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.”