Sunday, July 06, 2008

Obama, you can do better

Obama, you can do better.

I'm not referring to your position on the pending FISA bill, though I don't believe it should be allowed to pass in its current form. I'm talking about your explanation of your shift in position.

There may be good reasons for your support of a FISA "compromise" that you characterize as imperfect and in need of correction. However you have not yet adequately explained to your supporters why, having opposed the Protect America Act last summer and the surveillance orders it authorized, you now feel that there is danger in letting those orders expire, and that this danger creates enough urgency to make you support a bill granting telco immunity and "basket" surveillance warrants without strong oversight outside the executive branch.

Your posting to the Obama-please-vote-no-on-FISA group on was a nice gesture, but lacked any explanation as to what new information led you to conclude that U.S. intelligence agencies need the major reductions in FISA oversight provided by "compromise" legislation that is by most accounts weaker than the "compromise" you opposed in February.

Disillusioned supporters have assumed that your shift was prompted either by political calculation or by fear of crossing the telcos. I don't entirely buy that. Back in February, Democrats opposed to gutting FISA had no rhetorical difficulty countering the fear-mongering of a President with approval ratings in the twenties. Opposing this bill would not be a political loser for you. And while telecommunications is an enormously powerful industry, you will have no problem outraising McCain with or without their support.

My own best guess is that you, like other Democrats supporting telco immunity and basket warrants, are swayed less at this point by fear of Bush than by deference to Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and his claims that intelligence efforts will be crippled if FISA's individual warrant provisions are preserved. But that assumption still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. The individual warrant requirement for communications that include a U.S. participant or that are monitored from the U.S. could have been eased with more stringent oversight preserved.

As a prospective President, you may feel that you should first secure these powers and then worry about how to refine Constitutional protections. In fact, that's more or less what you've said. It's the shift that remains unexplained. Was it new information that swayed you? Constitutional protections in this bill that were lacking in February's? Or simply the impending likelihood that you will become President and will therefore be responsible for preventing the next terror attack?

You have raised high expectations, not only for your performance should you become President, but for your willingness to treat the American people as adults and explain your thinking on complex issues. Supporters troubled by your FISA reversal await the next round.

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