Wyden Puff Piece Errors

In the latest New Yorker, Ryan Lizza writes on “State of Deception: Why won’t the President rein in the intelligence community?” Which would be an interesting topic. Alas Lizza says little about it. Instead he summarizes the history of NSA spying on US citizens, supported via misleading statements and tortured legal interpretations, and talks the most about one Senator Ron Wyden’s heroic fight against the NSA.

Even though Wyden hasn’t actually succeeded at much. Lizza tells us that Wyden attached sunset provisions to the Patriot Act (which he supported), and asked the question at a Senate hearing where the NSA head’s answer was later shown to be misleading. Lizza speculates that Wyden’s many secret memos “repeatedly challenging the NSA’s contention that [a particular] program was effective” caused the NSA to drop that program. Oh and Wyden voted against some bills that passed, introduced bills that didn’t pass, and argued with Obama.

Here is the concrete Wyden accomplishement for which Lizza gives the most detail:

Three months later, the Defense Department started a new program with the Orwellian name Total Information Awareness. T.I.A. was based inside the Pentagon’s Information Awareness Office, which was headed by Admiral John Poindexter. In the nineteen-eighties, Poindexter had been convicted, and then acquitted, of perjury for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. He wanted to create a system that could mine a seemingly infinite number of government and private-sector databases in order to detect suspicious activity and preëmpt attacks. The T.I.A. system was intended to collect information about the faces, fingerprints, irises, and even the gait of suspicious people. In 2002 and 2003, Wyden attacked the program as a major affront to privacy rights and urged that it be shut down.

In the summer of 2003, while Congress debated a crucial vote on the future of the plan, Wyden instructed an intern to sift through the Pentagon’s documents about T.I.A. The intern discovered that one of the program’s ideas was to create a futures market in which anonymous users could place bets on events such as assassinations and terrorist attacks, and get paid on the basis of whether the events occurred. Wyden called Byron Dorgan, a Democratic senator from North Dakota, who was also working to kill the program. “Byron, we’ve got what we need to win this,” he told him. “You and I should make this public.” Twenty-four hours after they exposed the futures-market idea at a press conference, Total Information Awareness was dead. Poindexter soon resigned.

It was Wyden’s first real victory on the Intelligence Committee. (more)

That “futures market” program mentioned was called the Policy Analysis Market (PAM). As I was a chief architect, I happen to know that this discussion is quite misleading:

  1. TIA was a DARPA research project to develop methods for integrating masses of info; it wasn’t an actual program to handle such info masses.
  2. I’ve been told by several sources that TIA research didn’t stop, it just moved elsewhere. PAM, in contrast, did stop.
  3. PAM was not part of TIA; the only relation is that both were among the score of research programs under Poindexter in the DARPA management hierarchy.
  4. Though Wyden called it “Terrorism Futures,” PAM was mainly about forecasting geopolitical instability in the MidEast. The basis for the claim that it was about terrorism was a single website background screen containing a concept sample screen which included a small miscellaneous section listing the events “Arafat assassinated” and “North Korea missile strike.”

All those errors in just two paragraphs of a 12,500 word article. Makes me wonder how many more errors are in the rest.

It is hard to believe that Lizza’s article didn’t get a lot of input from Wyden. So Wyden is likely responsible for most of these errors. Thus to fight the NSA’s spying supported by lying, Wyden eagerly lied about an unrelated research program, in order to kill a research program with a symbolic tangential relation to NSA spying. Which wasn’t actually killed. Seems a bit underwhelming as a reason to make Wyden the main actor in a story on NSA spying. I see better candidates.

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  • Dave Lindbergh

    Not to say you’re mistaken about the facts, but I doubt this particular article has a higher rate of errors than others.

    We all notice the factual errors in articles about subjects we know about – and miss the equal number of errors in articles on other subjects.


    I’m sorry but the “errors” here seem minor (as if it’s somehow hugely important that TIA was a test program that had not yet been chosen to be used by the NSA, while they certainly had the intention, why else would they want it developed?) and the fact that Wyden didn’t get enough support to pass laws does not make him less of a fighter against the NSA (you don’t have to win to be a fighter). I get the feeling Robin is just pissed because futures markets were attacked here.

    • Doug

      Why write an entire feature on an obscure Senator> Why not write about Rand Paul, a much larger national figure and more vociferous spying critic? Why not write about the Tea Party’s hatred for the NSA, a major faction of the Republican party constituting dozens of lawmakers?

      Here’s my guess. Those types of people represent “yucky proles” from places like Tennessee and Nebraska. Wyden is basically a real life version of the SWPL Mayor from Portlandia. Most of the good progressives who write from the New Yorker are indeed rightly outraged about the NSA.

      But they don’t exactly want to devote dozens of pages to someone that they’d be embarrassed to bring to a DC cocktail party. Snowden certainly doesn’t fit the bill. The man is a Ron Paul supporter for God’s sakes! That’s only two steps removed from genuinely racist ideologies!

      Nationally prominent left-wing politicians who oppose the NSA are in reality pretty scarce. So they find who they can, however weak his actual opposition or record may be. (“Yes, I was for spying, but mark my words I wanted it sunset-ed”) And as the NSA programs crumble under their outrageous overreach, as they inevitability will, what Moldbug calls “The Cathedral” re-writes the historical narrative to make sure the “right kind” of people get the credit.

      • Wyden will ever be celebrated for his role in stopping COICA/SOPA/PIPA. He’s anything but obscure.

      • IMASBA

        Wyden isn’t more obscure than Paul. They have the same rank, the only reason Paul is more well known is because of his cookiness. Also, Paul is a known critic of excessive spying, but the story of who is actually doing tedious political work (committees, digging up reports, writing bills, etc…) may be more complicated. Nonetheless you’re right that Paul’s stances on other subjects make many journalists uncomfortable with him.

      • oldoddjobs

        Now that you mention it, he does resemble a cookie!

      • If anyone has hypocritical, opportunist positions on surveillance-related questions, it’s Rand Paul. (See http://www.salon.com/2013/03/07/rand_pauls_mixed_civil_liberties_track_record/ )


        Paul said that he supports monitoring foreign exchange students from the Middle East: “I do want them going after, for example, let’s say we have a 100,000 exchange students from the Middle East — I want to know where they are, how long they’ve been here, if they’ve overstayed their welcome, whether they’re in school.”


        He said that he might support imprisoning people who attend “radical” speeches: “You might have to indirectly take into account whether or not they’ve been going to radical political speeches by religious leaders. It wouldn’t be that they are Islamic. But if someone is attending speeches from someone who is promoting the violent overthrow of our government, that’s really an offense that we should be going after. They should be deported or put in prison.”

        Paul’s inconsistencies generally derive from the kind of arrogant American national chauvinism Robin (and I’d suppose you) deride.

        (Why pick a ruling-class politician, when they’re all unprincipled? I agree with Robin’s choice of Snowden. But would he condescend to defend the “yucky prole” Bradley Manning?)

      • A second thought about this. Wyden seems to be getting a lot of attention on surveillance. For example: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/government_programs/july-dec13/nsa2_12-13.html .

        Why Wyden and not the Tea Party? Perhaps the Tea Party isn’t really much concerned with this issue, except as a tool to embarrass Obama. Rand Paul certainly hasn’t been ignored. He just seems not to care as much about making noises against the NSA than against Obamacare.

        After all, how much appeal does anti-NSA have to that all-important Tea Party “base”? (Centered, as it is, in the historically militarist deep South.)

      • Nationally prominent left-wing politicians who oppose the NSA are in reality pretty scarce. So they find who they can, however weak his actual opposition or record may be.

        Everyone is probably aware that a federal judge held that NSA’s data-collection methods are unconstitutional. The suit was brought by a conservative, but only liberal Democrats are quoted in this Politico piece. ( http://www.politico.com/story/2013/12/nsa-ruling-hill-reaction-101220.html )

        Does the Tea Party choose to make less noise about the NSA than the liberals or is the Politico article biased in the manner you suggest? (Serious question.)

    • the fact that Wyden didn’t get enough support to pass laws does not make him less of a fighter against the NSA

      True, but the fact that he originally supported the Patriot Act and disapproves of Snowden (who accomplished more) does make him less of a fighter against the NSA.

      What I find amusing in this story (if Robin will excuse me) is that Wyden succeeded in his superficial attack on surveillance using guilt by association. He made surveillance “look bad” by associating it with something (apparently) more unsavory: prediction markets.

      • IMASBA

        The part you find amusing is probably the part that got Robin angry enough to write the above piece.

  • I’m still holding out hope that this man will be our next president. He’s one of the good guys.


    Not sure what his deal is regarding prediction markets. Perhaps it was a legitimate misunderstanding, or perhaps the reporter is misrepresenting it..

    • B_For_Bandana

      Man, I don’t know how to break this to you, but Aaron Swartz is not going to be the next president of anything.

  • Douglas Knight

    This article seems pretty close to your interpretation: Wyden wanted to get rid of Poindexter; he succeeded.

  • Christian Kleineidam

    Just because Wyden give a lot of input doesn’t mean that he’s responsible for the errors. Journalists do have a habit of changing facts here and there to fit the narrative better.

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