Keith Olbermann: Then and Now
On January 31 of this year, Keith Olbermann donned his most serious face and most indignant voice tone to rail against George Bush for supporting telecom immunity and revisions to FISA. In a 10-minute "Special Comment," the MSNBC star condemned Bush for wanting to "retroactively immunize corporate criminals," and said that telecom immnity is "an ex post facto law, which would clear the phone giants from responsibility for their systematic, aggressive and blatant collaboration with [Bush's] illegal and unjustified spying on Americans under this flimsy guise of looking for any terrorists who are stupid enough to make a collect call or send a mass email."
Olbermann added that telecom amnesty was a "shameless, breathless, literally textbook example of Fascism -- the merged efforts of government and corporations that answer to no government." Noting the numerous telecom lobbyists connected to the Bush administration, Olbermann said:
This is no longer just a farce in which protecting telecoms is dressed up as protecting us from terrorists conference cells. Now it begins to look like the bureaucrats of the Third Reich, trying to protect the Krupp family, the industrial giants, re-writing the laws of Germany for their benefit.
Olbermann closed by scoffing at the idea that telecom amnesty or revisions to FISA were necessary to help National Security:
There is not a choice of protecting the telecoms from prosecution or protecting the people from terrorism, Sir. This is a choice of protecting the telecoms from prosecution or pretending to protect the people from terrorists. Sorry, Mr. Bush, the eavesdropping provisions of FISA have obviously had no impact on counter-terrorism, and there is no current or perceived terrorist threat the thwarting of which could hinge on an email or phone call that is going through Room 641 of AT&T in San Francisco.
Strong and righteous words indeed. But that was five whole months ago, when George Bush was urging enactment of a law with retroactive immunity and a lessening of FISA protections. Now that Barack Obama supports a law that does the same thing -- and now that Obama justifies that support by claiming that this bill is necessary to keep us Safe from the Terrorists -- everything has changed.
Last night, Olbermann invited Newsweek's Jonathan Alter onto his show to discuss Obama's support for the FISA and telecom amnesty bill (video of the segment is here). There wasn't a syllable uttered about "immunizing corporate criminals" or "textbook examples of Fascism" or the Third Reich. There wasn't a word of rational criticism of the bill either. Instead, the two media stars jointly hailed Obama's bravery and strength -- as evidenced by his "standing up to the left" in order to support this important centrist FISA compromise:
OLBERMANN: Asked by "Rolling Stone" publisher, Jann Wenner, about how Democrats have cowered in the wake of past Republican attacks, Senator Obama responding, quote, "Yeah, I don't do cowering." That's evident today in at least three issues . . .
Senator Obama also refusing to cower even to the left on the subject of warrantless wiretapping. He's planning to vote for the FISA compromise legislation, putting him at odds with members of his own party . . . But first, it's time to bring in our own Jonathan Alter, also, of course, senior editor of "Newsweek" magazine. Good evening, Jon.
JONATHAN ALTER, NEWSWEEK: Hi, Keith.
OLBERMANN: "Yeah, I don't do cowering." This is not just the man, but the campaign?
ALTER: Yes. This is part of the message that is consistent across the last couple weeks and it comes down to one word -- strength. The United States is not going to elect a president that perceives to be as weak. You look weak if you're flip-flopping. You look weak if you're not taking actions that seem to be securing the United States against terrorists. And you look weak if you don't fight back against your political adversaries.
OLBERMANN: But this cuts, I mean, this terminology cuts in more than one direction here. Not cowering to Republicans is one thing in the Democratic, recent Democratic history, it's a thing that I think anybody who has a "D" near their name cheers, but not cowering to the left, not going along with the conventional, the new conventional thinking on the FISA bill, that's something altogether different, isn't it?
ALTER: Yes. I don't really think it is. It was only a matter of time before the left was disappointed in Barack Obama, at least in a limited way. No politician is ever going to do everything that somebody likes.
And I think some folks in the netroots in particular on this FISA bill who are, you know, pulling their hair out over this, they have to realize, he's always been a politician, he'll always be a politician, and politics is the art of the possible. And he's a legislator. He knows that you can't always get everything that you want in a bill, even if he personally believes that the immunity for Telcoms is a bad idea. The larger idea of the bill was important.
And I actually think one of the big points, Keith, that hasn't been made about this bill is that currently, as of last August, since last August, we've been operating in an unconstitutional environment, clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.
So, there was tremendous urgency to get the FISA court back into the game. And does this bill do it imperfectly? Yes. But it does do it and it restores the Constitution, which is a point that's not getting made very much.
Leave aside the fact that Jonathan Alter, desperate to defend Obama, doesn't have the slightest idea of what he's talking about. How can a bill which increases the President's authority to eavesdrop with no warrants over the current FISA law possibly be described as a restoration of the Fourth Amendment? That would be like describing a new law banning anti-war speech as a restoration of the First Amendment.
As Jim Dempsey and Marty Lederman both note, not even the nation's most foremost FISA experts really know the full extent to which this bill allows new warrantless spying. Obviously, Jonathan Alter has no idea what he's saying, but nonetheless decrees that this bill -- now that Obama supports it -- restores the Fourth Amendment. Those are the Orwellian lengths to which people like Olbermann and Alter are apparently willing to go in order to offer their blind devotion to Barack Obama.
Moreover, Alter's own explanation is self-contradictory. In the course of praising Obama's FISA stance, he says that a politician looks "weak if you're flip-flopping" and "you look weak if you don't fight back against your political adversaries." But that's exactly what Obama is doing here -- completely reversing himself on telecom amnesty and warrantless eavesdropping, all in order to give the right-wing of the GOP everything it wants on national security issues in order to avoid a fight. By Alter's own reasoning, what Obama's doing is "weak" in the extreme, yet Alter bizarrely praises Obama for showing "strength."
All of the decades-old, conventional Beltway mythologies are trotted out here to praise Obama. Democrats move to the "center" by embracing hard-core right-wing policies. Democrats will look "weak" unless they turn themselves into Republican clones on national security. A President becomes "strong" when he tramples on the Constitution and the rule of law in the name of keeping us safe. Democrats must embrace the Right and repudiate the base of their own party, and they must support Dick Cheney's policies while "standing up to the ACLU."
That's just the garden-variety New Republic Syndrome I wrote about earlier this week. That's the mentality that led large numbers of Democrats to vote for the attack on Iraq, and then ignore and/or enable the whole stable of Bush's lawlessness and other radical policies ("that's how we'll avoid looking weak and liberal"). Those Move-to-the-Center cliches just tumble reflexively out of the mouths of every standard Beltway establishment pundit.
What's much more notable is Olbermann's full-scale reversal on how he talks about these measures now that Obama -- rather than George Bush -- supports them. On an almost nightly basis, Olbermann mocks Congressional Democrats as being weak and complicit for failing to stand up to Bush lawbreaking; now that Obama does it, it's proof that Obama won't "cower." Grave warning on Olbermann's show that telecom amnesty and FISA revisions were hallmarks of Bush Fascism instantaneously transformed into a celebration that Obama, by supporting the same things, was leading a courageous, centrist crusade in defense of our Constitution.
Is that really what anyone wants -- transferring blind devotion from George Bush to Barack Obama? Are we hoping for a Fox News for Obama, that glorifies everything he says and whitewashes everything he does? Compare what Russ Feingold said in an interview yesterday about the Democrats' support for the FISA bill to Olbermann's absurd effort to depict Obama as courageous for supporting it:
It's the latest chapter of running for cover when the Administration tries to intimidate Democrats on national security issues. It's the most embarrassing failure of the Democrats I've seen since 2006, other than the failure to vote to end the Iraq War. . . . It's letting George Bush and Dick Cheney have their way even though they're that unpopular and on their way out. It's really incredible.
It isn't that difficult to keep the following two thoughts in one's head at the same time -- though it seems to be for many people:
(1) What Barack Obama is doing on Issue X is wrong, indefensible and worthy of extreme criticism; (2) I support Barack Obama for President because he's a better choice than John McCain.
As but one example, John Cole was a vehement supporter of Barack Obama throughout the primary. He viciously criticized Hillary Clinton on a regular basis and raised tens of thousands of dollars for Obama's campaign through his blog. But this week alone, Cole lambasted Obama for what he called Obama's "total collapse and a rapid abandonment of principle" regarding FISA and pronounced as a "pathetic performance" Obama's refusal to be photographed anywhere near Muslims or to meet with Muslim leaders. Despite that, just yesterday, Cole said:
No, I don't have buyers remorse. Yes, he still is better than Hillary or McCain. No, I am not disillusioned (I never thought he was a flaming liberal in the first place). I am, however, disgusted, and I will caution the Obama campaign that "better than McCain" is not much of a rallying cry. We all remember how "anything is better than Bush" turned out in 2004.
That's called being a rational adult who refuses to relinquish one's intellectual honesty, integrity, and political principles in order to march lockstep behind a political leader. Those who think that Barack Obama should not be criticized no matter how wrong he is -- or those who justify anything that he does no matter how craven and unjustifiable, including things that they viciously criticized when done by Dick Cheney or Harry Reid -- are no different, and no better, than those who treated George Bush with similar uncritical reverence in 2003 and 2004.
The real danger is that those who defend Obama the Candidate no matter what he does are likely to defend Obama the President no matter what he does, too. If we learn in 2009 that Obama has invoked his claimed Article II powers to spy on Americans outside of even the new FISA law, are we going to hear from certain factions that he was justified in doing so to protect us; how it's a good, shrewd move to show he's a centrist and keep his approval ratings high so he can do all the Good things he wants to do for us; how it's different when Obama does it because we can trust him? It certainly looks that way. Those who spent the last five years mauling Bush for "shredding the Constitution" and approving of lawbreaking -- only to then praise Obama for supporting a bill that endorses and protects all of that -- are displaying exactly the type of blind reverence that is more dangerous than any one political leader could ever be.
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Today's Wall St. Journal has an article on the new Strange Bedfellows coalition and the campaign to punish and remove from office selected members of Congress who support civil-liberties-destroying measures such as the current FISA bill (a campaign I first announced here). The abstract of the WSJ article is here, and the full text can be read by clicking on the link on this page [link fixed]. The details for the "money bomb" the article describes will be disclosed very shortly. Yesterday, Jane Hamsher recorded a Bloggingheads session with former Rep. and current third-party presidential candidate Bob Barr (who Republicans are petrified will destroy McCain's chances) and discussed with him the ideologically diverse efforts to battle against the political establishment's assault on core constitutional liberties. For now, contributions to the campaign -- which now has more than $320,000 -- can be made here.
UPDATE: Comedy Central's Indecision 2008 blog discusses Obama's FISA stance here.
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.