Response from the ACLU: Blame Pelosi

by: Matt Stoller

Tue Aug 07, 2007 at 10:05

This is an emailed response from Caroline Fredrickson, the Washington Director of the ACLU, to my post yesterday titled 'Why the Progressive Movement Couldn't Stop the FISA Bill'.


Much of your criticism is unwarranted: we worked FISA and hard (and have been since December 2005).  We reached out to Democratic leaders -- we met with Pelosi and with Reid -- we spoke with the staff from every leadership office. They did not listen to us. It was dem leadership who scheduled the vote on these particular bills. Why be mad at us and not at them? We met with them. They rebuffed our arguments.

We weren't notified that the bill was moving until 6 days before when Rep. Harman let it slip on Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. We gave it the full court press: with action alerts, meetings with Members of Congress and Senators and their staff.

Pelosi and friends spent the entire week negotiating with the DNI and cut out ALL the civil liberties groups - not just the ACLU. Senator Rockefeller led the effort on the Senate side (with McConnell). The bill only passed because a) 41 dems crossed the line in the house, after the "liberal leadership" could NOT muster up its own party to assert its 30 seat majority, and b) most importantly, Pelosi, our "liberal leader" scheduled the bill in the first place. She could have put any bill on the schedule and she chose the Administration's. We worked this hard, and somehow you blame the ACLU?

Matt Stoller :: Response from the ACLU: Blame Pelosi
Here's the sad fact:  Dems are scared to pieces about the issue of terrorism and feel that they desperately need to show "strength" - even when the cost is their principles, and our Constitution.  Look for lots more of this in the Fall.  (and of course "crime" has the same potential to soften spines).

We are trying to communicate to Americans what they lost. We need folks to keep the pressure on Congress --  as you know, this will be voted on again in six months.....It would be more helpful if you could explain to your readership what we lose when the Fourth Amendment gets turned on its head and Americans can be wiretapped without warrants than your fingerpointing at the ACLU.  We lost, but we worked it hard. One of the key problems for this battle was that Mike McConnell, the DNI, enjoys tremendous respect from the Democratic leadership. They believe everything he tells them. Why not attack them for that rather than attacking us?  And what about buying into pressure from President Bush?  Has there been a president who can be trusted as little on national security?  Remember weapons of mass destruction?  But still the Dems gave him what he wanted.

Then on Habeas:

Find Habeas is one small piece of a much broader campaign that has included a massive rally and lobby day, radio and print ads, in-district organizing, building coalitions both in DC and in the field, etc. (see below for the details)

And as to your comment on results (i.e., habeas hasn't been restored yet), we can say that the relevant committees in both the House and the Senate have held hearings over the past two months, and the House leadership is committed to moving a bipartisan habeas bill sponsored by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, and the Senate is ready to vote on the habeas issue when the Defense Department authorization bill gets back on the Senate floor this fall.  So while we have not had results yet, we think we are turning the corner on restoring habeas rights. 


*296 Total meetings scheduled

*92 of those were senate mtgs


*13 states organized local events

*20 events took place

*NM did a protest

*NoCal did a Happy Hour

*San Diego did a lecture

*FL did a protest a city hall

*MI did demonstrations at 5 district offices

*MI also did a call in day to member offices

*MN had rallies at Coleman & Kline's district offices

*AK did a forum

*CO did a march

*OR did a rally

*WA had a march

*MA did a march

*DC did 3 movie screenings


* 27 buses (from as far away as Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Florida)

* Hotels - we provided housing for some bus travelers and for grasstops who were flying in from the affiliates (also provided airfare for two grasstops per state to attend


*85 partnering organizations, representing millions of constituents

* In less than 24 hours, five lawmakers signed on as co-sponsors of critical habeas restoration bills. And the list of co-sponsors has continued to grow this past week. Just since June 26th, two senators co-sponsored the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act, four representatives co-sponsored the Restoring the Constitution Act, and three representatives co-sponsored the House's version of the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act. We expect more activity and co-sponsors in the coming weeks. (One Senator - Stabenow - co-sponsored just before the arrival of the MI folks)

* Three days after the hill storming, more than 140 representatives signed an open letter to President Bush urging him to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

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Weak communication between our interest groups (4.00 / 2)
Whether the bill was called to a vote at this particular time on purpose, it seems that the leadership is holding their cards close to their chest.  For Harman to "let it slip" just 6 days is a clue, whether intentional or not, only she can tell us.  But it seems that the leadership EXPLOITED an opening.  It seems no accident that this weekend was chosen when pratically the entire progressive activist, grass roots, leadership was in Chicago busy with the convention.  But the convention SHOULD have been a focal point for just this kind of vote, to alert the progressive masses, work the phones and pressure the lawmakers not to rush and pass bad legislation that will be difficult to turn back in 6 months.  It seems that a simple phone call to one of the progressive bloggers in Chicago could have ignited a firestorm that should have been have to defeat this bill. 
It appears that the leadership took a roll of the dice, called the vote on short notice and threw a bone to leary lawmakers not wanting a high exposure vote that would "haunt" them in a 30 second ad. 
So, Matt I think some of your critism's of the ACLU are warranted.  But I believe the ACLU when they say they worked hard to try and stop this bill.  Clearly a problem exists with the reach of the ACLU's communication effort reaching the critical stakeholder's, at a critical time to turn the tide on such short notice.
The ACLU should deeply revisit the extent of it's communication effort and the netroots and progressive activists need to get better linked to the ACLU's efforts on these types of critical efforts. 
The ACLU and the netroots have much to learn from this effort and we had better learn them and not harden our position on who screwed up this vote. 

Clearly something is very wrong when we are waking up Saturday and Sunday and reading that 41 house members and 16 Senators voted with the MINORITY to form a majority and pass very, very dubious legislation.

Do you really think .. (4.00 / 1)
the ACLU could have made that much of a difference?  Pelosi and Reid and spineless cowards.  While they might be stupid, I am sure they knew they'd take heat for this crap from their base, but they didn't care.  A lot of Washington Democrats are feeble minded cowards.  They don't have a conscience.  It is sickening.  It is obvious.  They are afraid of the right wing noise machine.  We've been punked by our Congressional leadership.

[ Parent ]
I Agree (4.00 / 2)
I was frankly sickened about the attack on the ACLU. I'm all for constructive criticism, but OpenLeft's unconstructive criticism of the ACLU's outreach efforts really angered me. Much more attention could have been paid to WHY Openleft bloggers didn't get any ACLU action alerts. Is anyone signed up for those action alerts? Even better, you could have reached out to the ACLU to have them keep you in the look. They are always looking for allies.

Time to face reality (4.00 / 2)
that the leadership of Pelosi and Reid has been a big disappointment.  If the netroots can have a unified influence, it should exert that on the Party to throw them out for non-performance.  Push to have Durbin replace Reid as Majority Leader and get the caucus on track before it does anymore damage to the Party going into the 2008 elections.

ACLU was all over me on FISA (4.00 / 1)
Email after email. If I hadn't been out of town, I would have done more than email Pelosi (my congresscritter).

Look -- their communications and lobbying model is not always the most modern; and perhaps they lean too much on having historic channels of communication with Democratic leadership. But they are there on our civil liberties and they know that preserving them is a long (permanent!) fight.

Full disclosure: I have at times consulted for the ACLU on how to use their membership base to better advantage in these fights -- so I do have some investment in this.

Can it happen here?

Fight Terrorism: Stop Being Terrorized (4.00 / 1)
[Formerly titled:]
    I'm Not Happy With Reid And Pelosi, But...

The real problem here is the media establishment, and the hegemonic narratives that has Dems quivering in their boots.

Let's put things in perspective.  On the House side, it's extremely difficult to identify a potential leader who could be anywhere near as sympathetic to us as Pelosi is.  I don't mean to cut her any slack on this account, but I'm in no hurry to trade her in for Steny Hoyer, are you?

What we really need to do is attack those narratives, attack them hard, and press Democratic officeholders to do the same.

The bottom line here is that Bush and bin Laden are on the same side in the 'war on terror.'  They are both on the side of terror.

This may be extremely difficult for Democratic officeholders to get their minds around, so it is up to us to start making the argument, because its really the bottom line:

    The only thing Bush has going for him is fear itself.

The way to fight terrorism is to stop being terrorized.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

Too simple (4.00 / 1)
Blaming the media establishment is of course correct to a point, but fails to ask the right question: why are the Dems so helpless against media bias? Given recent failures the rational person has no choice but to wonder whether this is really helplessness at all, or simply their part in the eternal dance of the power elite. Whether Nader was 100 percent literally telling the truth about both parties.

So again, why are the Dems so scared? If they are not simply complicit, why are they so incompetent at communication compared to the semi-literate wingnuts? Saying they are victims of the media is too easy an excuse -- it's kind of like saying rapists are the victims of sexy women. Thing is, their paralyzing fear is not justified by results. Folks like Sanders, Feingold, the late Wellstone, and others have proven time and time again that unembarrassed progressives can do just fine in purple states. The difference between success an failure is not in toeing the Fox line but in communicating how your stances affect your constituents. Why are so many Dems unable to do that?

[ Parent ]
A Crude Stab (0.00 / 0)
Blaming the media establishment is of course correct to a point, but fails to ask the right question: why are the Dems so helpless against media bias?

I didn't fail to do anything.  I'm working right now on a piece about the role of the media in promoting Bush's lies about the Iraq War.  While the results are quite blatant, the intricacies of how such propaganda machines are developed and maintained over time defy any sort of simplistic single-cause analysis.

This sort of language:

Given recent failures the rational person has no choice but to wonder whether this is really helplessness at all, or simply their part in the eternal dance of the power elite. Whether Nader was 100 percent literally telling the truth about both parties.

is barely above the level of baby-talk for anyone who has seriously studied the workings of elite power systems, such the works of Ferdinand Lundberg, C. Wright Mills or William Domhoff.

I suppose it's only natural that folks who have naively believed in fairy-tale democracy for years or decades of their lives will swing about wildly looking for another simplistic faith (such as Nader's) to cling to when their illusions are finally shattered.

But folks who were never so bamboozled in the first place have little problem recognizing that American elites have always been riven by significant differences, and are no different today.  They have always needed ways to shore up their power and vie with each other in seeking mass support.  These baselines truths do not erase the fact that some elite factions are consistently more authoritarian than othes, while others are more progressive, some are more provincial, while others are more cosmopolitan, some are more reality-based while others are much more superstitious.

To ignore these cleavages (not to mention a vast range of significantly more detailed differences) and speak simply of  a monolithic power elite is almost as infantile as to deny the existence of such elites altogether.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Fairy tale democracy? (0.00 / 0)
Hardly. I grew up in America. You want to go on about theories of the dynamics of the power elite. To each his own. The question remains: is it really possible that the congressional Democrats are really so incompetent as to have inadvertently brought about the FISA debacle and the long string of other disappointments we've all seen?

Either they are, in which case we have to ask how this can be. Or they are not, but made happen what they wanted to happen, in which case we have to question their real motives and how those are different from their opponents. As I noted, there are enough examples of straightforward progressive success in purple states to cast doubt on both the big bad media and the fear theories.

You are parsing definitions when you accuse me of "speaking simply of a monolithic elite", of which I did not speak. The real decision will be, are the differences important enough to matter in the real world. I did not say they aren't, but like it or not it will be a question that will be much asked and will have the potential to kill off the Democratic Revolution before it gets started.

[ Parent ]
As You're Starting To Admit--Implicitly, At Least--This Is A Rather Complicated Question (0.00 / 0)
And that's my main point here--it's a much more nuanced situation than your original comment allowed.

I agree that from where we stand the FISA debacle seems to be an example of stupendous incompetence, unless it is outright bewtrayal.  But I think that from inside the Beltway it looks somewhat different.  While I don't for a minute buy the inside-the-Beltway view, I think that there's clearly a set of intense feedback loops inside the Beltway, whose power it is difficult for us to comprehend, in part because that power is grounded in long traditions which the Gingrich/Bush Republicans have totally decimated, while the Democrats still seem to have not recognized what is going on.

This is a complex phenomena, even though it seems simple to us.  And it cannot be addressed without recognizing that.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Matt (4.00 / 2)
your attack on the ACLU was way out of line. What did you do to pressure the Democratic leadership?

On the bright side (4.00 / 1)
Even Hiatt's WaPo editorial page thought this was abject cowardice by the Dem leadership to cave.

Which might mean since the big establishment MSM sources are even balking at this, that they'll reevaluate the next such move.  The Iraq capitulation and this one have won them no friends or support.  There are more votes in saying no to bush than saying yes to him, as a rule now.

All I can offer is that perhaps there is some nugget of classified intelligence Pelosi and Reid were told of that really did make this look like a good idea.

Even with that said, it is inexcusable given the scope of the changes made.  They could have put forward a much better bill and left it up to Bush whether or not to Veto it.  Then if he couldn't do his precious intelligence, blame him for vetoing it instead of signing it.

Why is that so fucking difficult?  The whole point of that Iraq timetable bill was to force Bush to go on record by vetoing it.  He does and then they still cave on a new bill.

I do think Reid and Pelosi have shown spine, so I am struggling to imagine what is sapping their spine now. 

Finally, if it was some extreme piece of believable intelligence that made this bill seem prudent as an emergency measure (And yes, under a sufficiently dire emergency some rights can be temporarily surrendered - habeas in the civil war, various during WWII), then they had an obligation to demand Bush do a better job explaining it to the nation, and declassifying enough that they could at least talk vaguely about why.

If there is a real attack brewing, and known Al Qaeda agents lose in America waiting to strike that made such a thing more tolerable - the people deserve to know a bit more of why. 

All this is just hypothetical sadly.  Given the information we have, there is no excuse for passing this bill.  My only hope is that something comes to light in the near future which better explains this without making out Reid and Pelosi to be so craven.

So Matt, where are you? (4.00 / 3)
Seems to me you're obligated to either acknowledge errors in your post or explain where the ACLU's answer doesn't fly. Letting stuff like this fester is what makes for divisiveness, not honest and open disagreement.

Blame Pelosi? (4.00 / 1)
I'll vouch for the fact that ACLU worked this hard--email to me was regularly and heavily urging action.  The Democrats we worked so hard to elect gave us the shaft with four feathers.


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