Blogiversary VII: The FISA-ing

The main ingredient, un-7-up'd. (photo: Craig Duncan via Wikipedia)

The main ingredient, un-7-up’d. (photo: Craig Duncan via Wikipedia)

December 30, 2005–a day that will live in infamy.

Well, for me, anyway. (And maybe a few of you.) For it was on that day–seven years ago, today–that all of this began. . . all of this blogging thing.

No, not for everybody–this is about me!

A callow newbie to some, a grizzled vet to others, as of today, I have been in the blogging game for seven years, and so, in keeping with the tradition established by my original blog–guy2K: a journal of politics, popular culture, and mixed drinks–I give you a themed cocktail:

The Seven & Seven

Pour 2 oz. Seagram’s Seven Crown Whiskey into a highball glass; fill with ice.

Top with about 7 oz. 7-Up; stir lightly.

Garnish with a lemon slice.

I know, that seems pretty humdrum for this age of the artisanal cocktail. Whiskey and soda pop, how high school! But not only is it so seventh anniversary appropriate–so seven nice they seven’d it twice–it is also special for another reason. It is perhaps the most branded cocktail recipe I know. Sure, you could mix Jeremiah Weed and Bubble Up, and it might taste pretty darn similar, but what the hell are you going to call it? The Weed & Bubble?

That does not sound good.

And the Seven & Seven is not just a good drink for my seventh blogiversary (yes, I used to spell it “blogaversary,” but this seems to now be an actual thing, and the spelling with the “i” now seems to be the preferred one)–it being all seven-ie and all–the Seven & Seven’s specificity makes it a very appropriate cocktail for this last weekend of the year for a more, shall we say, “all inclusive” reason.

Friday morning, while some were distracted by Washington’s self-inflicted fiscal clusterfuck, and most were distracted by things that had nothing at all to do with Washington, the US Senate passed a five-year extension to the FISA Amendments Act (FAA)–the oversight-deficient warrantless surveillance program started by the George W. Bush administration. The vote was 73 to 23.

During my first few blogging years, I wrote a lot about the domestic surveillance, FISA (+here) and the Bush administration’s wholesale disregard for the Fourth Amendment. In 2007 and 2008, I hit these topics often, especially as Congress moved forward with the Protect America Act (PAA) and the original FAA, which were supposed to be ways for freshly installed Democratic majorities to expose and rein-in the Bush-Cheney surveillance state.

What actually happened–and you can watch this unfold across my old posts–was, of course, something else. Democrats, either out of expedience, cowardice or naked self-interest, wound up passing a law that went a long way toward legalizing what Bush’s bunch had only hoped to get away with in secret. And not to be missed in that pre-election-year and election-year dog and pony were the positions of certain Senate members who aspired to replace George W. Bush. Most notably, those of the guy that grabbed that brass ring: Barack Obama.

Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) made much of his public opposition to much of what the Bush administration had been doing surveillance-wise in the name of fighting terror (more on that in a moment), he opposed retroactive immunity for telecoms (a key feature of the act) and said he would support a filibuster of the bill threatened by one of his early rivals for the presidential nomination, Chris Dodd (D-CT). But when proverbial push came to proverbial shove a few months later, the distinguished gentleman from Illinois not only failed to push any meaningful changes to the FAA that might have restored some of the rule of law, he actually helped break the filibuster of the bill. Then Obama voted in favor of the nasty new act.

Such an obvious stiff-arm was this to a group of Democrats Obama hoped to have in his camp come election time, that, if my memory serves, he pretty immediately came out with a video (was it on YouTube? I think so. Anyway, here’s the text of his statement) where he said he of course had many problems with the blah blah blah, but because the tools were essential in the fight against terror blah blah blah, he would vote for it now, then work to fix it should he become president. . . blah. . . blah. . . blah.

Fast forward five years–that’s the equivalent of FIVE blog years–and you find a President Barack Obama that has not worked to fix it, but has arguably worked very hard to expand the abilities of the national security apparatus to spy on United States citizens. And on Friday, with the help of the Democratic leadership of the Democrat-controlled Senate, the president worked to beat back each and every amendment to the FAA extension–many of which were proposed by Democrats–that would have tried to if not fix the FISA, at least provide some access to some of the broad outlines of what has been done to Americans by the American government, in the hopes that this bit of sunshine could lead to better oversight.

Why the need for a “clean” bill RIGHT NOW!?!?!

Well, the GOP-controlled House passed this version way back in September, and what with the law sunsetting on December 31, there just wouldn’t be time now to send amendments to any kind of conference, and you can’t let the law expire cause then the terrorists. . . blah blah blah.

Of course, the terrorists nothing. If the Senate did let January 1 come without acting on this gun-to-their-head extension, absolutely nothing going down on behalf of the GWOT would change. All the permissions on all the ongoing investigations would remain good and open for many months to come. But that leads to an even more important point, one again almost completely–no, let’s, this time, just say completely–absent from the coverage of the FISA Amendments Act.

I do not right now have time to go back and refresh everyone’s memory on the history of FISA (I’ve got anniversary cocktails to drink, after all), but let’s just say that even the original 1978 law–though drafted in reaction to illegal Nixon-era domestic surveillance–still had plenty of room for national security intel interests to get legal cover for some types of domestic spying. But the law did impose some limits and some oversight.

But all that changed on. . . .

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m going to say “All that changed on 9/11,” aren’t you? I don’t blame you. Back during the PAA/FAA battles five years ago, most reports spoke of the expansion of domestic surveillance in response to the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. Again today–and I’m not going to dig up any links, but throw a rock at any major newspaper, and if you throw it hard enough, hard enough, say, to get back to page A23, because that’s about as close to the front page as this story will get–today you will read that all of this last-minute congressional kabuki all stems from Bush’s original violations of the old FISA law post-9/11/01.

And that would be a big, fat lie. Now, maybe some of today’s reporters weren’t on this story in 2007 or 2008, and they just took for granted the sort of “war on terror” shorthand that comes affixed to this topic, so I guess that would just make it a big, fat, lazy lie–but this idea is just as untrue (and just as easy to uncover as untrue) today as it was way back when I wrote about it the first time.

So, let’s all get this straight for the record: The Bush administration’s expansion of domestic spying was not a response to the terror attacks of 9/11. The Bush admin’s expansion of domestic spying pre-dates those attacks. Bush’s expansion of domestic spying starts as early as February 2001–just weeks after W was inaugurated. Here’s what I wrote on October 19, 2007:

Really, enough with this fairy tale already. If the events of last week involving the statements of former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio have taught you nothing, perhaps you should go back and read some of the press from early 2006, or, perhaps, James Risen’s book. But no matter which of these sources you read, you should come away with the same understanding: The Bush Administration began collecting phone and e-mail data without a warrant and/or began eavesdropping on US citizens inside the country without a warrant before the attacks of September 11, 2001. Surveillance might—might—have increased after 9/11, but it is now increasingly clear there was plenty going on from the earliest days of Bush-Cheney rule.

You can follow the links in that block quote for more detail.

What do those seven (there’s that number again) months tell you? It tells you that the ramp-up of illegal domestic surveillance was not about uncovering the next al-Qaeda cell (remember how hard it was for Clinton administration holdovers to get any of Bush’s team to care about this pre-9/11), it was about something else. What was that exactly? There are many theories–repression of dissent, intimidation of unfriendly media, opposition research, maybe all of the above–but the point to make is that when you heard folks back then insisting we needed the FAA to protect us from the terra-ists, you needed to call bullshit.

And the same applies today. Sure, there are still some wide-eyed Washington watchers among us who will say, “that was then, but this is now, and now is post-9/11, and now we have a guy who is not Bush in the White House, so now it is about the terra-ists,” but you need to call bullshit on that, too. First and foremost because no president should be above the Fourth Amendment, but also, and also importantly, because if the warrantless domestic surveillance was to keep us safe from terrorism, but the surveillance was expanded long before 9/11/01, and the attacks of 9/11 happened anyway, then this breach of our Constitution did not do what its advocates say it is supposed to do.

Here is where you say, “I’ll drink to that!”

But why drink a Seven & Seven, the world’s most specific cocktail? Because specificity is what it’s all about–or, more accurately, what this FAA is extension not all about.

The whole point of the Fourth Amendment is that Americans should not be subjected to un-checked government power. That if the government wants to search or surveil a US citizen in the US, it has to pick a specific person and a specific crime. The kinds of blanket permissions and basket warrants permitted under the FAA are the very kinds of things the Fourth Amendment is supposed to prevent.

Got that? No archiving of domestic data, no Total Information Awareness, no trawling for keywords in private emails, no “dossiers” on hundreds of millions of Americans who have done nothing except trip one of the NSA’s algorithmic flags–because that sort of non-specific surveillance doesn’t pass Constitutional muster, and it doesn’t protect America from enemies foreign or domestic.

So, I started this tome with a joking toast to the infamous birth of my blog, but, in all seriousness, with the president expected to sign the new FISA Amendment Act today, the day that should live in infamy is December 30, 2012. And that’s not just about me; that’s about everybody.

And I do mean everybody.

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It’s My Blogaversary!

(photo: Leo Reynolds)

This is where it all began, December 30, 2005. . . and a few days later, “capitoilette” was birthed as a longer-form sister site. Today, all roads lead (or is it flow from?) here.

If you are really into the oldies-but-goodies, you can check out the links on the “about” page. Thanks to all who have kept up (and gotten down) with me through the years.

Here’s to lucky seven!

The Party Line – June 17, 2011: Noble Savages

This week, I am at Netroots Nation #6 in Minneapolis, and I had planned to bring you a video all about one of the themes I saw running through the first day of panels, speeches and briefings. . . I had planned to bring you video, but I am only here through Sunday and that is probably not enough time to upload my usual eight-or-so minutes because the speed of the internet connection here is pre-millennial. . . again.

This is actually another common theme, one that runs through pretty much every one of the NetNats I have attended. The internet is either not free, not fast, or both. I can remember running down to a lobby to get a connection one year, balancing my computer on the mini fridge near the door of my room another. And always, the waiting—the spinning, gray-barred, “sorry, you are not connected to the internet” waiting.

Now, obviously, the conference organizers cannot really be held responsible for the internet in the hotels—and the wifi in the convention center is certainly an improvement over last year—but damn! Every year I come to the largest concentration of netizens on the planet, and it is like we are suddenly the cast of some cyber version of “Survivor.”

It’s, like, practically “Lord of the Flies.”

OK, perhaps I exaggerate just a tad, but it is a constant—every year a consistent struggle to break through to the super tubular interwebs we remember from home.

Which is also kind of serendipitous because the theme from this year that I wanted to note was that everyone seems to be expressing a frustration with the inability of progressive ideas to break through—break through to the legacy media, break through the establishment-policed, corporate-driven narrative, break out of our bright, shiny ghetto of liberal thought. It seems that, after being quite obviously on the outside during the infancy of the blogosphere, progressives expected a nurturing embrace after the presidential election of 2008—or at least expected not to be punched—and now, not feeling the love, the natives are restless.

I hear the frustration—hell, I feel it, too—but I am not sure if I have yet heard the answer to it. A popular (dare I say) “mantra” is that we have to break out of our silos. The idea is that the left is fractured—fractured over strategy, over tactics, over goals, over issues. It is the belief that, so far, we have not done enough to find commonality among theoretically different movements inside the broader progressive one.

There is probably some, or plenty, of that sort of problem, but it just doesn’t feel, to me, like it is the problem. Fracturing is actually pretty much the way of all revolutions—from 1848 to the present—and heaven knows the right, whose narrative we are trying to crash, has plenty of fissures, from hairline cracks to continental divides.

Another “answer” I heard was that the left needs to be more daring. (“Bold” is one mighty over-used word these days.) And it needn’t be a big production—glitter bombing Newt Gingrich (and, just yesterday, Tim Pawlenty) broke though for one shining moment—it just needs to be original and, ideally, telegenic (think: singing to the president about Bradley Manning). Dan Choi, speaking on a Thursday panel, said we have to be willing to get crazy, “And crazy is not a limited resource among activists.”

I am not against that, but I see three problems. First, the brevity of the breakthrough, second, the need to continually ratchet up the “crazy” to get attention, and third, the fact that crazy often plays right into the establishment stereotypes of lefties. You might get them to cover your action, but being daring does not prevent the legacy media from marginalizing your position.

I also heard several mentions of the need for the left to build its own media complex to compete with the corporate behemoths that now have an iron grip on the narrative. This “tactic,” I’m afraid, seems to be idle dreaming—as far off as say, my ability to stream video at this hotel.

Better, I think, would be a search for the next social organizing tool. The twitter or what-have-you of 2013. Something relatively cheap to use and so new that it has not yet been commandeered by right wing activists or co-opted by capitalists. I am thinking this is possible, but, of course, I am thinking about something I cannot really describe, except to say it will be the next big thing.

And finally, only touched on today, the idea that we need to think beyond silos on the left and attempt to find alliances across traditional boundaries. Looking for what the establishment might think of as “strange bedfellow” pairings to flummox the forces that find it easy to wall-off and marginalize issues embraced solely by the familiar left. That is, real, results-oriented “bipartisanship,” as opposed to the process-driven kind. (Jane has called this “transpartisanship.”)

Yes, I would have talked about all of that in my video—but I cannot upload anything even remotely that long. Once again, progressive ideas marginalized and shut out by the media. . . or, maybe in this case, the medium.