Obama, Telecoms and The Beltway System

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Salon.com

Obama, Telecoms and The Beltway System

by
Glenn Greenwald

As noted yesterday, Blue Dog Rep. John Barrow of Georgia has been one of the most enthusiastic enablers of the radical and lawless policies of the Bush administration. When running for re-election, he ran ads accusing his own party of wanting to "cut and run in Iraq," and was one of the 21 Blue Dogs to send a letter to Nancy Pelosi demanding that they be allowed to vote for the Rockefeller/Cheney Senate bill to give warrantless eavesdropping powers to the President and amnesty to lawbreaking telecoms.

As a result of all of that, Barrow faces a serious primary challenge in July from State Senator Regina Thomas, who decided to run against Barrow due to -- as she told Howie Klein when she announced -- "Barrow's failure to support his constituents against the encroachments of powerful Big Business interests." As Klein noted yesterday, Thomas' positions on both foreign and domestic policy are firmly in line with Barack Obama's views and with the Democratic base in that district, while Barrow has continuously supported the most extremist Bush policies, as he himself proudly boasts.

In contrast to Barrow's demands for warrantless eavesdropping and telecom amnesty, here is the statement Regina Thomas issued yesterday (via email):

After reading the FISA bill -- Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- I thought "This can not be good for Americans. That the Bush Administration wants unlimited powers for spying on not only terrorists, but on any American citizen. This is against and violates the Constitutional Fourth Amendment [right of] privacy. This also allows warrant-less monitoring of any form of communication in the United States." I was disappointed and dismayed with my Congressman John Barrow supporting this Bush Republican initiative against Americans. Too often Congressman Barrow from the 12th district in Georgia has voted with Bush and the Republicans on key issues.

Despite all of this, The Atlanta Constitution-Journal reported yesterday that Barack Obama -- who has been claiming to be so emphatically opposed to warrantless eavesdropping and telecom amnesty, to say nothing of the Iraq War -- taped a radio endorsement this week for Rep. Barrow, with the specific intent to help him defeat Regina Thomas in the Democratic primary (h/t sysprog):

Obama cuts an ad to help John Barrow in his primary fight Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has taped a radio commercial on behalf of U.S. Rep. John Barrow of Savannah, who faces a July 15 primary challenge.

It's the first case of Obama involving himself in a local race in Georgia. . . But the Obama campaign made clear to my colleague Aaron Sheinin that it sees Barrow, a two-term Democrat, as an important ally. . . .

"Senator Obama believes that Congressman Barrow has worked hard to bring change that families in his district deserve, and we'll work hard to help John Barrow win in November," Obama spokeswoman Amy Brundage said.

In the ad, Obama asks voters to join him in supporting Barrow. "We're going to need John Barrow back in Congress to help change Washington and get our country back on track," Obama says in the 60-second ad.

The article highlighted the reason Barrow was so eager to have Obama record an ad endorsing him and why it's so potentially important in helping Barrow win his primary:

Barrow beat a Republican incumbent in 2004 and had tough GOP opposition in 2006. But this April, Barrow picked up unexpected opposition from Regina Thomas, a well-known African-American state senator based in Savannah. Barrow is white, and in past primaries in the 12th District, black voters have cast nearly 70 percent of the ballots.

What makes this even more amazing is that, as the article notes, Barrow cynically waited until after Obama's sweeping primary victory in Georgia to endorse him. He did so only once he saw that Obama would likely be the nominee and obviously with the hope of having Obama encourage Barrow's sizable African-American constituency to support him. And now Obama turns around and intervenes in a Democratic primary on behalf of one of the worst Bush enablers in Congress -- not in order to help Barrow defeat an even-worse Republican, but to defeat a far better and plainly credible Democratic challenger. For all of Obama's talk about the wicked ways of Washington, these incumbent protection schemes -- whereby Beltway power factions all help each other stay in power no matter their ideology or positions -- are among the most vital instruments for perpetuating how Washington works. Democratic leaders pretend that they are forced continuously to capitulate to the Bush administration due to their "conservative" members, yet continuously work to keep those same members in power, even when it comes to supporting them against far better Democratic primary challengers.

Obama has made himself a central part of that rancid scheme. Recall that in 2006, Obama -- who now touts his commitment to ending the war -- endorsed Joe Lieberman in his Connecticut primary race over war opponent Ned Lamont, appearing with Lieberman to say: "Joe Lieberman's a man with a good heart, with a keen intellect, who cares about the working families of America . . . . I am absolutely certain that Connecticut's going to have the good sense to send Joe Lieberman back to the United States Senate."

* * * * *

Making matters much worse here, Obama -- who has removed himself almost completely from the pending eavesdropping and telecom amnesty debate -- recorded this ad for Barrow on the eve of that bill's passage, all in order to keep in power a key Democratic supporter of this FISA/amnesty bill. Yet telecom amnesty is not merely a side issue but is one of the purest expressions of what Obama claims so vigorously to oppose in Washington.

Just consider this Reuters article from yesterday in which anonymous officials decree to us that it's now a fait accompli that the Democratic Congress will enact the FISA/amnesty bill -- an article which the commenter pow wow describes as "carefully-planted PR in the government-mouthpiece media -- anonymously reminding the peons that resistance is futile; the game is up":

U.S. phone companies would be shielded from potentially billions of dollars in lawsuits under an anti-terror spy measure that appears headed toward approval, congressional sources said on Wednesday. . . . . Democratic and Republican aides and a lobbyist familiar with negotiations said the House would likely approve the measure overwhelmingly. Despite opposition from its top two Democrats, the Senate would then likely give it final approval, clearing the way for President George W. Bush to sign it into law. . . ..

The proposed compromise would allow a federal district court to dismiss a suit if the company was provided written assurances that Bush authorized their participation in the spy program and that it was legal, sources said.

The telecom amnesty bill is something that has been engineered by telecom lobbyists from start to finish, while Bush officials engineer the part of the bill to provide full-scale warrantless eavesdropping powers. While the ACLU and other grass-roots groups have been shut out of the negotiation over this bill almost completely -- it's been conducted, like most important government processes, totally in the dark -- telecom lobbyists are not only fully informed about what is going on but have been participating directly in the negotiations. Along with Bush officials, it's the telecoms' lobbyists who are "negotiating" with Congress over how to write the law providing for their own amnesty from breaking the laws passed by Congress. This is everything Obama claims so vehemently to oppose, claims he wants to end. And yet the Congress under the control of his party is about to enact a radical bill to legalize vast new warrantless eavesdropping powers and immunize telecoms who broke our country's laws for years. And not only is Obama doing nothing about any of that, but far more, he's actively intervening in a Democratic primary to help one of the worst enablers of all of this stay in power, while helping to defeat an insurgent, community-based challenger.

None of that is enjoyable to write or accept, but those are just facts. There is a disturbing tendency on all sides to view Obama through a reductive Manichean lens -- either he's the embodiment of pure transformative Good who is going magically to cleanse our polity the minute he takes office, or he's nothing other than a mindless, passive tool of the establishment whose pretty rhetoric masks a barren ambition for power and who is no better than McCain. Neither of those caricatures is remotely accurate, and a John McCain presidency would be an unmitigated disaster on every level.

But it's critical to keep in mind that Obama is a politician and, like all people, is plagued by significant imperfections. He has largely entrenched himself in, and is dependent upon, the power structure he says he wants to undermine. Uncritical devotion to political leaders, including him, is destructive. Obama needs pressure, criticism, checks, and real scrutiny just like anyone else in power in order to keep him accountable, responsive, and faithful to the principles he claims are the ones driving him.

Pressure of that sort should include demanding that he take meaningful action against this Draconian and lawlessness-enabling bill. This is, after all, a bill which his own party is seeking to pass and justifying their behavior, in part, by claiming that they're doing it to protect Obama politically from being attacked as Weak on Terrorism. If this bill passes and Obama does nothing to stop it, he'll bear significant responsibility for its enactment. Here's his campaign's phone number: (866) 675-2008 [Dial 6, then 0, on the menu]. I'll post other contact information as people leave it in comments.

* * * * *

A few quick updates about the FISA/telecom campaign: The amount raised in the last 1 1/2 days is now an amazing $115,000 -- brining the total for this campaign to $195,000. By any measure, that is an extraordinary amount to raise for a campaign like this, through a handful of blogs, in such a short time. It attests to the intensity and depth of the constituency for defending our constitutional framework and the rule of law, and it will only grow.

New ads are being prepared right now to run ASAP in the districts of Hoyer, Carney and Barrow, and they will continue even if the vote occurs Friday.

Simon Owens interviewed several of the members of the "Strange Bedfellows" alliance and wrote an excellent article about the campaign. Bloggers, activists and organizations that want to join that alliance can do so here. The ACLU Press Release announcing this coalition, as well as a tool for embedding the amount raised for this campaign, can be found here at the Strange Bedfellows site.

As indicated yesterday, this will be an ongoing campaign for all matters relating to constitutional protections, civil liberties, unchecked government power, and the rule of law -- particularly devoted to removing from power those who enable the assault on our constitutional liberties and to put into power those devoted to their preservation. The massive money bomb being coordinated now by the Ron Paul faction will enable many more deserving political figures -- both good and bad -- to be targeted.

UPDATE: Here's the newly elected Rep. Donna Edwards, who defeated Bush-enabling Democratic incumbent Al Wynn, speaking on telecom immunity after she defeated Wynn in the primary:

Wynn was not only heavily supported by the entire telecom industry, but by Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership as well, who tried to keep Donna Edwards out of Congress and keep the Bush-supporting Al Wynn in power. As Matt Stoller wrote today: "I don't know what kind of game Obama is playing, but using his remarkable brand to protect conservative Democrats is a move reminiscent of Nancy Pelosi endorsing Al Wynn."

Democratic leaders expect that you're going to be understanding when they tell you that Bush gets everything he wants from Congress because -- oh-so-unfortunately -- there are so many members of their caucus who support those radical policies, the "Blue Dogs" and the like. But when it's those very Democratic leaders doing everything possible to keep those pro-Bush Democrats in power, even when it means defeating far better Democratic candidates, then they bear the full responsibility for the consequences.

Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book "How Would a Patriot Act?," a critique of the Bush administration's use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, "A Tragic Legacy", examines the Bush legacy.

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