a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

“The Constitution is not a nuisance” — draft Democratic platform

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 13th August 2008

On July 27 I attended a “Listening to America” event in Silver Spring, Maryland. The meeting at Mayorga Coffee Factory was held to gather local consensus positions for the Democratic party platform.

I had been alerted to the event — sponsored by the Democratic Party and Obama presidential campaign — by the people at “,” an online group dedicated to opposing and reversing the FISA Amendment Act passed in July. So I went with a fistful of fliers proposing platform planks dedicated to reversing this and other erosions of constitutional rights in the past eight years.

I found no argument at the meeting, and much agreement, so that one of the “GetFISARight” planks could be folded in to a broad set of planks under the rubric “Rebuilding and Reclaiming Our Basic Rights.” In the slightly rearranged and polished result that was circulated to attendees late last week as a report of the Platform Meeting, the passage read:

  • It is critical to repeal or substantially amend laws that violate constitutionally guaranteed rights, including the Patriot Act, the FISA Amendments law, the Military Commissions Act, related executive orders, and executive signing statements. We must endeavor to replace these with laws that reaffirm our fundamental rights and hold accountable all parties who violate those rights.

Thus, as can be seen by comparison with the original flier version, the “GetFISARight” language (the 2d bullet point in that flier) was reported back in essentially verbatim form, as were other points asserting that health care, education, a living wage, and housing were basic human rights. Similarly, language from a second focus group concerned with energy, global warming, economic and immigration challenges was accurately conveyed back to meeting attendees.

Likewise, I’m pleased to say, some of the gist of this message has emerged in the “Draft 2008 Democratic National Platform” presented by the Platform Drafting Committee chaired by Arizona governor Janet Napolitano. Turning to pages 48-50 of that document, even the phrase “Reclaiming” is used in the title of the relevant section, “Reclaiming our Constitution and Our Liberties, showing at very least that great minds think alike.

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“Listening to America” hears “Get FISA Right”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th July 2008

As advertised, I went to a nearby “Listening To America” Democratic platform drafting meeting yesterday. The idea was that “people all across America will hold Platform Meetings in their homes, or in their local churches and even coffee shops, to help build the Democratic Party’s platform for change from the bottom up.”

As it happened, ours really was in a coffee shop, the Mayorga Coffee Factory in Silver Spring. About twenty people showed up to the area set aside for us and signed in.

I brought a bunch of “Restore Our Rights & Demand Accountability” fliers I’d printed out drafted by the organization,* proposing three additions to the Democratic platform:

  • Stop government practices that violate the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech, privacy, and due process, including warrantless surveillance on Americans, secret evidence in military courts, torture, illegal imprisonment of U.S. citizens and others, and arbitrary racial and religious profiling.
  • Repeal or substantially amend laws that violate constitutionally guaranteed rights, including the Patriot Act, the FISA Amendments law, the Military Commissions Act, related executive orders, and executive signing statements. Replace these with laws that reaffirm our fundamental rights and hold accountable all parties who violate those rights.
  • Restore constitutional rights that the Bush administration has eroded through its lawless theory of unchecked executive power, including dissent, free speech, assembly, habeas corpus, privacy, due process of law, and equal protection.

When the meeting began, it quickly became clear I’d have trouble getting all of those points adopted. The goal, it turned out, was to actually try to draft a single platform statement reflecting a group consensus, rather than perhaps voting on a series of possible statements like those above and just forwarding that to the higher ups in the process. The moderators — two very nice and able people from the policy side of the Obama campaign, Keith Harper and Chris Goldthwait (sp.?) — had in mind that we’d eventually form a couple of clusters around the commonalities that emerged as people introduced themselves and explained what they hoped for from the meeting. While I wasn’t alone in bringing the Constitutional/rule of law/civil liberties concerns to the table, there were plenty of other agendas — housing, health care, women’s reproductive rights, global warming, energy, education, poverty, to name just the ones I was able to jot down.

One woman (A.) noted how in other parts of the world, things like health care, education are considered human rights, and that (I’m paraphrasing) we need to catch up with that. So I suggested that maybe my civil liberties/constitutional erosion concerns and those like education and health care might be joined up under a single rubric of “restoring and expanding rights,” and that’s pretty much what happened.

The meeting broke up into basically one “rights” group and another “problems” group (energy, global warming), and got to work. After a bit of philosophical discussion about whether we were for expanding rights or reclaiming ones that were there all along, we settled on “Rebuilding and Reclaiming Our Basic Rights” as a title, and then A. came up with a pretty good preamble. From my notes:

The Democratic Party has long recognized that the most significant role of government is to protect basic human rights. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his “Four Freedoms” speech, set forth a comprehensive vision of human rights, and Eleanor Roosevelt fought hard to ensure that vision of human rights was incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Then Keith, our moderator, said it was time to get specific – “put some meat on the bones.” I figured of the ones I’d brought, I most wanted the second one, because it mentioned accountability (i.e., prosecutions, I explained to one guy before the meeting started).

So I said that I knew I’d said a lot already, but I really hoped that point could be part of our platform recommendations. And people were OK with that; we dictated it to the “raporteur”/Obama organizer (Mona) keeping track on a poster sheet. Hooray! We then went on to “rebuild and reclaim” other basic human rights — living wage, education, health care, housing — with codicils that, for example, reproductive health care was part of the picture for universal health care. When we got back together with the rest of the meeting, no major changes were made by either group to the overall result.

I guess it’s true: sometimes all it takes is showing up. Of course I can’t guarantee that these points will make it to Denver or actually become part of the Democratic party platform. But it’s to the credit of the Obama campaign that they have this much grassroots input to the platform, and I think they’ll have to take note of all of us somehow. At any rate, it felt like a good afternoon’s work to me.

* An alternative excellent flier focused on the FISA Amendment Act per se. I picked the “PlatformConstitution.pdf” one on the theory that it might help to put the FISA Amendment Act in a broader context in a platform discussion.

UPDATE, 7/29: You, too, can be part of a platform drafting team — follow this link to Netroots Nation’s Democratic Platform and vote on or write your own plank on Civil Liberties!
(UPDATE, 8/11: the full text of the 7/28 Silver Spring consensus statement is here.)

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The 4th Amendment: 12/15/1791-7/9/2008?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th July 2008

The people at — Obama supporters deeply unhappy with his reversal on this issue — are hoping to get grassroots “buys” of cable TV ad time for this ad. I’m not made of money, but I’m considering this.

While you’re thinking about it, send a letter to your Senators thanking them for their “Nay” votes against the FISA Amendment Act …or spanking them for their “Aye” votes.

GetFisaRight is also trying to get people to “listening” meetings held by the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party as part of a weeklong grassroots contribution to the party platform process; the final set of meetings — but apparently most of them — are today. I hope to attend one near here at 3:00pm; there may still be time for you to sign up for one in your area.

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To do list

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th July 2008

    • Get FISA RightEmail Your Senators About Their FISA Votecheck
    • Join and participate in the online site Senator, please get FISA rightcheck
    • Add your name to the ACLU’s newspaper ad announcing a lawsuit against the FISA Amendment Act seeking a ruling that it’s unconstitutional — check
    • Forward ACLU ad signature link widely — check
    • Let Barack Obama know how you feel about his vote; sign an open letter to Sen. Obama demanding accountability — check:

      Senator Obama,

      I voted for you in February in Maryland. I nearly voted Edwards, even though he was out of the race, so I was not among your fervent supporters at that time. Still, I thought that you had integrity, that you’d got Iraq right when Clinton, Edwards… and I had got it wrong. So I believed that you would get us out of Iraq, and the more I learned about you, the more I thought you were a serious person who revered the Constitution and would restore the balances between the presidency and Congress, even if I didn’t agree with all of your positions (esp. impeachment of Bush and Cheney, who merit it as no others ever have).
      Read the rest of this entry »

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Finance, favors, and FISA

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th July 2008

An American News Project report via Real News Network

The sums involved may seem paltry — but maybe that just proves how cheap a Congresscritter vote can be: “94 House Democrats who reversed their earlier position and voted in favor of immunity got an average of $8,359 from telecom PACs since 2005.” On the other hand, Senator Jay Rockefeller — who you’d think would be rich enough not to need it — got $51,500 this year alone. Guess it’s true — you don’t get rich by spending money. (Pretty wicked reporting of this in the video, watch for it around 1:40.)

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Lunchtime liveblogging: Mikulski votes against Dodd-Leahy-Feingold amendment to FISA Amendment Act

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th July 2008

Via watching the vote on C-SPAN.

Now is as good a time as any to say I’ll support any reasonably liberal Democrat in the primaries against Senator Mikulski should she run for office again. The opponent should preferably make Mikulski’s votes on FISA a centerpiece of the campaign, but the main thing is that Mikulski must go.

Other Nays include Inouye, McCaskill, Salazar, Hagel (R), Landrieu, Lieberman, Feinstein, Warner.

Ayes include Clinton, Obama. Hm. They’re “Leaders” of “our” “party,” but this is still happening and going down to defeat. Also Menendez, Whitehouse, Boxer in decreasing order of surprise. Also Kerry, Byrd.

The motion has failed 32-66. Roll-call when available. More votes ahead, of course; the Bingaman amendment delaying immunity for 90 days pending investigation of the surveillance is said to have an outside shot of approval.


Specter appears to get it, at least re unexamined prior illegal surveillance. Having joined in mid-debate, I’m honestly not sure which amendment he’s referring to; turns out it’s his own. Jay Rockefeller is worried for the poor widdle telecoms: “it’s not fair” to put the burden of assessing legality on them, too. Sorry, that’s what FISA did. That is, that’s what it used to do, as of the expected vote for this disaster later on today.


Now voting on Specter’s amendment to the FAA: it failed.


Now another two-minute!!!! debate on the Bingaman amendment; Feinstein co-sponsors. He says FISA Amendment Act gets the order wrong. Says opponents and proponents of the FAA itself are cosponsors. Kit Bond gets up and warns Bingaman amendment will get a veto and “we’ll have to start all over.” That would be terrible, of course.


Now voting. I’ll have to quit now, but doubt there will be a happy ending.

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Cardin to support Dodd-Leahy-Feingold amendment to FISA Amendment Act

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 7th July 2008

Just spoke with a staffer at the Cardin office, who confirmed that Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) will be supporting the Dodd-Feingold-Leahy amendment to the FISA Amendment Act. Their amendment removes language conferring immunity from civil lawsuits to telecommunications companies who worked with the NSA warrantless surveillance program. A staffer at Senator Mikulski’s (D-MD) office was unable to say how she would vote on that amendment.

You can use the easy Blue America tool I did to contact your own Senators. You give it your phone number and zip code, and the system calls you and connects you to the right Senator’s office. There’s a brief bit of phone coaching first, a script, and a place to record what happened. (You can leave the phone number blank and still get the script and form to record what happened.)

Via “Get FISA Right“, which also recommends a similar Electronic Freedom Foundation system (doesn’t call you, though) about the whole FISA bill.


Graphic and button via firedoglake, where you’ll find a lot of good links to Senator Dodd, Glenn Greenwald, and others.

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Reply to Senator Obama by “Get FISA Right”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 7th July 2008

I don’t usually just cut and paste a post, but this will be an exception. I’ve added a couple of links within the post; to see the reply itself, click the first link below. “Get FISA Right” is a group primarily organized at the Obama campaign web site “”

An Open Letter to Senator Obama
From the 20,000+ members of the group
“Senator Obama – Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity – Get FISA Right”

Dear Senator Obama,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to us with your post “My Position On FISA” dated July 3rd, 2008. In your response, you pledged to “listen to [our] concerns, take them seriously, and seek to earn [our] ongoing support,” and in that spirit, we would like to continue this conversation. We ask that you help transfer our passion and political activism into getting the FISA bill right — now.

Senator, as a legal scholar who has done extensive study of our country’s constitution you know that the FISA re-authorization bill currently before the Senate (HR 6304) threatens the rights guaranteed to American citizens in the Constitution, especially the Fourth Amendment.

One of the most troubling parts of this bill is its provision to provide retroactive immunity from civil lawsuits for telecommunications companies that may have assisted the Bush administration in violating the civil rights of Americans. You wrote in your statement that you “support striking Title II,” which provides this immunity, “from the bill, and will work with Chris Dodd, Jeff Bingaman and others in an effort to remove this provision in the Senate.”

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Going forth for the Fourth on the Fourth

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 5th July 2008

Once again, I rented some “Minuteman”/colonial town crier type duds and joined the Takoma Park Fourth of July parade and spectacle. I had about a thousand little 4 by 5 fliers with phone numbers for Senators Cardin, Mikulski, and (sigh) Obama, urging them to vote against the FISA Amendment Act. Here’s a reproduction and text version of the flier (4 to a page) I used, which quoted the 4th Amendment as well. The text is from something I ran across at the site about this issue, I just rearranged it a bit. (For incoming visitors, more specific information about the issue — joining the group, links to the ACLU, etc. — is in the prior post, Celebrate the Constitution this 4th of July!)

Both my spouse Crickey and my friend (and fellow impeachment activist) Michelle Bailey came along to help pass out the fliers; Michelle also snapped some photos like the one here.

Some notes: people — even Obama supporters with buttons or stickers — were disappointed in Obama’s reversal on this. The phrase that helps the most with recognizing the issue is “telcom immunity” — maybe Takoma Park is exceptional, but that got pretty high “issue recognition,” to coin a phrase.

As anyone knows who’s done this kind of thing more than once, you wind up getting a “rap” down if you didn’t already have one — some stock phrases to get across what the issue is about. Not saying it’s golden, but one thing that worked was this:

“…telcom immunity is a terrible idea looking back” — thumb one way — “…we’ll never find out what happened. And it’s and even worse idea looking forward” — thumb other way — “some other company, under some other president — asked to do something sketchy? They’ll think to themselves ‘why not — phone companies got away with it.’

I also talked with people about how the bill threatens the Fourth Amendment (in my opinion) by settling for a judge authorizing protocols for “computer dragnets” rather than insisting on probable cause for a specific person and reason.

In addition to “thanks for doing this” from many parade watchers, I got good reactions from parade participants and local politicians Jamie Raskin, Heather Mizeur, George Leventhal, and Tom Hucker, so that was a plus as well. Raskin and Mizeur are delegates to the Democratic Convention in Denver (Obama, “super” who’s endorsed Obama, respectively).

I had a blast; I like doing this kind of thing — whether in costume or not. Thanks again to Michelle and Crickey for joining me, and for the great photos they took; slideshow here.

UPDATE, 7/6: eRobin works the crowds in Philadelphia about the FISA Amendment Act.

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Celebrate the Constitution this 4th of July!

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 4th July 2008

..stop the FISA bill! Don’t let illegal wire-tappers off the hook!

What is it? The FISA Amendments Act — H.R. 6304 — will, as a letter from the ACLU to Senators puts it,

unconstitutionally and unnecessarily [permit] the government to vacuum up Americans’ international communications, without a connection to al Qaeda, terrorism, or even to national security. While there is limited prior review by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the protection afforded by that review is almost completely illusory. H.R. 6304 also grants retroactive immunity to companies that facilitated warrantless wiretapping over the last seven years.

When is the vote?

Tuesday, July 8.

Why is the FISA Amendments Act (FAA) a bad idea?

  • The bill gives telecommunications companies immunity from lawsuits for cooperating with George Bush’s illegal warrantless electronic surveillance. That will block one of the only means of finding out exactly what was done, and will set a bad precedent for the future — should companies automatically cooperate with a president even if they suspect what’s being ordered might be illegal? (Some, like Qwest, did not.) As a friend of mine wrote, Retroactive immunity for lawbreaking telecoms is forever. The precedent it would set is also permanent.”
  • The bill is so complicated, vague, and poorly debated that even experts are not sure what additional powers are being conferred to the president. That’s never a good idea — even if you like the current president or the likely next one, you may not feel the same way next year or five years from now.
  • What seems likely is that vast “vacuum cleaner” surveillance protocols are envisioned, with a court only seeing how the protocol is constructed — not who specifically is being surveilled, and why. Goodbye “probable cause” — the foundation of the 4th Amendment, saying the government must have a good, specific reason to search you, your effects, or your communications.
  • That, in turn, will likely ratify an exponential increase in “false positives” — people who seem like they might be a security threat, but turn out not to be. Even if you don’t care about your 4th Amendment rights (i.e., “who cares — I have nothing to hide”), it should concern you that the NSA is wasting its time and the time of other agencies with an explosion of useless leads to follow up.

What can I do?

  • Call your Senators. For citizens of Maryland, the phone numbers are
    • Senator Cardin: 202-224-4524
    • Senator Mikulski: 202-224-4654
  • Call Barack Obama’s presidential campaign: 866-675-2008. Unfortunately, Obama has said he would support the bill — despite pledging last fall to oppose any bill with telecom immunity.
  • Join online “Senator Obama – Please, No Telecom Immunity and Get FISA Right” groups at and facebook. (Both facebook and are easy to join if you haven’t already.) The “” group is already the largest group at the Obama web site.

What might I say in a phone call?

I’m a constituent and I urge you to oppose telecom immunity and the FISA Amendments Act. As a constituent, I am very troubled that during this patriotic holiday season, the Senate appears ready to toss civil liberties and the rule of law out the window, and so I urge you oppose telecom immunity with every vote that you have when the FISA bill comes to the Senate floor on Tuesday, July 8th:

Vote “YES” on the Dodd-Feingold amendment, which would strip telecom immunity from the bill entirely.

Vote “YES” on the Bingaman amendment, which would delay implementation of telecom immunity until after Congress has received the Inspectors General report on the president’s warrantless surveillance program.

Vote “NO” on the cloture motion to end debate on the FAA,

And finally, vote “NO” on the FISA Amendments Act, an unconstitutional and dangerous bill that would radically expand the president’s spying powers and immunize the companies that helped him break the law.

(Via Electronic Freedom Foundation)

Where can I learn more about this?

Thanks for visiting! Please join the fight.

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