Anatomy and significance of Monday's FISA victory

There are several valuable lessons to learn from examining how the establishment's FISA bill was disrupted.


Glenn Greenwald
December 18, 2007 7:55PM (UTC)

It is absolutely true that yesterday's victory in forcing Harry Reid to pull the FISA bill from the Senate floor is temporary. Allies of the administration and lawbreaking telecoms will spend the next several weeks plotting to overcome the obstacles thrown in their path yesterday and, like a weed that has been cut but not uprooted, will return in January to try again.

Opponents of telecom amnesty and warrantless surveillance ought to and likely will use that time, too, to strengthen the opposition and improve the strategy. There will be ample time for all of that. But yesterday's victory, while limited, is still very significant in several key respects, particularly in understanding how and why it happened -- i.e. the source of the successful opposition -- and it is worth taking a step back to chronicle what took place.

Advertisement:

On October 18, it was announced that Dick Cheney and Jay Rockefeller had reached an agreement on a new FISA bill that would dramatically expand the President's warrantless surveillance powers beyond what the original FISA law provided. It also would provide full-scale retroactive immunity for all telecoms which participated in the President's illegal spying efforts, a gift that would effectively end all efforts to investigate the administration's illegal spying programs and hold the lawbreakers accountable.

That day, The Washington Post announced that "Senate Democrats and Republicans reached agreement with the Bush administration" which "would wipe out a series of pending lawsuits alleging violations of privacy rights by telecommunications companies that provided telephone records, summaries of e-mail traffic and other information to the government after Sept. 11, 2001, without receiving court warrants."

The Rockefeller-led Senate Intelligence Committee, within a matter of a day or so, quickly passed the White House's desired bill, one which The New York Times, the next day, revealed had been secretly worked on for months by Rockefeller and, through emissaries, Dick Cheney. As Russ Feingold said yesterday, the Rockefeller proposal passed by the Intelligence Committee "simply gives the Administration everything it was demanding, no questions asked."

By that point, both prongs of the White House's FISA demands -- increased surveillance powers and telecom immunity -- seemed to be an absolute fait accompli. It would all follow the same depressing pattern we've seen all year long whereby the President easily gets everything he demands from the Congress.

Thus, the usual roster of obedient establishment propagandists -- the David Igantius's and Fred Hiatts and Joe Kleins -- dutifully lined up (as always) to support the White House's demands, explaining condescendingly to the masses how Important it was for their Safety that telecoms receive something the masses would never get: immunity from having deliberately broken our laws for years. They further insisted that when the telecoms and high government officials broke our laws, it was only because they were acting patriotically, doing this all for our own Good (without mentioning that they were profiting immensely in the process). By that point, nobody other than blogs, the ACLU, EFF, and similar groups were paying the slightest attention to this lobbyist-led, bipartisan establishment scheme, which was well on its way to being implemented.

* * * *

Advertisement:

But that's when something truly significant happened. The idea for a Dodd "hold" on telecom immunity spontaneously arose in several places on the morning of October 18, when the Cheney/Rockefeller deal was announced. One commenter here, Jim White, wrote this comment almost immediately in response to my early morning post about the Rockefeller capitulation:

In the Senate, one brave Senator can put a hold on legislation. Is it possible to convince Russ Feingold to step up and be a true patriot here? Is there another Senator we should approach instead? I think we should choose one, and deluge that office with calls, emails and even live demonstrators for those who live close enough to pressure one brave person to do what is right. Sadly, I think it will be necessary to find a single patriot, since we are unlikely to find 41 who will vote against cloture on this.

At virtually the time, there was an email exchange between a relatively small group of bloggers and a couple of representatives from grass-roots organizations in which the same idea arose: finding a Senator who would be willing to place a "hold" on the Rockefeller immunity bill. Earlier that morning, Big Tent Democrat had noted that Chris Dodd had issued a strongly worded statement against Jay Rockefeller's bill, and he urged Dodd to announce he would lead a filibuster against the bill. Based on all of that, it was quickly recognized, both in comments and in that email group, that the obvious choice to target for a "hold" was Dodd, who had made constitutional and oversight issues the centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

Within literally a matter of minutes, numerous blogs began urging their readers to contact the Dodd campaign to ask Dodd to place a "hold" on any bill containing immunity. MoveOn sent out an email to its membership list urging the same. Blog readers and others then deluged the Dodd campaign by the thousands, tying up their telephones and overflowing their email boxes.

It was exclusively in response to that blog-based outpouring of citizen passion that Dodd -- within a matter of a few hours -- emphatically vowed that he would do something he has almost never done during his 24-year Senate career: place a "hold" on this bill and, if necessary, lead a filibuster against it on the floor of the Senate. Dodd's responsiveness, and the all-too-rare leadership he displayed, prompted an outpouring of support for his campaign from citizens hungry for any sort of Democratic leadership, as he raised $200,000 in small donations over the next 24 hours alone, exceeding the total he had raised for the preceding many months.

Advertisement:

* * * * *

From the beginning, there was pure hostility from numerous Beltway crevices towards Dodd's stance. The Beltway media largely ignored it except to mock it and question its authenticity with their standard lip-curling, jaded pettiness. The very day that Dodd announced his hold, Harry Reid made clear that he was hostile to it, and strongly insinuated that he would not honor it. That led to an outburst of anger directed towards Reid's office which caused them -- falsely as it turns out -- to spend weeks issuing public and private assurances that Reid would treat Dodd's hold the same way he treats other holds.

More significantly still, the leading presidential candidates -- particularly Clinton and Obama -- originally said nothing about any of these matters. That led to a separate joint effort from blogs and their readers, along with MoveOn, to demand that the Clinton and Obama campaigns issue a statement vowing to support Dodd's stance. When the issued statements were ambiguous and seemingly noncommittal, a further controversy erupted, and in response, the Obama campaign (though never the Clinton campaign) clarified that they intended to express categorical and unconditional support for Dodd's filibuster.

Advertisement:

Without question, it was those efforts, spontaneously created and driven by blogs and their readers, which led directly to the principled stand Chris Dodd took yesterday in defense of the rule of law. This was not a process whereby some Beltway politician announced a campaign and then citizens fell into line behind it. The opposite occurred. The very idea for the "hold" originated among a few citizens, was almost immediately exploded into a virtual movement by tens of thousands of people, and was then made into a reality by a single political figure, Chris Dodd, responding to that passion by taking the lead on it.

Here is Dodd himself last night explaining that this is exactly what happened, that his virtually solitary efforts (eventually supported by a handful of his Senate colleagues) were propelled by the hundreds of thousands of citizens supporting what he was doing:



These original steps catalyzed several other important events that kept the corrupt immunity bill in the spotlight. The day before the Rockefeller/Cheney agreement was announced, Nancy Pelosi actually was forced to pull a relatively reasonable, immunity-free FISA bill from the House floor because it lacked the votes to pass, but weeks later, the House returned with more resolve and, with the leadership of people like John Conyers and Rush Holt, was able to pass the RESTORE Act, which contains multiple key oversight provisions and no telecom immunity of any kind. The controversy that erupted over Joe Klein's false FISA article in Time further prevented the issue from being suppressed, as that led to numerous key Democratic lawmakers -- Dodd and John Conyers and Rush Holt and Russ Feingold and Silvestre Reyes -- ultimately issuing public statements condemning Klein and aggressively defending the far superior House bill.

Advertisement:

* * * * *

By itself, derailing a bill that Harry Reid and Jay Rockefeller, hand-in-hand with GOP followers of the White House, were working so hard to ensure would pass smoothly is a major victory. That is particularly true given that the entire cast of standard establishment defenders and propagandists -- all fed by the Jamie Gorelicks and the rest of the bipartisan slew of slimy telecom lobbyists working in the dark and suddenly feeding the coffers of key pro-immunity lawmakers with new infusions of cash -- all lined up behind giving the extraordinary gift of immunity to telecoms.

Even now, in the wake of his defeat yesterday, Harry Reid is doing everything possible to undermine efforts to defeat the telecom immunity bill that he claims he opposes. This is from today's Washington Post article detailing the defeat of telecom immunity ("in the face of more than a dozen amendments to the bill and guerrilla tactics from its opponents, Reid surprised his colleagues when he announced there would not be enough time to finish the job")

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the decision had nothing to do with the efforts of Dodd and his allies.

There are Harry Reid's true colors: going out of his way to deny that the pernicious group known as "Dodd and his allies" had any effect whatsoever on the Senate's efforts to bow to every one of Bush's demands. We can't have any notion that the Establishment's will was disrupted in any way by dirty outside forces.

Advertisement:

This morning's New York Times article -- which calls yesterday's events "a setback for the White House" -- quotes White House spokesman Tony Fratto criticizing Reid's decision to pull the bill: "It’s very disappointing . . . .Each day of delay brings us closer to reopening a dangerous intelligence gap that we closed last summer." Put simply, it was the joint effort of the White House, the GOP Senate caucus, Senate Democratic leaders, Beltway pundits and the telecom industry and their star lobbyists that was thwarted yesterday.

Reid himself, when announcing the withdrawal on the Senate floor, acknowledged:

So, this is an issue that the American people are focused on. I've gotten in the last week or so, thousands of inquires from all around the country. This is an issue they understand, they don't like.

The most important lesson to learn here is that it is always possible for citizens to influence and disrupt even the most fortified Beltway establishment schemes. When that fails to happen, it's never because it can't be done, because it's impossible, because the deck is too stacked against it, etc. Rather, when there is failure in this regard, it's because the right strategy wasn't discovered, or because not enough pressure was generated, or because there were insufficient tools of persuasion deployed.

The most important value of victories of this sort is that they ought to serve as a potent tonic against defeatism, regardless of the ultimate outcome. And successes like this can and should provide a template for how to continue to strengthen these efforts. Yesterday's victory, temporary as it is, shouldn't be over-stated, but it also shouldn't be minimized. All of it stemmed from the spontaneous passion and anger of hundreds of thousands of individuals demanding that telecoms be subject to the rule of law like everyone else. And this effort could have been -- and, with this additional time, still can be -- much bigger and stronger still.

Advertisement:

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn GreenwaldFOLLOW ggreenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Washington, D.c.

BROWSE SALON.COM
COMPLETELY AD FREE,
FOR THE NEXT HOUR

Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address

•••





Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •