Transcript: Interview with Sen. Russ Feingold

Talking with the Wisconsin Democrat about Obama's civil liberties record and his own re-election bid

Published September 14, 2010 10:10AM (EDT)

To listen to this interview, go here:

Glenn Greenwald: My guest today on Salon Radio is Senator Russ Feingold, the Democrat from Wisconsin, who is a member of, among other committees, the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees, and we're here to discuss several different issues in the news.  Senator, thanks very much for joining me this morning.

Russ Feingold: Great to be on the show, Glenn,

GG: So, I want to begin by asking you this: you were, as everyone knows, a leading critic of the abuses of civil liberties during the Bush years, beginning with your lone vote against the PATRIOT ACT.  One of the central themes of the Obama campaign, the presidential campaign, was to restore civil liberties, reverse these excesses, far beyond the issue of torture, sort of the whole panoply of radical powers that were asserted.

There is a lot of anger on the left and among civil libertarians at what is perceived to be Obama's failure to carry through on that agenda.  The ACLU executive director Anthony Romero recently said in a speech that he is, quote, "disgusted with" the president. And there is an article this morning in the Washington Times that quotes Michael Hayden, who is one of Bush's hardest-core advocates of these extreme presidential powers, praising Obama for following the Bush agenda, and saying, quote, "there is more continuity than divergence between the Bush and Obama administrations' approaches to the war on terror."

Do you agree with General Hayden's observation in that regard, and what's your overall assessment of President Obama's record in the realm of civil liberties?

RF: I don't have very good feelings about this, as I've made clear. I laid out prior to the election a series of things that basically we've given a report card on civil liberties to whomever the new president was, and naturally when President Obama was elected, I was expecting great things, expecting great deeds, and it's been mixed at best in this area. I think it's unfortunate that Mr. Hayden, General Hayden's view of some of these things that he's so happy with the Obama administration because it suggests in a number of areas the Obama administration is not reversing critical Bush policies.

Now, the fact is, President Obama is better than George Bush in this area, at least in the initial actions that had to do with terror, with torture, which had to do with Guantanamo, and some of those issues were significantly better. But then there's been a period of time where things have gone very slow in dealing with the Guantanamo issue, I'm very concerned about the state secrets issues is way too much like the previous administration, and even in areas of assertion of presidential power, under Article II, too many of his appointees are continuing to assert what I consider to be an unconstitutional view of Article II, reverting back to George Bush's policies.

So I am troubled; I certainly think President Obama has a much greater sensitivity to these issues than George Bush, but the proof is in the pudding, and so far we have not had the kind of reversal in this area that I think is necessary, not only for our national security but also for our constitution. It needs to get better.

GG: One of the central tools that the Bush administration employed in order to commit some of these abuses was the lack of real oversight exerted by the Senate and by the Congress generally, especially over the intelligence community and covert programs. There's been recent conflict between the administration and some Democratic leaders in Congress over efforts to intensify the oversight regime. What's the status of that, and what's your view on what more is needed to improve oversight?

RF: This is an area where I've said the Obama administration has clearly improved over the Bush administration. Leon Panetta in particular has shown more sensitivity to the appropriate role of Congress and the intelligence committees, and I assume that's in part because he has real experience working in these areas. I am hoping that the new DNI, Mr. Clapper, will also show greater sensitivity, which we did not get from Blair as far as I'm concerned, but I think Clapper has shown, in terms of some of my work on the Intelligence Committee, a greater understanding and respect for the critical oversight role that you're talking about.

So that is an area where I am hopeful. I think there is a very significant improvement, and that they understand that those of us on the Intelligence Committee are there to make sure the law is followed, but also to help, to help them do their jobs, but they have to follow the law. And I do have a much higher level of trust in Leon Panetta that I do in some of the people under the Bush administration who seem to me always finding an excuse for whatever George Bush and Cheney and others came up with.

GG: Now, what about the threat on the part of the White House to veto legislation that would have included provisions, for example, to empower the GAO to audit new intelligence programs for compliance with the law, and to require broader reporting obligations to full intelligence committees rather that the so-called Gang of Eight?  Are those reforms actually necessary, and were you disappointed by the veto threat to prevent those from becoming enacted?

RF: Very disappointed in the veto threat. There is no justification for continuing the abuse of the law in the area of the Gang of Eight rules.  The key point is it would be a superb way to add credibility. When I talked to General Clapper he said he would welcome this kind of input from the GAO; it would help him. So, I think the administration was completely off base by not taking this step, and I would hope the president would review this himself because he as a former senator and legislator knows that that kind of information is helpful, there is no way that this compromises national security to do what they do, and there are all kinds of protections for that, so not only is it wrong to oppose this, the notion of threatening to veto something as clean and  appropriate as the GAO the Gang of Eight rule is just very unfortunate.

It's an executive branch that, regardless of the president, seeks overarching powers that really are not justified under the Constitution. We pass these statutes to say that certain people, the Intelligence Committee people should get all this information, except for very rare circumstances, has been over-interpreted in an inappropriate way, and that needs to change if we're going to have the kind of intelligence community that the American people can believe in, and that we need to be effective in fighting terror.

GG: One of the issues that you mentioned as far as the areas in which you're disappointed with the president, you highlighted it, is in the news this week, which is his essentially identical use of the state secrets privilege, abuse of the state secrets privilege, as the one that was pioneered by the Bush administration.  Of course, the Ninth Circuit this week upheld the assertion of that privilege to prevent judicial adjudication of the rendition and torture program on behalf of torture victims that was brought in court.  There was legislation that was talked about towards the beginning of the administration, of which I believe you were a co-sponsor, to limit the state secrets privilege, to prevent its abuse; it seems to have gone nowhere.

What's the status of that, and given how vocal Democrats were in objecting to the abuse of the state secrets privilege during the Bush administration, why under the Democratic majority, such a large Democratic majority, has that legislation not advanced?

RF: It absolutely has to advance, and it's wrong that it hasn't advanced.  To point out the obvious, which is we've been consumed by so many other thing from health care to the economy, that some of these things aren't getting the attention they deserve.  This bill has to go through. Government should not have the ability to just unilaterally declare that an entire case is subject to the state secrets privilege.

I mean, of course there's some evidence that should be protected from disclosure, but the plaintiff has to be given the opportunity to make out the basic elements of his or her claim before the government asserts a blanket privilege. If we don't pass this law, you're basically saying that a federal judge is not suited to determine this? I mean, why wouldn't we trust our judiciary?  What evidence is there that our judiciary doesn't care about national security? It's just completely the wrong balance, and it is not our system of government to allow that kind of broad assertion. So, we got to get an independent courtroom view here, and I will be pushing as hard as I can to get this done in the Congress, but also launching an appeal to the Supreme Court that will almost certainly happen in the Jeppesen case.

GG: Right. Now, one of the more courageous acts of the last decade, politically courageous acts, was, as I indicated, your lone vote against the PATRIOT ACT, and since then, you've been very outspoken about the need for reforming it, and have pointed to a whole variety of abuses, even documented by the Justice Department itself, by the Inspector General, of abuses of the PATRIOT ACT.  There are also lots of recent news reports that even the expanded FISA statute that the Congress passed in 2008, with President Obama's support, itself has been abused and violated, that the NSA is eavesdropping beyond even the broad limits permitted by FISA.

Have there been improvements in those areas, with regard to these reports of abuse, to your satisfaction?

RF: No, there have been some improvements, but there are also continued abuses, and what we're tying to do under the PATRIOT ACT is to keep alive these sunsets, that we still have on some things, so that we have a real shot once the election is over to try to change these provisions and make them stronger.  And the challenge-- because the problem is then you have to renew this thing in its current form for awhile. And if you don't, if you put it out to the floor, then right now in this environment, they're going to make things even worse, and so what I'm trying to do is figure out who the allies are on this, how we can find the right moment, which hopefully will be early next year, to allow a full-scale challenge, and looking at the political environment out there.

A lot of these people that are upset in this country are upset with big government, and for a lot of the people, including these Tea Party people, they don't like the PATRIOT ACT.  There is a constituency out there that is not just on the left, but is also on the right and in the middle, that knows that this bill had some very serious problems. So, I am looking at organizing with people of all different backgrounds and political ideologies, to fight for the rights of perfectly innocent Americans, which are being violated and continue to be violated, by some of these provisions, even of the Obama administration.

GG: I know we're short of time; I just have one or two quick last questions here. I want to just follow up on what you just said, which is this:  obviously, the primary concern of the country and the electorate is the financial crisis and the economic suffering from unemployment, the recession and the like, but in terms of your ability to go before voters as part of your re-election effort, and talk about your defense of the Congress and civil liberties, and even talk about some of your views on foreign policy that affect our financial straits, such as the ongoing war in Afghanistan, there's often a perception that these are kind of issues that only a sort of small faction of the left care about, that most Americans don't actually care about civil liberties and the like.

Are you able to talk about these issues in a way that you think resonates with the average voter beyond just the sort of left wing of the Democratic Party?

RF: Whenever I have the opportunity, yes. It does resonate, but as you correctly indicated, whether it's an interview or a rally or questions, people are so concerned about the economy and spending that getting into that subject area is not easy. But once we do, the contrast between me and my likely opponent is just dramatic.

One of the things I hope to bring out is this guy running against me, Mr. Johnson, that if he were elected, once a war is started, he would never say anything publicly either at home or in Washington, about the war. He would only talk about it privately. In other words, a role for a senator who has completely the opposite idea of our Congress. My opportunity to discuss that in the coming weeks will be important, because people will hopefully realize we're not just electing someone to deal with a very important issue, the biggest issue, jobs, but you're also electing someone who will be involved in making decisions about whether to send young men and women from the United States to risk their lives overseas.

And I of course welcome the opportunity to talk about that as well as civil liberties because for many people out there, as I just indicated, having their personal library records and other thing invaded for no justification of being connected to terrorism is unacceptable. I of course strongly intend to principally deal with the jobs issues and the spending issues, and that's what we're focusing on, but I really hope to have an opportunity to talk about civil liberties and foreign policy as well.

GG: Okay, last question, and that is: you've obviously worked for many, many years on campaign financial reform and the problem of money corrupting our politics. There's a trend this year of some, even more so than normal, of some very, very wealthy individuals spending large parts of their personal fortune to try and gain political office and obscure their record. Your likely opponent is an example of that; he, I think, intends to spend $15 million, he has one of the most extreme records of any Republican running this year, which is saying a lot, and yet $15 million can really obscure that and make extremists look mainstream.

Are you concerned about this trend, this trend of the very wealthy seem to be able to buy political office with unlimited spending?

RF: Of course I am, and of course it's not a new thing; it's been going on for a couple of decades. If you look even in the Senate, I'm one of the very few people in there who doesn't have a net worth over a million dollars; my net worth is under half a million dollars, after all these years. So yeah, this is in overdrive, these campaign committees look for so-called self-funders, and that's why we need an addition to what we did with McCain-Feingold; it had to do with a few contributions going directly to political parties. We need a system where people can have some public funding for campaigns, and be able to match at some level, not equal level, the ability of self-funders to try to overwhelm it.

Now, I have defeated self-funders every time. Every time they try to buy this seat, but I don't think we'll see, in the United States Senate, from Wisconsin, it's for sale. But it is always challenging, especially in a year like this, and this guy's spending more money than I think any other Senate candidate has in the past in Wisconsin, I suppose we'll see how it works out in the end, but that's the pace he's at.

GG: Well, Senator, I really appreciate your taking the time; I think a lot of people who are very, very disenchanted with the Democratic Party, including myself, view your reelection as one of the very few that matter in a great way, that you really provide unique and important contributions to our political discourse, so I wish all the luck with your reelection and I appreciate your time.

RF: I most certainly look forward to working with you, too; you make a real contribution as well, so thank you.

GG: Thank you very much, Senator.


[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

By Glenn Greenwald

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