ACLU: Reid and Pelosi “rolled over” on FISA; “The Constitution is too important for that”

By Martin Bosworth

This afternoon I participated in a conference call with members of the American Civil Liberties Union and several prominent bloggers, discussing the ACLU’s strategy for pushing the Democrats to take stronger action on the warrantless surveillance program they recently rolled over and helped legalize. The ACLU, as you might imagine, is fighting mad over this, and their new ad campaign is pulling no punches in identifying Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi as letting themselves be led like sheep to the shearer. More after the jump, as they say.

On the call from the ACLU side was Caroline Fredrickson, Director, Washington Legislative Office, Michelle Richardson, Legislative Consultant, Washington Legislative Office, Jameel Jaffer, Director, National Security Project, Melissa Goodman, Staff Attorney, National Security Project, and Karen Ferry, Communications Director.

Bloggers in attendance included myself, Spencer Ackerman from TPM Muckraker, Christina (I think) from Firedoglake, Dissent from PogoWasRight, and David Olsen and Ari Melber from Huffington Post. (There may have been others, but these were the ones I got, so forgive me if I omit anyone or anything important.)

Frederickson didn’t waste any time, launching in to describing how Reid and Pelosi were scrambling to recover from their capitulation to Bush on FISA. “They’re sending letters and making statements every day since the vote about what a bad bill this was and how they need to fix it,” Frederickson said–attributing that to the pressure from voters, bloggers, and the media–“but they haven’t said what they will do to fix it.” Frederickson hammered the point that the Dems are the majority party and have the responsibility to fix this terrible mistake.

Jameel Jaffer noted that in a surprising turn of events, the ACLU petitioned the FISA court to view the court orders that Attorney General Gonzalez asked for from FISA to continue the wiretap program after agreeing to place it under FISA’s authority–and FISA agreed, issuing an order that the White House needs to provide the documentation. Jaffer also criticized appeals court rulings that defended the government’s position that to even bring up the case would harm national security interests, and that plaintiffs can’t prove they were injured, because the surveillance program is secret in the first place. “We’ve proven injury on numerous occasions–if the majority opinion in the Sixth Circuit Court prevails over the Supreme Court’s precedent, the Court is going to have to write new law.”

Olsen and Melber asked if the ACLU had directly contacted Reid and Pelosi over their actions, and what the organization–and everyday people–can do to push for a fix. Frederickson said the ACLU didn’t contact them directly, noting that Pelosi alone apparently received 200,000 e-mails the first day after the vote. Frederickson reiterated that contacting legislators and letting them know Americans’ displeasure was the way to go. “We lost a lot of allies in this fight–people we never would have expected to support warrantless surveillance voted in favor of the Protect America Act,” she said ruefully. “Make sure to contact everyone, no matter how liberal your legislator is.”

Dissent asked if the ACLU would be targeting telecom companies like AT&T who want blanket immunity for participating in the surveillance program. Frederickson said the push against the telecoms would be part of the ACLU’s fall campaign pushing for a reassessment of the Protect America Act. Frederickson noted that the telecoms are some of “the biggest political contributors out there,” and they’re “whispering in people’s ears that they want immunity,” and that their influence gets them places even the ACLU can’t go.

Spencer Ackerman asked what the ACLU would repeal from the Protect America Act if it had the opportunity to do so. “It’s all important–you can’t disaggregate any of it,” Frederickson said. The ACLU’s prime push was to get “a neutral third party in charge of wiretapping oversight again,” with Frederickson saying that the FISA court needs to be put back in charge and that it “wasn’t Alberto Gonzales’ job to authorize wiretaps and surveillance.”

The last question was mine, and I asked if the ACLU felt that their excellent “sheep” ad targeting Reid and Pelosi was crafted to drive the point home in a clearer fashion to Americans about the dangers of the FISA failure, as I remembered Matt Stoller’s criticism of the “Find Habeas” campaign. Karen Ferry thought the ad was “sharp, clever, and effective,” and that it would get the point across to those who needed to see it.

It was really impressive to see how fighting-mad Frederickson and company were–they really didn’t hesitate to slam the Dems for not only capitulating utterly on FISA, but for offering substitutions that “didn’t go nearly as far as we wanted them to.” “We need to be assured that the Democrats will do the right thing,” she said. “They thought this was something they could slip by the base because everyone’s so focused on the war in Iraq. No. The Constitution is too important for that.”

10 replies »

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  2. Nothing as sweeping as the current FISA-related surveillance program has been attempted in the United States. Comparisons to surveillance used in World War II or even the Cold War couldn’t be developed very far. Unless we get more specific information as to what data is collected and how that data is collected, we’ll never be able to assess whether or to what extent the Constitution is being violated. Rights are lost if compliance with them cannot be assessed.

    I would not argue that nothing should be classified. Classification should be carefully drawn and worded, narrowly purposeful, specific, and subject to a review schedule.

    Constitutional principles should not be subordinate to security fears. The framers, who along with those they represented faced numerous perils (including possible or even likely attacks), set up our system of government accordingly.

    Risks resulting from the disclosure of basic information on FISA-related surveillance practices are greatly exaggerated. Surely most terror operatives or aspirants, except for the most doltish ones, think what many U.S. citizens now think; i.e., that all electronic and telephonic communications that can be swept up are swept up and analyzed or filtered in some way. Those operatives with rudimentary technical knowledge aren’t likely to wade unprotected into the data dragnet.They’re likely to use other forms of communication or to to use technological tools that make tracking and cracking difficult.
    I hope they mess up and reveal themselves, but sweeping surveillance of everyone else is not justified or acceptable. Neither is complete or nearly complete secrecy on the subject.

    I can see only two things that can break down at least partially the excessive secrecy: court orders (provided they’re complied with) and whistleblowing (at great personal peril). I’m hoping for good results from the former. Some important court decisions can come down before Congress can revisit FISA.

  3. Every day the administration and, now, a Democratic controlled Congress are shredding the Constitution. It is clear that the Constitution is nothing more to them than a quaint little document that doesn’t understand modern times. We need to write to all the candidates running for office and ask “What are you doing now and what do you pledge to do to restore the Constitution to its rightful place as the law of the land?” Then vote for the ones that are working to uphold the Constitution. Let them know that even though they no longer honor their pledge to uphold it WE still think it is important.

  4. I wonder what people will do if Bush declares martial law and suspends the 08 elections.

    Would they sit home and watch tv.

    What exactly does it take to get people outraged enough to take action?

  5. “It cannot be said that the remaining opposition goes down fighting. On May 19, 1933, the Social Democrats vote to approve Hitler’s foreign policy, denouncing their comrades abroad who are attacking Der F

  6. It’s unsurprising, and Reid, Pelosi and all the traitors who signed-off on it are just showing their truest colors. It shows a fear on-the-part of economic and political elites that they’re losing their hold on power.

  7. All the backlash Reid and Pelosi are catching on this vote demonstrates the American people are not as asleep on this issue as they thought.

    Thanks, Martin, for taking part in this call.