Revolution#136, July 20, 2008

Why Did Obama Support FISA and Telecom Immunity?

Last year, in the midst of widespread outrage over the Bush regime’s efforts to grant immunity from lawsuits to telecommunications companies that cooperated with illegal government spying on millions and millions of people in the U.S., the website Talking Points Memo released what they said was an email from Barack Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton saying: “To be clear: Barack will support a filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies.”

But when the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 came up in the Senate last week, legalizing warrantless wiretapping of millions and millions of communications by people in the U.S. and granting immunity to telecom companies from lawsuits in order to cover up the extent of illegal government spying, not only did Obama not filibuster the law, or support a filibuster (which could have prevented it from being adopted), he voted for the bill!

And in the face of very credible evidence that millions and millions of communications from people in this country were intercepted by these illegal warrantless government wiretaps (see accompanying article), Obama justified his vote by essentially echoing the arguments of the Bush regime, saying, “In a dangerous world, government must have the authority to collect the intelligence we need to protect the American people.”

As our accompanying article on the passage of the FISA bill notes, much of the public outrage at revelations of massive, warrantless, government spying got channeled into supporting Democrats in the 2006 election—including on the basis of promises that they would oppose Bush’s illegal wiretapping. And many people who are supporting Obama see directing their energy into his campaign as a way to oppose the shredding of supposed constitutional protections against things like unwarranted searches. But look at what actually happened: In 2006, when the Republicans controlled Congress, in the face of widespread opposition and tension within the ruling class, Bush wasn’t able to pass a bill like this. Now, with the Democrats in control of Congress, and many seeing the Obama campaign as re-legitimizing the system, Bush got the whole package–including immunity for the communication companies.

It’s important to understand what is really going on here. This vote was not a move by Obama to curry favor with “the voters,” or to pick up “mainstream, middle of the road” votes. He took an unpopular position that angered many of his supporters, and is not going to get a lot of “independent voters” to support him. In fact, the Democratic Party leadership in the Senate set things up so that some (but with votes counted carefully to make sure not enough) of them voted against the bill—in order to maintain credibility as opponents of Bush.

So why did Obama support this unpopular law? Because right now, the ruling class in this country perceives the need, and potential, to rely on complex and advanced technology to spy on people secretly, and very widely, and to have this legitimated in law and political discourse. (For one analysis of why the U.S. ruling class sees a need to spy on the public very broadly, see the Revolution interview with attorney Shayana Kadidal of Center for Constitutional Rights, “Wiretapping Bill and the Unprecedented Expansion of Presidential Powers,” 3/23/08, available at And Obama, as one of the two candidates running for president, is approaching the issue of widespread, warrantless spying on people’s communication from the perspective of someone campaigning to be, and preparing to be, the chief executive of the US ruling class.

In an open letter to angry supporters who are complaining about his FISA vote, Obama wrote: “[S]ome of you may decide that my FISA position is a deal breaker. That’s ok. But I think it is worth pointing out that our agreement on the vast majority of issues that matter outweighs the differences we may have.… Make no mistake: if John McCain is elected, the fundamental direction of this country that we love will not change.”

In other words, Obama is saying: What-are-ya-gonna-do? Vote for McCain?

Such is the logic of the system’s election setup. Brilliant for them. Deadly for the people. The “choose the lesser evil” logic takes you deeper and deeper into supporting a whole package that has nothing to do with, and is actually opposed to, your interests and what you believe in.

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