The Politics of FISA

Carl Hulse of the New York Times has an update on this week’s FISA debate in the Senate. Not surprisingly, the piece appears on the NYT Blog and not the actual print edition of the paper.

The article is solely a rehashing of what political narratives each party will try to use to shape the debate. From the get-go we see Hulse has adopted Republican framing of the debate, describing it as one of “national security.” Actually, as someone who has been deeply involved in this and in regular contact with Democratic Senate offices on their work on this legislation, this is a debate about American civil liberties, the status of the rule of law, and ensuring that the Congress doesn’t pass unconstitutional legislation.

In a paragraph that could have been better used to describe the substantive policy differences of Democrats and Republicans on FISA, Hulse lays out the he said-she said of competing political narratives.

With Republicans making it clear in the last few days that they again will make the terror fight a main element of their campaign message, the exchanges could get more heated. But Democrats plan to fire back and are planning a series of Congressional hearings to show how Bush administration policy has weakened the military, reducing its ability to respond to threats while impairing the National Guard’s ability to react to domestic catastrophes.

I really wish the media would recognize that important things are happening in the Senate. Legislation is being debated that may be turned into political ads this cycle, but will also be determining how the US government conducts surveillance of Americans for the next six years. Likewise, I wish the Senate Democrats were more willing to use their power to conduct hearings to correct problems, not merely document them for the press.

The reality, though, is that the FISA debate has largely been intertwined with political narratives about national security and terrorist threats. The Democrats remain petrified of the thought that the Republicans will say mean things about them to the press and in campaign ads. They worry that if they don’t give the President everything he wants – as Jay Rockefeller and Harry Reid seem intent on doing – that the RNC will put attack ads on the air, telling America that Democrats are giving terrorists the same rights as American citizens. Never mind that Democrats are pushing legislation that does nothing of the sort. Never mind that even if the Dems march lockstep with the GOP on this issue, the Republicans will still run attack ads accusing them of siding with the terrorists, or in Mitt Romney’s case, accuse them of being terrorists.

The inability of Senate Democrats to work from a fundamental understanding of how Republican attacks works is no small part of the story of why they are caving so profoundly on FISA legislation. The fear-driven Democratic caucus under the milquetoast leadership of Harry Reid is on the verge of passing the SSCI bill, despite the strong possibility that they will not pass a single amendment to improve the underlying bill.

By this time Wednesday morning, it’s likely that the voting will be done in the Senate and the only obstacle to retroactive immunity will be progressive Democrats in the House. At this point, I can’t speculate optimistically about the chances for the House holding strong. We can expect Republicans in the House will support en masse the SSCI bill; if the Blue Dog Democrats decide they want retroactive immunity for the telecoms, it will almost certainly guarantee that the Senate version will pass largely intact, just as President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and the CEOs of Verizon and AT&T wanted.

Cross posted at the CREDO Blog.

2 thoughts on “The Politics of FISA

  1. In fairness, the NYT’s featured editorial on Sunday was on FISA and began

    Even by the dismal standards of what passes for a national debate on intelligence and civil liberties, last week was a really bad week.

    Still. The fight last week (and month) could have gone a lot better if more and better writing on the subject had come sooner.


  2. Good point Andrew, thanks for raising it.

    Part of the problem, though, is that the basic adjudication of fact is only taking place on the editorial page, when there is real need for it in the reporting. Moreover, today the debate starts again and people will be seeking out news on the legislative process. All they’ll find (if they go online) is a piece about what sort of message campaigns the two parties will run. Not exactly the most helpful article for someone looking to find out about legislation.


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