December 18, 2007

Chris Dodd's Act of Genuine Leadership

Yesterday, something extraordinary happened in Washington, DC. A presidential candidate and current senator not only kept a promise, but set aside pursuit of his party's nomination - and personal ambition - to do so. Backed by a groundswell of public support, his efforts - in a very real victory for both the rule of law and popular activism - ensured that a horrendous piece of legislation, which would have swept under the carpet serial law-breaking on the part of some of the nation's biggest corporations, was stopped in its tracks.

As the New York Times reported on Sunday, the Bush Administration's national intelligence apparatus has, with the cooperation of some of the nation's largest telecommunications firms, enormously increased warrantless surveillance of American citizens. While White House public relations messaging initially touted this effort as a tool against terrorism, the National Security Agency's (NSA) wiretapping and data collection program was launched long before 9/11, and is used routinely to collect phone records for common drug cases that have nothing to do with al-Qaeda or similar organizations.

Administration reassurances that the program did not gather information on Americans proved empty when it was revealed that the initiative was specifically designed to pick up significant amounts of purely domestic communications. To accomplish this, the NSA requested access to the "most localized communications switches, which primarily carry domestic calls" and through which only "limited international traffic ... passes through ..." Pointedly, one anonymous engineer confirmed that in launching the program to log all calls coming across one company's wires, "There was no discussion of limiting the monitoring to international communications."

Finally, despite all of this, the White House made the claim that the National Security Agency was only collecting the data most crucial to fighting terrorism. New evidence, however, clearly reveals that - rather than performing targeted surveillance - the government is conducting enormous dragnet operations. As the Times reports, "The NSA met with AT&T officials to discuss replicating a network center in Bedminster, NJ, to give the agency access to all the global phone and eMail traffic that ran through it." [Emphasis mine.]

All of this activity violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was signed into law precisely to halt the warrantless domestic spying that had become endemic by the early 1970's. In spite of attempts to create the appearance that there is some debate about whether what the Bush Adminstration is doing is within the rules, this activity is - and let's be perfectly clear - 100% illegal.

Recognizing that examination of the program in the courts will not only mean the end of spying on American citizens without a warrant or probable cause - not to mention grounds for the impeachment of both President Bush and Vice President Cheney - the administration has been lobbying hard for permanent revisions to the FISA law that would grant broad surveillance powers to the president without requiring even the limited judicial review necessitated by FISA. (A temporary granting of those powers is currently in place, but will expire in February.) Further, essentially ackowledging that the program to date has been illicit, the White House has also pressed Congress to provide amnesty for the companies that have helped the NSA break the law.

What all this means is that President Bush knows the program of warrantless surveillance violates the law and that the telecommunications firms are complicit, but he wants Congress to provide something that is never, ever provided to individuals: a Get Out of Jail Free card. If this happens, it would be as if crimes committed by Verizon and AT&T had simply never occurred, and the American public would be denied the opportunity to learn through legal recourse exactly how badly its rights had been violated.

With all of this in mind, two versions of a new FISA bill were produced in the Senate, the first originating in the Intelligence Committee chaired by Senator Jay Rockefeller. Constructed in close cooperation with the White House, it provides both the broad powers requested by the Bush Administration and retroactive immunity for the telecoms. An alternate bill also cleared Senator Patrick Leahy's Judiciary Committee that provided some additional streamlining for the surveillance process, but also confirmed that the existing FISA requirements (rather than the current, temporary ones) are the law of the land. Starkly and purposefully, it also made no provision for retroactive immunity.

Either of these versions could be brought to the Senate for a vote, with whichever edition that went unchosen offered as a substitute. Critically however, it takes 60 votes - a threshold that is very difficult to reach in the closely divided upper chamber - to even consider a substitute bill, so the version that was offered first would have a distinct advantage. Given that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had expressed his opposition to retroactive immunity, it might be considered a shock that he brought forth the Rockefeller version. Given his track record of complete capitulation to the Bush White House, however, it is an act of betrayal that should have been expected. Ignoring a hold placed on the Intelligence Committe bill by Senator Dodd, Senator Reid chose to set a free pass to law-breaking violators of the Constitution on the path toward becoming law, all the while attempting to cloke his decision in rules of parliamentary procedure and tradition.

Then, something unexpected took place.

The blogosphere, civil libertarians and pretty much anyone who cares about the rule of law and was paying attention, erupted in a storm of protest, flooding Senator Reid's office with calls and eMails voicing outrage and anger. And Senator Chris Dodd, campaigning for the presidency in Iowa - and running well behind the leaders - fulfilled his promise to filibuster any bill that included retroactive immunity, leaving the campaign trail to return to Washington and keep his word. None of the other Democratic candidates who are also sitting senators - Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Barack Obama - did the same, despite expressing rhetorical support for their colleague's position. Thankfully, Senator Dodd's efforts were enough to force Majority Leader Reid to table the bill until next year.

It is tragic that a politician who appears to genuinely care about the foundational princples of this country is so rare. It is sad that when such a man follows through on his promises - foregoing his own ambitions and doing the right thing - it is so uncommon that it is newsworthy. But it should not detract from the fact that Chris Dodd, Senator from Connecticut and longshot candidate for the presidency, did what no one else has done in a long, long time. He stood up for the rule of law and for the Constitution, and he refused to capitulate to the corrupt thugs who currently occupy both the White House and a good portion of Capitol Hill. In short, he did what we should expect all of our elected leaders and representatives to do. He did what should be the rule, rather than the exception.

While the battle has been won, the war is far from over. Verizon and AT&T will regroup, and the Rockefeller/White House legislation will make another appearance in January or February, but for now, the bill - an utter affront to everything for which this country is supposed to stand - has been defeated. And in this turn of events, it is my personal hope that Chris Dodd begins to get some well-deserved attention as a viable presidential contender.

I don't agree with every position Mr. Dodd's ever taken, but I agree with a lot of them, and I agree with almost all of his current, stated positions. While I would prefer that he not have voted to support the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq, he has since become an articulate opponent of the war. Most importantly, he has learned the lessons of failing to stand against the creeping tyranny embodied in the presidency of George W. Bush, stating that he deeply regrets failing to filibuster the Military Commissions Act, and vowing that if such an issue comes before him again, he will not falter. Senator Dodd has made restoration of the Constitution a centerpiece of his campaign, and by his actions on Monday, shown himself to be passionately sincere in his desire to deliver on that promise.

While the right wing will say that everything starts with security and a sound national defense, I emphatically disagree. Everything starts with the Constitution, because unless the rule of law is protected, America is just another surveillance state, another tin pot oligarchy, another dictatorship. If the election were held today, Chris Dodd might very well have my vote.

  • If you would like to learn more about Chris Dodd or contribute to his campaign, his website is can be found here.

  • The always excellent Glenn Greenwald has the details of yesterday's events in a post called, appropriately, Anatomy and Significance of Monday's FISA Victory.

  • Below is an interview with Senator Dodd on MSNBC's Countdown, that nicely summarizes the events of Monday and in which he describes his decision to leave the campaign trail and filibuster the telecom amnesty bill.

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