I had the opportunity to speak with CA-04 candidate Charlie Brown about the awful FISA bill that wormed its way through the House on Friday. Unlike Steny Hoyer and practically everyone else in the House, Brown has actually gathered intelligence in his career. He served two rotations in Saudi Arabia, coordinating surveillance flights over the No Fly Zone in Iraq. So he has an understanding of how intelligence is collected and what ought to be done when such collection results in information gleaned from Americans.
As soon as I brought up the FISA bill, Brown sighed. He said there was no way he could support the bill that was passed in the House, and he in particular cited the telecom immunity aspect for a variety of reasons. “When I was gathering intelligence, if I ever picked up information outside what was authorized, I would have to flag the tape and immediately deliver it to my commanding officer for destruction,” he said. “If I didn’t, I’d be sitting at Leavenworth.” To treat the phone companies in a different way that he would have been personally treated seems unfathomable. Brown’s main argument is that the world is a dangerous place and foreign surveillance within the law is sometimes warranted. But the precedent of giving phone companies a free pass after the President supplies them with a piece of paper allowing them to break the law is quite dangerous. “This is exactly what happened in 1973. In the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident as a pretext to get us into that war, and the resolution passed was misused to escalate that conflict without the control of Congress. in 1973 Congress reasserted itself and passed the War Powers Act to ensure that never again could the executive go to war without expressed approval of the legislative body. And that was ignored for the next 35 years.” Passing a FISA bill that is the “exclusive” means for electronic surveillance is part of the same deception. Laws don’t need to be reasserted, they need to be enforced.
Brown was concerned that we seem to continue granting immunity to the wrong people, and not just the telecoms. We bail out Bear Stearns but not individual homeowners. We throw individual privates in jail for Abu Ghraib but never go up the chain of command. “There is an accountability problem in Washington, DC,” as Brown put it. And the Title I aspects of the bill, which allow warrantless spying of bulk targets under executive-proclaimed “exigent circumstances,” particularly with no need to throw out the intelligence gained that way if later found to to be illegal, was a concern as well.
If Charlie Brown can manage to run for office in what has traditionally been a heavily Republican district and understand that Constitutional principles and federal statutes must come first, then it’s just impossible to take Bush Dogs who voted for FISA out of fear seriously. “Conservative Republicans should never vote for this kind of bill… they ought to be skeptical of government power and protective of civil liberties.”
It’s important that as we go forward we support those candidates who understand these issues, who will not be swayed by what a lobbyist or a leadership PAC will suggest, but who have the experience and strength to vote based on their own principles. There’s no question in my mind that Charlie Brown is that kind of candidate.