Wyden at intersection of technology and policy

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden became an expert on technology in the most roundabout way.

The Democrat has always been interested in health care issues — he founded the Oregon Gray Panthers, a seniors' advocacy group, in the 1970s. As a member of the House of Representatives, he worked hard to make health care more affordable for everyone. And as a senator, he's sought ways to extend Medicare coverage to prescription drugs.

Along the way, he realized that technology was the enabling tool that could make health care cheaper and could provide information to the public that was otherwise not easily available. So the possibilities of the Internet, and its surrounding technology, became one of his causes.

"What happened a number of years ago is that I found so many areas where health care and technology were constantly intersecting," Wyden said in a recent interview at his Senate office.

Now as the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee, he is in the driver's seat in dealing with technology policies that affect every American. And he helps the Senate stay on top of the technology age, too.

"The Senate has come a long way," he said. "There's still a long way to go."

Wyden has helped the Senate "get it." Among his successes, he has worked for a moratorium on Internet taxation and promoted legislation to make electronic signatures legally binding.

He has offered an olive branch to Republican colleagues to create bipartisan legislation that can garner the necessary votes and become law. He has forged partnerships with GOP allies — such as Sen. George Allen (Va.), Sen. Conrad Burns (Mont.) and Rep. Christopher Cox (Calif.) — to push technology-friendly legislation through Congress.

"I make a special effort at bipartisanship. You can waste a lot of time on petty, small arguments, or you can move quickly to tap these great opportunities for technology," Wyden said.

Wyden gets high marks from those who work with him.

"He understands the issues," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. "He understands the language of technology."

In the environment that has developed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Wyden's mission has become more critical. He is especially interested in how to use technology to protect the country.

"Technology is seen now as integrally related...to winning the war against terrorism," Wyden said.

And that's why he has supported a national Terrorist Identification Classification System, which was folded into the Senate Intelligence authorization bill to create a centralized database of known or suspected terrorists.

"Terror suspects are a lot more likely to be caught if every cop on the beat knows who we're looking for," he said.

He has proved time and again that he is ahead of the curve when it comes to thinking about using technology as a tool.

A key provision of his database bill would require law enforcement officials to improve the way they share information and spread intelligence findings across federal, state and local agencies.

And as the Bush administration struggles to find ways to consolidate information sharing and develop a single structure to fight terrorism, Wyden has said that gathering information is simply not enough.

"Resources must be pinpointed where they can be best used," he said. The database "will ensure that information about terrorists is used to its maximum potential to save American lives."

And he has introduced legislation to establish a "high-tech guard," a national group of volunteers from industry who would provide technical expertise in emergencies.

"This country has already mobilized the military, the government and law enforcement to fight terrorism, but America has yet to tap the tremendous technology and science talents of the private sector," Wyden said.

He should know. After Sept. 11, he heard first-hand stories from Intel Corp., a major employer in Oregon, about how it offered free manpower and machinery to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, only to be turned down because Intel employees didn't have security clearances.

"Why shouldn't the federal government make it possible for this to happen?" Wyden asked. "When Intel wants to send a significant number of people to make it possible to use their staff in a national crisis, why shouldn't they?"

Although that experience was the basis for his introduction of the high-tech guard legislation, Wyden also has been busy making sure that all the gizmos and gadgets that such legislation encompasses become "empowering" tools, not an end unto themselves.

And the senior senator from Oregon, a state with much at stake when it comes to technology, hopes to have a few more wins chalked up by the end of 2002.

"We hope to have a big technology package on the president's desk in the next couple of months that includes cybersecurity legislation and [the] tech guard, and hopefully, he will sign it," Wyden said.

***

The Ron Wyden file

Age: 52

Education: Bachelor's degree from Stanford University and law degree from the University of Oregon School of Law.

Political career: Elected to the Senate in January 1996 to replace Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), who resigned as a result of a sexual harassment scandal. He was a member of the House of Representatives from 1980 to 1996.

Ratings from special interest groups: 90 percent from the Americans for Democratic Action, and 8 percent from the American Conservative Union.

Family: Divorced, two children.

Hobbies: During his free time, Wyden likes to bounce the basketball he keeps in his office. Standing 6 feet 4 inches, he attended the University of California at Santa Barbara on a basketball scholarship before getting his degree from Stanford.

What he's reading: Wyden is rereading his father's books. Peter Wyden wrote nonfiction books, including "The Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story" and "Stella," a story about a German Jewish woman who turned in Jews to the Nazis.

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