07/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Obama FISA Quandary

The bottom-up political movement that Barack Obama has been so fervently encouraging may have come too soon for his own candidacy. The social networking application (aka, "MyBO") on the Obama website hosts thousands of groups of Obama supporters all working together to help Obama get elected. They plan events, coordinate activities, and provide information and support to one another. But as of Wednesday afternoon, the largest group on MyBO, Senator Obama - Please Vote No on Teleco Immunity - Get FISA Right had a mission to pressure Obama to change his plans to vote for the FISA compromise bill (H.R. 6304) just passed by the house and currently under consideration in the senate.

Today, Obama released a statement on his blog in response to the MyBO FISA protest group. He reiterated his position that the current FISA bill is not perfect:

I know that the FISA bill that passed the House is far from perfect. I wouldn't have drafted the legislation like this, and it does not resolve all of the concerns that we have about President Bush's abuse of executive power. It grants retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that may have violated the law by cooperating with the Bush Administration's program of warrantless wiretapping. This potentially weakens the deterrent effect of the law and removes an important tool for the American people to demand accountability for past abuses. That's why I support striking Title II from the bill, and will work with Chris Dodd, Jeff Bingaman and others in an effort to remove this provision in the Senate.

But I also believe that the compromise bill is far better than the Protect America Act that I voted against last year. The exclusivity provision makes it clear to any President or telecommunications company that no law supersedes the authority of the FISA court. In a dangerous world, government must have the authority to collect the intelligence we need to protect the American people. But in a free society, that authority cannot be unlimited. As I've said many times, an independent monitor must watch the watchers to prevent abuses and to protect the civil liberties of the American people. This compromise law assures that the FISA court has that responsibility

In the statement, Obama also makes a promise that if he is elected president, he will have the Attorney General "conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs, and to make further recommendations on any steps needed to preserve civil liberties and to prevent executive branch abuse in the future."

Finally, Obama's statement acknowledges that his vote on this FISA bill may be a "deal breaker" for some of his supporters, and says "that's OK."

The real quandary for Obama is that he has to win the "low-information voters" in November in order to win the election, but he needs the "high-information voters" now in order to field his grassroots operations leading up to November. Low-information voters are never going to understand FISA. It is a subject that takes time and energy to master. Low-information voters look at FISA and only see the ability or inability of the government to investigate potential terrorists. Yet a large number of high-information voters in both the left and right wing of politics understand that this is much more than an issue about national security -- it's an issue of balancing national security and individual rights. At the same time, most low-information voters only understand that FISA relates to national security. In other words, low-information voters are susceptible to fear mongering on this issue.

Mike Stark, the founder of the MyBO FISA protest group claims to speak for the members of the group (note: he does not speak for this member), and he rebuffs the media's classification of the group as being the liberal left. Stark says that he is "the center" and everyone else is to the right of his position. (Maybe he should look up the definition of the word center?) In fact, there seems to be a wide range of people in the MyBO FISA protest group. A few are threatening to withhold their support for Obama. An even smaller group have demanded the Obama campaign refund their previous financial contributions. Others have started a movement to "escrow" future donations through a service that delivers the donations to the Obama campaign after a satisfactory vote on the FISA bill. And yet others have come up with a plan to add $.35 to every donation as a way of identifying FISA reformers when donating to the Obama campaign.

But most members (at least based on the last 24 hours of emails within the group) seem to express disappointment that Obama is voting for the FISA bill and desire to change the public opinion that led to that. Many are emotional and reactionary. Some express a desire to be proactive. Few have articulated any plan to defeat the FISA bill other than to pressure Senator Obama. Those that have a plan seem to be working primarily through channels outside of the MyBO protest group to defeat the bill. In short, the group seems to be wholly ineffective in influencing the outcome of the bill -- its only purpose seems to be diminishing grassroots support Obama within his own social networking site.

The members of the MyBO FISA protest group should realize that a single senator is not enough to defeat a bill, and 17,000 not-so-committed supporters will not win the election for Obama in November, so the ever-increasing numbers of the protest group aren't helping to defeat the FISA bill (at least not in its present form) and aren't helping Obama's campaign. If the members of this group were sincere about defeating the FISA bill, they would be focusing on putting pressure on the other senators. Instead, a great number of people are here shooting themselves (and Obama) in the foot.

Because Obama needs to win low information voters in November, and many of them will be fooled by scare mongering from the right, many are interpreting the strategy as a short term sacrifice for a long term gain -- Obama sacrifices the FISA vote today to save us from a McCain-picked SCOTUS tomorrow that would uphold the FISA vote. Some are even suggesting that an Obama-picked SCOTUS would rule that the current FISA bill is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.

After eight years of George Bush treating the law as his own personal wiki, an Obama presidency would be a welcome change even with his imperfections. And a McCain presidency? Well, we already know that he will be worse on every constitutional issue, including the Fourth Amendment. Pragmatics. We all need just a little dose of it sometimes.