Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Hillary threads her own FISA needle

The FISA battle is over, for now. Bush and Rockefeller have their telecom immunity, basket warrants, weakened FISA oversight. Perhaps Obama opened the floodgates with his about-face. Stand in the breach he didn't.

Hillary Clinton voted against the bill today. Not only the political calculation but also the merits of the case may look different to one who may be President in a few months (though Hillary doubtless still hopes/intends to be President in a few years). Nonetheless, if you ask which of the two rivals showed the greater political courage, consistency, commitment to civil liberties on this defining issue, I must say the answer is not what I would have expected -- or, once I'd made my primary choice, wished.

Back in the primaries, Obama hammered Clinton's Iraq vote as essentially a political calculation; she was in his sights on March 19, when he charged, "there were too many politicians in Washington who spent too little time reading the intelligence reports, and too much time reading public opinion." If the nomination fight were still on, imagine what Clinton might say about Obama's FISA choice. Instead, to her credit, she soft-pedaled the split within the party:
I applaud the efforts of my colleagues who negotiated this legislation, and I respect my colleagues who reached a different conclusion on today’s vote.
Perhaps in keeping with that gesture towards those supporting the bill, Hillary emphasized the relative knowledge void in which the Congress was forced to act as one reason to vote against the bill:
What is more, even as we considered this legislation, the administration refused to allow the overwhelming majority of Senators to examine the warrantless wiretapping program. This made it exceedingly difficult for those Senators who are not on the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees to assess the need for the operational details of the legislation, and whether greater protections are necessary. The same can be said for an assessment of the telecom immunity provisions. On an issue of such tremendous importance to our citizens – and in particular to New Yorkers – all Senators should have been entitled to receive briefings that would have enabled them to make an informed decision about the merits of this legislation. I cannot support this legislation when we know neither the nature of the surveillance activities authorized nor the role played by telecommunications companies granted immunity.
Hillary also cited telecom immunity and the limited power accorded the FISA court to review the government’s targeting and minimization procedures as reasons to reject the bill. But in keeping with her moderate tone, she allowed that the bill "does strengthen oversight of the administration’s surveillance activities over previous drafts," affording Obama and others some cover for supporting it.

I still believe that Obama and other senators may have voted on the merits as they see them -- if, indeed, you can separate the fear of being painted soft on terror from the fear of actually enabling terror (even if you suspect that a contemplated course is unlikely to crimp antiterror efforts, you might still fear that it might). If the calculation was not mainly political, it would seem that proximity to the Presidency changed (concentrated?) Obama's mind, because change he did.

He's still got a lot of explaining to do. His blog statement to supporters was barely a beginning.

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