Opinion

The last real mavericks of the Senate

Mark Udall and Ron Wyden are taking their party to task on CIA torture — and the former might pay the price

In today's national politics, actual candidates have never mattered less. With party discipline at historic highs, most candidates just provide a benign face for their respective parties, as this jokey quiz from Vox demonstrates. This development is playing absolute hell with our poorly designed constitutional system, but it does make voting a lot easier.

However, there are a few areas where individual candidates do matter, where certain people may make an important, even historic, difference. One of those is the Senate. Its members are few, and its committees have some power. Perhaps the most important of these right now is the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees America's sprawling security apparatus. It has been embroiled in a major constitutional crisis since at least March, when a dispute between the committee and the CIA exploded into open conflict.

Two committee members have emerged as the most consistent critics of rampant security state abuse and defenders of the rule of law: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who is up for re-election this cycle. They might be the lone members of Congress whose individual identity and principles actually make a positive difference.

Here's why. For five years now, the SSCI has been working on a gigantic report on the CIA's illegal torture program from the Bush years, and the agency has been fighting like rabid weasels to suppress the report, undermine its conclusions, and discredit the people who worked on it, because torture is a war crime. That included spying on committee staffers and then accusing them of hacking the CIA's computers, something SSCI chair Dianne Feinstein called "a potential effort to intimidate this staff."

President Obama has effectively sided with the CIA torturers, and the committee Republicans have been lukewarm in defense of their own position at best. Most of the major votes have been bipartisan, but member Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who would become committee chair if the Republicans win the upcoming midterms, is basically a CIA stooge and would likely suppress the report.

Udall and Wyden, by contrast, have been the most consistent and dogged critics of the security state even while their own party's leader has been running the thing. They've consistently demanded that the administration stop slow-walking its redactions of the SSCI torture report, that it release another secret CIA torture investigation, and that it at least declassify the latter's executive summary.

Elsewhere, they demanded and got the administration to release its (utterly bogus) legal justification for its drone assassination program. They've insisted that the NSA's dragnet surveillance program has achieved little of substance and that it must be reformed.

Wyden was re-elected in a crushing victory in 2010, so he has little to worry about. But the race in Colorado is very tight, so the outcome of Udall's race (currently, he is behind slightly) will not only determine whether one of the few prominent critics of America's abusive security apparatus survives, but whether Republicans tip the chamber and seize the committee gavels. His opponent, another CIA bootlicker named Cory Gardner, has been terror-baiting him relentlessly. Maintaining serious principles in a swing state against a duplicitous fearmonger, and against the president from one's own party too boot, takes real political courage.

Now, both these guys are far from perfect. Even they don't seem to take their own principles as seriously as they might — neither of them have so far considered reading the Senate torture report into the Congressional Record, for instance. But when it comes to the U.S. Congress, they're as good as we got.

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