Hoyer hails FISA bill as "a significant victory for the Democratic Party"

The House majority leader argues that giving the GOP what it wanted on eavesdropping removed it as an election issue. That's the same mentality that led Democrats to authorize the war in 2002.

Published June 24, 2008 12:51PM (EDT)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV)

Just as Nancy Pelosi ran to Time to justify her support for the FISA bill, Steny Hoyer yesterday spouted his justifications to The Politico and said this:

In an interview with Politico on Monday, Hoyer called the FISA legislation a "significant victory" for the Democratic Party -- one that neutralized an issue Republicans might have been able to use against Democrats in November while still, in his view, protecting the civil liberties of American citizens.

In other words, Democrats achieved a "significant victory" because -- by giving Republicans everything they demanded -- Republicans are no longer able to criticize Democrats on this issue. What a shrewd strategy: "if we comply with all their demands, then they can't criticize us for anything." That's the Democratic Party's plan for winning, according to Hoyer.

But that tactic isn't as innovative as Hoyer tries to suggest. That was exactly the mentality that led huge numbers of Democrats in 2002 to vote to authorize Bush's attack on Iraq: "Let's give the Republicans everything they want on national security and then they can't criticize us any more. That'll show them." Aside from being the very definition of cravenness -- "let's comply with all the GOP's orders and then they won't be mad and that will be good for us!" -- ask Max Cleland, who voted for the AUMF and then had commercials run against him with video of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, how well that strategy works.

Yesterday, National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru commented on the Time/Pelsoi article as follows:

Massimo Calabresi reports in Time that the deal "has drawn attacks from both sides of the political spectrum. The right is unhappy at concessions made to protect civil liberties; the left is furious that the Democrats allowed the domestic spying powers to be extended in any form." I haven't heard much unhappiness being expressed from righties.

I haven't either. Actually, I've heard literally none. As I documented the other day, even the most extreme right-wing absolutists on spying and presidential powers are happy with the bill. The only dissatisfaction with the bill comes from Democrats and civil-liberties-defending libertarians. How can a bill that makes every Republican, including Dick Cheney, ecstatic, while infuriating huge portions of the Democratic base, possibly be "a significant victory for the Democratic Party," as Hoyer proclaimed it to be?

Regarding Pelosi's claim that the Democrats won "significant concessions" -- a claim repeated by Hoyer in the Politico article -- Ponnuru says: "If that's what they want to tell themselves, fine. It sure looks like they got rolled." It looks that way because that's what happened. Who exactly do Pelosi and Hoyer think they're fooling with these self-glorifying claims that they stood down the Republicans and extracted concessions? Dick Cheney couldn't wait to endorse the bill and GOP leaders and right-wing polemicists haven't stopped boasting about how completely Democrats capitulated on what had been one of the most scandalous aspects of the Bush administration -- the fact that he got caught breaking the law when spying on Americans. Doesn't it rather obviously compound, rather than mitigate, the Democrats' humiliation to try to pretend this was some great victory when everyone can see how absurd -- pitifully so -- that claim is?

The Politico article (which, incidentally, misquotes this post of mine completely - (see (*) below) also says this:

Despite those efforts, liberal activists were furious at what they view as a sellout by House Democrats on FISA, particularly on the retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies.

Two liberal groups, Blue America PAC and ColorofChange.org PAC, ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post spelling out their displeasure with Hoyer. But Hoyer has been targeted by the left in the past -- MoveOn.org has run radio ads against him -- but he was reelected with nearly 83 percent of the vote in 2006, and he’s never drawn less than 65 percent of the vote.

"I am aware of it," Hoyer said of the loud criticism from progressive groups of the FISA agreement. "When you try to reach a compromise, the people on one side or the other are not pleased."

Hoyer has this backwards. The nature of a "compromise" is that neither side is happy with the outcome. Where, as here, one side is ecstatic and the other side is furious, that, by definition, is not a "compromise." It is, as Russ Feingold correctly says, a full-scale "capitulation." Hoyer's bill gives the two gifts the administration most wanted -- the power to engage in "vacuum-cleaner" surveillance of communications over U.S. telephone and email networks with no warrant requirement (and no required connection to Terrorism) and a guaranteed end to the telecom lawsuits.

It's also worth noting that Hoyer's district is very Democratic and so it is unsurprising that he wins general elections easily. The way to undermine Hoyer is with a credible primary challenge, preceded by an enduring campaign in his district to make the voting blocs on whom he depends realize how out-of-touch and indifferent he is to their political values and interests. That's the purpose of the ads and robocall campaigns that have started.

One last point: in the days before he unveiled the FISA bill to the public, both Hoyer and his office were vehemently denying reports that he had negotiated and approved a deal to provide retroactive immunity to telecoms. They were even claiming that "there's been an incredible amount of misinformation out on the internet" -- don't let those reckless bloggers "on the internet" claim that Hoyer is negotiating a deal with retroactive immunity. It's not true!

Yet now, here he is boasting to The Politico about how he "was clearly the driving force in the months of arduous discussions over the FISA rewrite" and how he "shepherded a set of FISA amendments through the House last week." They not only do all of this in total secrecy -- so that the public has no opportunity to know about or comment upon the bills they're writing -- but they overtly lie about what they're doing as they're doing it. Then, when they finally unveil a very complex bill they wrote that completely re-writes our nation's surveillance laws, they force a vote on it in less than 24 hours so that the public and even most members of Congress have no time even to understand what they've done before it's passed (though the telecoms themselves were full-fledged participants in the secret negotiations over their own immunity). That's democracy in action, delivered by the Democratic-led House.

UPDATE: I know I made this point earlier this week but I want to highlight it again to give context to Steny Hoyer's mentality. Fox News released a new poll (.pdf) earlier this week and look at what it found:

The Democratic Congress is more popular with Republicans than with Democrats. I really wonder if this is the first time in modern American history when a Congress is more popular among the opposition party than among the party that putatively controls it. And this was taken before the FISA vote, so Hoyer's Congress is certain to become even more popular among the GOP. Demonstrating that is this Editorial from the right-wing Washington Times today, heaping praise on this "great victory for the Democratic Party" (h/t Scientician):

The agreement on changes to the Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA) announced Thursday by the White House and congressional Democrats is an important victory for U.S. national security. Americans owe a debt of gratitude to the Bush administration, in particular National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, and to congressional Republicans, especially Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, for fighting to ensure that the U.S. intelligence community will have the tools it needs to monitor foreign terrorist networks. . . .

The most important benefit of the agreement is that it grants retroactive liability protection to telecommunications companies who responded to the federal government's request for emergency help after September 11. . . . The legislation, which would sunset in 2012, also ends the foolish practice of requiring judicial (or formal attorney-general) authorization to monitor communications between terrorists overseas if their calls are routed through a switch located in the United States.

It also doesn't require warrants when the target is "reasonably believed" to be outside the U.S. and communicating with someone inside the U.S. The Government can tap into U.S. phone and email networks for the first time with no warrants of any kind.

How odd to see The Washington Times, National Review, and the far-right of the GOP celebrating a "great victory for the Democratic Party." I wonder why they're so happy about such a great Democratic accomplishment.

It still remains to be seen what Barack Obama will do. I was just on a conference call with Obama foreign policy advisor Dennis McDonough. The Huffington Post's Scott Bellows asked about Obama's abandonment of his rhetoric vowing to defend the Constitution in order to support this bill, and McDonough adopted the Hoyer line, claiming that this bill has all sorts of great oversight protections including the requirement that the Inspector General submit a report on Bush's spying program (audio is here). That's what now passes for oversight in our Government -- the Executive branch investigates itself when it comes to allegations of criminality. Whatever else is true, there's just no getting around the fact that Obama -- when seeking the nomination -- vowed to support a filibuster of any bill that contains telecom immunity, and his failure to do that here will be a patent breach of that commitment. There's still time for him to adhere to that promise.

UPDATE II: What's most notable about Hoyer's claim here is that a majority of Democratic House members voted against this "significant victory for the Democratic Party," while the GOP was almost unanimously in favor. Digby has additional thoughts on the reasons for the adulation Hoyer receives from The Politico today -- here.

UPDATE III: Barack Obama, trying to be the Democratic nominee, in November, 2007 (h/t C_O):

Barack Obama just unleashed a corker of a speech that had students here at Converse College on their feet and cheering. . . . One of his most passionate passages was not in the prepared text. He promised to close down Guantanamo "because we're not a nation that locks people up without charging them. We will restore habeas corpus. We are not a nation that undermines our civil liberties. We are not a nation that wiretaps without warrants."

Barack Obama, with the Democratic nomination secured, last Friday speaking on the warrantless eavesdropping bill:

But given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay. So I support the compromise . . . .

We don't have to be "a nation that wiretaps without warrants." The bill hasn't passed the Senate yet.

* * * *

[* One of the authors of the Politico article has emailed to acknowledge and apologize for misquoting me in the article and said it is being fixed, which I appreciate.]

UPDATE IV: In an excellent Editorial yesterday, The Philadelphia Inquirer had this to say about Hoyer's "significant victory for the Democratic Party" (h/t Dan Froomkin):

The cover-up is nearly complete. With congressional approval, the Bush administration's warrantless eavesdropping on Americans' overseas phone calls and e-mail for nearly six years will be spared the third-degree treatment by any judge or jury.

At the same time, Bush or his successor would have virtual free rein to continue the massive antiterror surveillance sweeps of communications to and from this country.

Whatever the risk from another terror attack, Americans' privacy would be the assured casualty from these antiterror tactics. . . .Indeed, Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) said the new Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act offered no safeguard against future lawless spying. . . .

The [telecom] lawsuits offered the best means to plumb what occurred during the spy program. That avenue would be blocked now, and it's doubtful that reviews ordered by several agencies' inspectors general will provide a better public accounting.

It's incredible to hear Democrats try to justify their capitulation on grounds that they forced Bush to accept an additional $95 billion worth of domestic spending. Unemployment insurance and higher-education benefits for veterans, great stuff. But since when is it right to horse-trade over the cherished, constitutional right to privacy?

There's still time for the Senate to stand up for the Constitution and reject this deal.

There's still time, but not much -- for lack of a better word -- Hope.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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