When President Donald Trump fired his national security adviser last week for lying about his conversations with a Russian diplomat, nobody thanked Ron Wyden.
They should have.
Michael Flynn, a longtime military intelligence official-turned-top White House adviser, had bonded with Trump over a shared fear of Islam, a fondness for conspiracy theories, and a sympathy for the far-right "traditionalism" of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Leaked government wiretaps of Flynn's secret talks with a Russian ambassador led to his forced resignation Feb. 13. For months, Wyden had been pushing for a full investigation of the Trump campaign's Russian connections. "I was determined to get to the bottom of it," he tells WW.
Wyden wasn't the only person demanding answers. But since September, he's been the loudest voice in Congress calling for the FBI to release what it knows about Trump and the Kremlin—and to do it before Trump can fully take over the intelligence agencies.
Multiple sources on Capitol Hill say Wyden's questions helped keep the issue alive until leaks doomed Flynn.
"In crucial periods, [Wyden] has raised his voice," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy. "He helped ensure that it did not fade away in those periods when it was not headline news."
Now, with several formal investigations underway into the links between Putin and the Trump administration, Wyden, the Democratic senior U.S. senator from Oregon, will have the opportunity—and perhaps the mandate—to lead Congress in exposing the truth about Trump.
As a 16-year member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Wyden has access to secrets few Americans have. Under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Wyden used his position to shed light on at least three illegal domestic surveillance programs.
His new mission: keeping that raw intelligence out of the wrong hands.
"Look, I don't think this is hard, to describe the risk," Wyden tells WW. "When the Russians hacked the [Democratic National Committee], Donald Trump said, 'I wish I had that power.' I think that sums it up."
In the weeks since Trump took office Jan. 20, Wyden has worked to prevent the president or his minions from listening to your phone calls, reading your emails or monitoring your internet browsing history. Wyden has repeatedly warned that Trump's access to the government's surveillance powers poses a threat to liberty and security.
"We've never faced something quite like this," says Wyden, 67. "I think it is extraordinarily important to stand up for the integrity of American institutions. It is as important now as at any point in my lifetime."
Every high-profile Oregon politician embraced his or her calling and acted on it. For Wyden's mentor and idol, Sen. Wayne Morse, as well as Sen. Mark Hatfield, it was early opposition to the Vietnam War. For Wyden's predecessor, Sen. Bob Packwood, it was mastery of the tax code. Even Wyden's junior partner, Sen. Jeff Merkley, found his place on the populist left within months of arriving on Capitol Hill.
For two-thirds of his 36-year congressional career, Wyden rocked no boats and burned few bridges. He was a mayonnaise sandwich from a backwater state, best known for cutting dead-on-arrival deals with Republicans.
But in the past decade, Wyden has finally found his purpose: civil liberties in the age of digital spying. From exposing—and ending—creepy Pentagon programs with names like Total Information Awareness, to catching top spies in blatant lies, Wyden's oversight work has earned notice and respect.
"He more than anybody right now is able to identify when there's problems, even if he can't tell people what they are," says Marcy Wheeler, a longtime intelligence reporter.
"He's the guy who keeps the spirit of Ben Franklin alive in the U.S. Senate," Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) says of Wyden, a fellow member of the Intelligence Committee. "He's not ready to trade his liberty for security."
Wyden's transformation is also personal. It echoes the life story of his father—parts of which were unknown even to Wyden, until recently.
These days in Washington, D.C., Trump supporters practically spit the name Wyden.
"Sen. Wyden, I've got a Valium pill here that you might want to take," Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said in a Jan. 19 Senate Finance Committee hearing, fed up with Wyden's questions. Days later during a floor debate, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) repeatedly and with obvious annoyance referred to Wyden as "the senator from Washington—I'm sorry, from Oregon."
Other senators may not know where he's from—some faraway land of lumberjacks and bacon-scented marijuana—but they know who Wyden is. He's the tall, gangly guy who gets under their skin with his endless, detailed, inescapable questions.
"He's the first to find an issue before it becomes a real issue—he has almost an ability to predict the next big thing," says Kerry Tymchuk, a longtime chief of staff to former Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.).
Former U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.) says Wyden can be tenacious. "If he gets on an issue and he really believes in it, he'll fight for it," she says. "He doesn't play too many games."
Because Congress is basically high school, one of the first things Capitol Hill types volunteer about Wyden is that he is…strange. By which they mean cagey and awkward. At 6-foot-4, Wyden is too large for most furniture and often sits with his feet splayed at odd angles, or up on a desk.
A former basketball player at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Stanford, Wyden keeps a ball handy for pickup games. President Obama challenged him several times to play one-on-one, but Wyden declined because he was waiting for a moment when he had a big favor to ask. "Somehow the time just passed," Wyden says wistfully.
Through much of his political career, Wyden was known to be as chummy with Republicans—especially Smith—as he was with members of his own party.
Critics called him wishy-washy. "I can't imagine how bad he's going to be in three or four years," Ralph Nader told WW in 1995, after calling Wyden gutless in The Oregonian. (Nader accused Wyden of taking corporate money then seeking to relax regulations on pharmaceutical companies.)
But nine months before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Wyden's trajectory changed. He joined the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As a committee member, Wyden participated in inquiries into missed warnings prior to 9/11. He voted for attacking Afghanistan but, inspired by Morse's stand on Vietnam, against the invasion of Iraq.
But it was the USA Patriot Act, which dramatically expanded government surveillance powers and weakened citizens' Fourth Amendment protections, that turned Wyden into a privacy hawk. "Like everyone else, I voted for the Patriot Act," he says. "We had 3,000 people murdered in cold blood."
The Patriot Act opened the door to the worst excesses of the Bush administration. U.S. intelligence agencies created and expanded warrantless wiretapping programs, surveilled mosques, and funneled billions of dollars to private national security contractors.
When the Patriot Act first came up for reauthorization before the Senate in 2005, Wyden was one of only 10 no votes. "Instead of coming back to review it, the Bush administration put their feet on the pedal and kept expanding and expanding it," he explains.
Watchdogging the surveillance state hadn't been Wyden's first choice in the days before 9/11. He was hoping for a seat on the Senate Finance Committee, but party leaders offered him the Intelligence Committee instead in early 2001.
"At the time, I didn't know that much about all the things they did," Wyden recalls. "But I knew they were involved in technology. And I said, 'Huh. I bet my dad would've been interested in that.'"
When Wyden's parents divorced just before his teenage years, he followed his mother to California. Nevertheless, Wyden's father loomed large.
"He was the most patriotic person that I've ever met," Wyden tells WW. "He was definitely a liberal. He always used to say, 'I'm lots more liberal than you, Ron Wyden.'"
Peter Wyden wrote for Newsweek and The Saturday Evening Post. His first success as an author was a groundbreaking study of an infamous American covert operation in Cuba titled Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story. He wrote 16 books, including the illustrated Suburbia's Coddled Kids; a sex therapy memoir co-authored with his second wife, Barbara; and a wrenching personal history of the schizophrenia afflicting Ron's younger brother, Jeffrey, who died in 2002 at age 51.
But the senator's father had a special interest in espionage. That's because during World War II he was trained as an American spy. His assignment: the 4th Communications Unit of the Psychological Warfare Division of the 12th U.S. Army Group in the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. His specialty: producing German-language anti-fascist propaganda.
Born in West Berlin in 1923 as Peter Weidenreich, he was 13 when his family fled the Nazis for America, trading a home in a wealthy Berlin neighborhood for a small apartment on East 20th Street in Manhattan.
As a young man, Weidenreich worked as a reporter for the daily Metal Worker. In the early 1940s, he volunteered for the U.S. Army and was assigned to a facility so secret it didn't even have a telephone: Camp Sharpe in Gettysburg, Pa.
Camp Sharpe had a single purpose—training soldiers for psychological warfare. There, Weidenreich trained under Hans Habe, a flamboyant Austrian writer and former French legionnaire who had married an American heiress before being drafted to run an Allied propaganda campaign on Axis territory. Habe hand-picked a team of journalists and intellectuals who were also refugees from Germany, Austria and Hungary.
Weidenreich "seems to have been one of Habe's favorites," Beverley Eddy, author of 2014's Camp Sharpe's "Psycho Boys", tells WW.
According to Eddy, Weidenreich crossed the English Channel to the beaches of Normandy a few days after D-Day and was involved in one of the most remarkable bloodless victories of the war. An American reconnaissance patrol of 24 men, backed by French guerrillas, persuaded a Nazi general to surrender 20,000 soldiers. Weidenreich manned the loudspeaker and translated during the surrender negotiations.
A photograph at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—marked "Luxembourg, 1945"—shows Weidenreich standing behind Habe alongside other Army intelligence officers.
"Yeah, that's definitely my dad!" Sen. Wyden said, shown the picture for the first time in his D.C. office. As far as Wyden knew, his father's propaganda work consisted of writing anti-Nazi leaflets. But, as he was "flabbergasted" to learn, there was more to it.
After Germany's surrender, Habe founded Die Neue Zeitung—"the new newspaper"—a daily newspaper with offices in Munich and Frankfurt. It carried the Allied government's official view, along with a range of opinions, and was an important element in the campaign of "de-Nazification." Weidenreich, only 23, led the paper's Berlin bureau.
In 1946, Weidenreich moved back to the U.S., changed his name to Wyden, and went to work at The Wichita Eagle. His son Ron was born in Kansas in 1949 to his wife, Edith, another Jewish refugee who also served in the U.S. Army.
Politicians often set priorities based on the will of their constituents, or donors. But Ron Wyden's focus on the security state can't be so easily explained.
This may be a case where patrimony trumps pragmatism. "His father was probably the most powerful influence in his life," Wyden's former chief of staff and longtime consigliere, Josh Kardon, once told Politico.
Wyden doesn't like to talk about how his father's experience informs his views. He simply says his dad, who died in 1998, taught him the value of skepticism.
"If my dad knew I was on the Intelligence Committee," Wyden tells WW, "I'd say, 'My job is to break no oaths, share no classified secrets, and ask the tough questions.'"
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is one thicket in the vast "wilderness of mirrors" that is the world of espionage.
America's so-called intelligence community is a $67 billion, 17-agency bureaucratic octopus that includes the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency. Overseeing all of this are 15 senators—eight Republicans and seven Democrats, including Wyden.
Most intelligence committee meetings are secret, held in a "vaulted" area of the Capitol Visitor Center under 24-hour guard. Were a member of Congress or security-cleared congressional staff to expose classified information, he or she would probably be removed from the committee, censured or even criminally investigated. As recently as two years ago, a CIA lawyer asked the Justice Department to indict Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) staff for allegedly leaking classified reports on torture.
In short, Wyden has to try to limit the abuses of the intelligence apparatus—without talking publicly about what the president or his spy agencies are doing. That's delicate work. But Wyden's efforts still stand out.
He's introduced 26 intelligence-related oversight bills since 2001, including a 2015 bill to restrict the government from tracking cellphone locations. Wyden's diligent questioning has also become legendary. "He's certainly one of the best-prepared members of the Intelligence Committee," says Siobhan Gorman, a former intelligence reporter for The Wall Street Journal. "It's obviously a passion."
Not everyone is impressed.
"Wyden has the right instincts, but he's afraid," says former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, who served 27 years and prepared daily briefings for President Ronald Reagan. "He seems to be a little shell-shocked, just like the other senators." McGovern cites instances when Wyden failed to follow up with witnesses who gave misleading answers, or missed opportunities to read classified information into the Congressional Record.
Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Lee Tien, who handles legislative affairs for the San Francisco-based digital rights group, is more generous.
"It's Congress' job to keep the executive branch in line," Tien says. "There's one thing I can say about Sen. Wyden: He's always tried to do that while at the same time honoring his ethical obligations as a member of Congress. In terms of trying to tell the public what's going on—without actually telling us—he's gone far beyond what other members of Congress have done."
Famously, in a March 2013 Intelligence Committee hearing that was open to the public, Wyden asked then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions, or hundreds of millions of Americans?"
"No, sir," Clapper replied.
"It does not?" Wyden responded.
"Not wittingly," Clapper replied.
"All right. Thank you," Wyden concluded.
Three months later, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked thousands of documents that proved Clapper had lied. Clapper said he had answered Wyden in the "least most untruthful manner." Clapper was never sanctioned for lying to Congress, and stayed in office until last month.
The global surveillance apparatus now reports to President Trump, whose debts remain a mystery.
Last month, Wyden led the attempt to block Trump's nominee to lead the $15 billion CIA, former U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.). The reason: Among other things, Pompeo supported a new centralized intelligence database, unprecedented in scope, combining phone and email records of Americans with "lifestyle" information culled from social media. "I have never heard an idea so extreme, so overarching and so intrusive of Americans' privacy," Wyden declared.
On Jan. 23, Wyden forced a six-hour Senate floor debate on Pompeo's confirmation.
"We are headed into dangerous times," Wyden warned the nearly empty chamber. "If confirmed as CIA director, the doors would close, and he would operate in secret."
It didn't matter.
Pompeo was confirmed by a vote of 66 in favor, including 14 Democrats, to 32 opposed, including Wyden. "I didn't think we'd do as well as we did," he says.
Wyden's current focus is the Senate investigation into the Trump administration's alleged ties to Russian and Ukrainian spies, gangsters and oligarchs.
Wyden has pressed committee leaders for, and obtained their commitment to, three essential elements: subpoena power, declassification of evidence and open hearings.
"I believe the next step on Russia should be Mike Flynn walking into an open Intelligence Committee hearing, raising his right hand, taking the oath, and telling the American people what in the world is going on here," Wyden says.
He is counting on the people—what Wyden calls a growing "grassroots juggernaut"—to help him force accountability in the White House.
Wyden saw the earth tremble at a Feb. 4 appearance at the Linn-Benton Community College gymnasium in Albany. The bleachers were jammed with more than 1,500 attendees, who cheered wildly as Wyden entered the town-hall meeting.
During questions, multiple people expressed fear. A Marine Corps veteran said: "I'm proud to be a Jewish American and I'm very concerned…. The parallels between Trump's administration and what was going on in 1933 under Adolf Hitler are terrible. What can we do and what can you do to help relieve this situation?"
Wyden listened, lips pursed.
He denounced Trump's "extreme views," but stopped short of comparing the president to Hitler. "You talked about Jewish Americans…. My parents fled the Nazis," Wyden said.
"Again and again we're seeing what I call a challenge to the Oregon way," he went on. He asked whether former Sen. Hatfield or former Gov. Tom McCall would have tolerated Trump's immigration policies. "That's what this 'vetting' is all about. This is code for having religious tests. And we're going to fight it."
By the time Wyden finished, his fist was clenched tight. His comments were like his career in microcosm: cautious instincts finally giving way to conviction.
And he keeps getting louder. On Feb. 18, Wyden held another packed town hall in Oregon City. Every other question was about Trump and Russia.
"There is nothing more important on my plate," he said. "Nothing that is more central to the legitimacy and the credibility and the confidence we have in the American government than getting to the bottom of this."
The crowd rose to its feet, stomping and cheering. "Sweeping it under the rug is not acceptable, and I am not going to let it happen," Wyden hollered. "Not—going—to let it happen!"
For once, Wyden's views weren't a secret.
Sen. Ron Wyden will host a town hall meeting at noon Saturday, Feb. 25, at the David Douglas High School gym, 1001 SE 135th Ave. He will also speak on digital privacy next month at TechfestNW (techfestnw.com), produced by WW.