Call on Senator Obama to Filibuster FISA Bill

Chris Lowe

On October 24, 2007, Barack Obama promised to support a filibuster of any FISA reform law that contained telecom immunity provisions.

His position on the FISA bill currently before the Senate is murkier; he says he will support the bill and "work" to remove the telecom immunity. In what way he will work he does not say. When I called his campaign to urge him to filibuster the measure, the phone person read the official statement Senator Obama had issued. Asked in what way Senator Obama would work to remove the telecom immunity provision, the phone person replied that they had not been informed of the details of the senator's strategy.

A number of progressive political organizations, including and have called upon us to contact the Obama campaign and urge him to act on his promise. I agree. People for the American Way has also called for filibuster calls aimed at senators more generally. provides a telephone number for the Obama campaign: (866) 675-2008
They ask for a report-back on the phone call. provides a "send an e-mail" editable letter template that goes to Senator Obama.

Senators Russ Feingold and Chris Dodd have committed to filibustering; Oregon's Ron Wyden has said he will support that filibuster.

If Barack Obama joined the effort, it would give a filibuster a substantial boost, and elevate his stature as a defender of the Constitution and American civil rights and liberties.

In addition to the filibuster effort itself, it is important for progressives to communicate to Senator Obama that we are paying attention to his promises, and that we believe that standing up for the Constitution is both the right thing to do and a winning political strategy. We may hope he listens. If he doesn't, we can begin to prepare to organize progressive pressure on Barack Obama as president, once we get him elected, and on the Democratic leadership in Congress, since they clearly will face pressures in the other direction.

The filibuster effort being organized at present by these progressive organizations and others are focused on telecom immunity, and not on the problems of the underlying FISA "reform," which does not require individual warrants to spy on Americans, in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Failure to raise and educate the pubic about those issues has been a mistake over many months, in my opinion. A South Dakota blogger quotes an apt and pertinent passage on what's at stake, penned by a former Bush administration assistant U.S. attorney, David Kris:

the pending legislation focuses only on the target’s location (or the government’s reasonable belief about his location) not his status or conduct as a terrorist or agent of a foreign power. In other words, there is no requirement that anyone – the FISA Court or the NSA – find probable cause that the target is a terrorist or a spy before (or after) commencing surveillance.

Nonetheless the fight to remove telecom immunity from the bill is worth making. The immunity provisions would cut off possibilities for stripping some of the secrecy from the program. Greater knowledge of its scope would be of use in future efforts to bring the law into conformity with the Fourth Amendment.

The fight is worth making politically as well. A successful filibuster would block the bill going forward unless the telecom provision were stripped. If the House refused to go along, the whole bill would be stalled. If the bill were sent forward without the telecom immunity, President Bush has said he will veto it. If he does so, Democrats can point out that he is holding provisions he says are necessary hostage to letting his big corporate supporters off the hook for their illegal actions, raising questions about how necessary the underlying provisions really are, as well as the telecom immunity itself.

By sending a vetoed bill back to Bush without telecom immunity, Democrats could use a veto fight to isolate President Bush and John McCain. An ACLU poll quoted by darrelplant on another thread has shown that a substantial majority of Americans oppose the telecom immunity provision. Democrats could win a veto fight, if a filibuster is able to force one.

Win or lose on the filibuster, Barack Obama can use that fight to expose John McCain's shared values and policies with George Bush, and if the filibuster works, continue to do so in the subsequent veto battle.

(Disclaimer: I belong to the MoveOn PDX Council, and support's call to ask Senator Obama to support the filibuster of the FISA bill, but the other arguments here are mine, not's.)

  • Drew Courtney (unverified)

    Thanks for posting our action, Chris. I'd really encourage people (a) call and (b) to fill out the call report -- we use those reports when we talk to people on Capitol Hill to push them towards better legislation.

  • marv knudon (unverified)

    One feels sad when thinking that Senator Obama who taught Constitutional Law needs urging from the peasant class (to which I belong) to defend the Fourth Amendment. Impli- cations of Obama's fragile worth were first revealed some months ago when we learned that his foreign policy adviser also advised Carter. Carter who began deregulation which has grown now to the point of the ruination of the dollar and the collapse of the Republic has redeemed himself. A few good works are important. Crude oil's cost could be cut in half. Oregon's economy could be saved. We could avoid the insanity of bombing Iran. But Pelosi and her gang have linked arms with the Bush fascist crowd. Now is the time, Barack, put up or shut up.

  • (Show?)

    Here's a chunk from Politico that reminds us about the bottom line here........

    MAPLight executive director Daniel Newman agreed that there are many factors that affect a lawmaker’s vote but, unlike pressure from constituents, campaign cash is not a “democratic influence.”

    The 116 Democrats who remained opposed to telecom immunity received an average of $4,987 from the telecoms during the three-year period, the analysis showed.

    “Regardless which way the legislators’ vote, the fact is most of them get money from the telecom industry and that buys access even if it doesn’t buy a favorable result for telecom,” Newman said.

    The members who voted yes on June 20 received, on average, $9,659 from the big three phone companies while those who opposed the bill received an average of $4,810, MAPLight found.

  • (Show?)

    Actually, the poll showed that a substantial number of Americans -- across the spectrum -- opposed telecom immunity last fall and in January. I haven't seen anything more recent, but there certainly didn't appear to be a groundswell of popularity for giving companies amnesty for breaking the law, even if they did it under orders from the government.8

  • trishka (unverified)

    thanks for the info chris. i'm on it.

  • (Show?)

    Thanks for this one, Chris.

    I've written to the Obama campaign asking them to take a clear stand and assist in blocking this bill.

    Obama's current (reported) stance that he will vote to remove the immunity provision but ultimately plans to vote for the bill even if it isn't removed sounds a lot like John Kerry's "I voted against it before I voted for it (or vice versa was it?)" stance, and we saw how well that played in '04.

  • LT (unverified)

    <h2>is the story of Chris Dodd on this issue.</h2>

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