDEN: Well, I'm just saying, we've got real threats right here. You're talking about an email where everybody says, let's go by the book. I'm talking about things like, what's going to happen in the 2018 election?
INSKEEP: You're saying that...
WYDEN: What are we going to do about following the money? What are we going to do about protecting the rank and file in intelligence?
INSKEEP: You're saying that's the real focus.
INSKEEP: Senator, thank you very much.
WYDEN: Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: Ron Wyden of Oregon.
WYDEN: Let's do it again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.