Finishing Our Open Letter to Obama

By: Harry Waisbren

We have made a lot of ground on some of our final conceptions for our open letter to the president, both during our November 10th Patriot Act and FISA organizing call and through messages voiced to us through a variety of communications channels aggregated in the comments section of our last update.

We can use this post and its comments section to go through and discuss some of the broader changes and additions to consider as we take our final steps to edit and launch the letter:

Need for a crisp call to action

We have long been going over the need for a crisp call for action. On our last call, we decided on focusing on transparency from Obama and ending the back room deal making that have defined this debate since the beginning.

Our ask is simple: we want him to speak out about his position more clearly, and then act in accordance with it.

If he does this, then it removes the need for back room deals in the first place…

Broadening the scope

This was another topic broached on our last call in light of a desire to focus more on the larger principles behind the matter rather than on specific, more temporary legislation.

The Patriot Act and FISA are both aspects of a much larger debate about civil liberties in our society that has been going on since the founding of the country. Focusing on the broader issues at hand, such as the role of intelligence in our society, could be prudent.


Linda Young discussed the benefits of emphasizing working together and avoiding an overtly combative tone. This has long been considered a proof point for GFR, as both our original letter and his response were polite in nature, and clear aspirations towards a civil discourse have been cited as an instigator for his engagement with us.

However, this most definitely does not mean that we must restrict our passion or mask our disappointment. We must be frank and open about how we feel, especially since that is our primary ask from him.

Editing for length

Craig Nazor pointed out that we should edit this letter down to avoid any redundancy. This makes a lot of sense also in terms of being conscious of the length in order to maximize the chances for it to be read.


This project is collaborative by design, so please do let us know what you think (especially if you disagree with the broader changes discussed).

Our open letter has already reaped the rewards possible only through harnessing the power of a crowd, so keep it up!


22 Responses to Finishing Our Open Letter to Obama

  1. Mark Dorlester says:


    In July 2008, in response to our previous open letter, you promised “to have my 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.”

    With the USA PATRIOT ACT and FISA renewal/reform legislation again before Congress, now is the time to follow through on your commitment.

    We, your most active supporters, well understand the need to protect national security in this terrorist age. However, we will never accept the claim that our central Constitutional protections must therefore be suspended. There must be limits on government intrusion into the life of innocent citizens, and where there are “gray areas” requiring intrusion to ferret out networks, data collected on innocent citizens must be promptly and permanently discarded.

    The Senate bill introduced to enforce these limits, S. 1686, was in the main stifled at the reported orders of your own legal staff. The resulting Senate Patriot Act reauthorization bill reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee, S. 1682, was little better that we would have expected from your predecessor.

    Today, two bills in the House Judiciary Committee, H.R. 3845 and 3846, contain vital checks on the government’s authority to spy on Americans, would prohibit the “bulk collection” of our emails and phone records, and would repeal – as you voted to do last year as a Senator – the blanket immunity of telecom companies who cooperate with illegal government surveillance.

    Your staff and the Attorney General have stated flatly that whereas “a conversation that can be had about do [Patriot Act provisions] need to be modified in some way to be more sensitive to civil liberties concerns” [REF NEEDED] the entirety of that conversation has been held behind closed doors, and your representatives insisted on a package of amendments to strip privacy and civil liberties protections you yourself favored in the past.

    There are 2 central issues, Mr. President:

    1. Is it or is it not possible, in this dangerous world, to have a government of laws under our Constitution, in which the vital powers of government are not abused through the intrusive rationales of elected officials and whims of unelected agents; and,

    2. Given that trust in the American government’s claims of police powers has been substantially damaged in recent years, will or will not your Administration stand up for the restoration of that trust through the transparency you once promised?

    Mr. President, we care as much as anyone about protecting the American people from terrorists. We accept that some of the most important activities to protect us must be conducted in secret.

    Nevertheless, because of the accumulated and sustained abuses of Constitutional law in the recent past, we respectfully ask you to support changes to the Patriot Act and FISA to restore our civil liberties by:

    • Strengthening the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA) as necessary to permit full restoration of federal court involvement in national security adjudication

    • Supporting provisions in the Patriot Act and F’ISA to guarantee that any private information collected in terrorist investigations be held in strictest confidence and that extraneous information or information inadvertently collected on innocent citizens be immediately and permanently discarded

    • Insisting that Congress enact changes to the Patriot Act and FISA which take civil liberties protections in such areas as National Security Letters and “Lone Wolf” pursuit out of the hands of mere investigator discretion, keeping these within the bounds of rigorously developed and Constitutional procedures

    • Ensuring that no programs or program elements – intentionally or unintentionally – encourage intelligence agencies or agents to operate outside the law or the Constitution

    • Demanding that Inspectors General of intelligence agencies, the Justice Department, the Defense Department, the State Department, and all elements of our national security apparatus frequently certify to Congress that all requirements of law within their jurisdiction are being strictly adhered to

    Mr. President, after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, our nation, in panic, unconstitutionally imprisoned approximately 120,000 innocent U. S. citizens for years. It seemed like the thing to do, at the time. It resulted in a serious and permanent blight upon the historical record of Franklin D. Roosevelt and indeed our nation.

    Current Patriot Act, FISA law, and restrictions on the judiciary were enacted under similar panic and rationales.

    We respectfully urge you to speak out now, [ITAL]and have your representatives act now[END ITAL], concerning Patriot Act, FISA, and related legislation currently before Congress, to prevent the same judgment of your presidency.

  2. Harry Waisbren says:

    First off, Mark’s hard work providing his take on the open letter is quite appreciated! It has proven to be an extremely valuable source to foster conversation, and it has helped solidify and organize thoughts in regards to how we will be melding all of these ideas from all the versions into one coherent letter.

    Also, much thanks to Amy, as we have just concluded a few hour phone call specifically about how to meld these ideas amidst the final steps to finish the letter.

    The particulars of these ideas will be posted in further comments below as we strive achieve consensus and a unity of effort for the last stages of this project.

  3. harrywaisbren says:

    Perhaps the most valuable aspect that Mark allayed to us is the focus on the broader issues.

    The organization to the letter in terms of the two central issues and use of bullet points clearly helped the formatting and focus on the larger picture. However, the content of those points warrants further discussion.

    First, we should use them within our centralized ask of Obama speaking out transparently about what he believes (rather than demands for him to adhere to). However, Amy and I both liked the idea of following Mark’s lead by beginning with that broad, principle based framework followed by bullet points of some of the primary issues that we want him to speak about.

    However, questions remain: which of those concepts do we want to focus on (i.e. lone wolf, 215s, etc.), and how do we properly ensure that the broad issues don’t fall way to the more detailed minutia that might turn off those less steeped in the jargon of the issue?

  4. Mark Dorlester says:

    As I reread my own draft, I see some major needs for improement.

    I suggest as people think/contribute, we keep two foci front-and-center at all times:

    1: Who is it, EXACTLY, who we want to read the open letter.

    2: For each specific target audience, what is it, EXACTLY, that we want them to do.

    For example, do we want President Obama to actually read the letter? Axelrod? House and/or Senate staff?

    For example, do we want it in MSM, and/or to go viral on specific media?

  5. harrywaisbren says:

    Completely agreed on the two foci front.

    1. Following the model from last summer, we want this letter to be discussed so thoroughly throughout the blogosphere that it breaks into the mainstream media (which will dramatically amp up the pressure for Obama to respond). Given that, I’d say the audience is knoweldgeable to an extent about the issue, but it needs to be written in laymen enough terms for it to be easy understood.

    2. Our primary ask from the Obama administration is for them to speak out transparently about where they stand. This would come in complete contrast to their behind closed door dealings that fly in the face of so many Obama promises. However, we can include subsets of questions we want them to answer in bullet points too.

    You bring up a great point though in that we don’t have an ask from blog readers/MSM viewers. As publicity spread about the letter last summer, the number of members in the Senator Obama Please Get Fisa Right social network group grew immensely.

    Do we point people towards that group yet again, or is the OFA framework to buggy/dated/not used enough?

  6. Jim Burrows says:

    1. I really like Mark’s letter. Way to move things along.
    2. His two central issues are really good. They fit well under the central point of asking the President to speak out transparently, and can be broken down into a few simple bullets. This gives the letter structure.
    3. BUT, his version of the letter is too long. I tend to be guilty of this myself, so I’m well aware that if we want the letter to go viral and come to the media’s attention, we have to keep it short and punchy to give it impact.

    On the target audience(s). They are:
    1. The President – want him to take a public stand.
    2. The blogosphere – want them to pick this up and run with it.
    3. MSM – Want them to notice the hub-bub and cover it.
    4. Rest of the administration – agree he should answer us.
    5. Politicians – join us or get out of the way.

    #2 and #3 help us leverage #1. #4 and #5 could hold him back, many will want to. We need to make them at least not get in the way, and for some to help increase the pressure.

    #2 is the key to #3. I think that means we want to be very sensible, obviously include or consist of his supporters who are losing patience with him, and make the case in a concise and powerful way.

    That’s my read on the generalities.

  7. Mark Dorlester says:

    I would only add a point under Harry’s item 2 – through the letter and our other activities, we want Obama’s reps on the Hill to back off their pressure to keep Patriot/FISA changes to a minimum. Any of a number of HJC members/SJC members can take it from there … it’s not as if they/we don’t know what to do legislatively.

    I have no idea what the best social media home/strategy is.

  8. harrywaisbren says:

    Agreed with Mark about Obama’s reps on the Hill. Marcy has been citing closed door briefings occuring right before the SJC and HJC markups as affecting the outcomes. Clearly, many other plaeyrs are involved, but Obama could certainly change the tenor of the debates from his administration and congress if he chose to do so.

  9. harrywaisbren says:

    I also absolutely agree with Jim’s reiterance about length—it’s an issue I definitely struggle with as well, yet we collectively need to be conscious of it.

    Jim’s analysis of the interconnecting audience is very useful as well. However, with that in mind, I think we should discuss the tone of the letter again.

    The polite, constructive nature of our letter last summer has been consistently cited as part of why it had such wide reach and why Obama was eventually compelled to answer to us.

    I think we need to do everything we can to follow that precedent, while acknowleding another point of Jim’s by recognizing the large number of us “who are losing patience with him.”

    We should be able to do both, yet it will take some very careful wording…

  10. Jim Burrows says:

    Exactly, Harry. The polite and constructive tone was your basic “iron fist in a velvet glove”. There’s an implicit threat when your supporters turn on you, but keeping a positive tone shows that they really ARE your supporters. It’s actually a better threat if you keep it implicit than a beligerant tone.

  11. Mark Dorlester says:

    Do you have/have a link to last July’s final letter?

  12. harrywaisbren says:

    Here is the link to our letter from last July:

    And while we’re at it, here is the link to Obama’s response:

  13. harrywaisbren says:

    Good way to put it Jim, it is “a better threat if you keep it implicit than a belligerant tone” as we are exemplifying that he will not only be losing people, but losing supporters of his as well.

    I’m rereading our letter from last summer and will post later on lessons from it. BTW——–

    our official letter posted above is wrong, it must have been an earlier version or someting, because here is the official template:

    And here is a listing of repostings of that letter:

  14. harrywaisbren says:

    I’m thinking it makes sense to repost last summer’s letter here:

    Dear Senator Obama,

    On October 24, 2007, your campaign spokesman said, “To be clear: Barack will support a filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies.”

    On June 20, 2008 you said, of retroactive immunity, “I will work in the Senate to remove this provision so that we can seek full accountability for past offenses.”

    As the largest grass-roots group on your campaign website,, and in the spirit of your open/responsive government campaign pledges, we wish to share our ideas for how we may work together to further the goal of eliminating retroactive immunity from the FISA legislation scheduled for debate in the Senate next week. Although this is only one of the problems we see with legislation which allows the government to wiretap the communications of its citizenry without a warrant, it’s the area we think we can help you with the most.

    First, Senator Obama, we want to work on changing the minds of senators who would vote against stripping telecom immunity. Please allow us to use the same tools that we used to call undecided voters in Iowa and New Hampshire for us to call our fellow citizens in West Virginia, Nebraska, Delaware, Florida and other states that have Senators committed to voting against the amendment that would strip telecom immunity. You have the tools and we have the people power. Together, we are confident we can bring Change; we can make the government listen to the people instead of the telecom lobbyists.

    Second, Senator Obama, we ask that you not only attend the Senate debate but that you schedule floor time to speak about the violence done to the rule of law when Congress retroactively immunizes the illegal conduct of a special interest. Please provide the clarity of thought to this difficult issue as you have brought to other issues like race and patriotism. We know you understand that justice should not be sold to the highest special interest bidder; we also know that you can persuade other Senators that are not so clear on the issue. Of course, if you do this, our committed members will surely capture the video of your inspiring oratory, load it to YouTube and spread your words to our friends and family far and wide. We trust in your ability to bring a new way of doing business to Washington and look forward to helping you make that Change a reality.

    Senator Obama, the caption reads, “I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington… I’m asking you to believe in yours.” We’re ready to put these words into practice.

    Thank you.

    The 15,000+ (and rapidly growing) members of

    “Senator Obama – Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity – Get FISA Right”

  15. Mark Dorlester says:

    GREAT STUFF;thanks Harry – I should have retrieved this days ago. I’ll try to do some more work tomorrow.

  16. harrywaisbren says:

    There are some potential parallels for us to consider or implement between the letter last summer and our letter this fall:

    1. Beginning with actions/statements from Obama

    This could be a good way to reassert our commitment to the Obama agenda, as we will be using his (or his administration’s) own words to justify our actions.

    2. Establish credibility

    This area is more dicey, as last summer we did this by saying “largest grass-roots group on your campaign website,”. I’m not sure if we still are, but whatever we do should cite our past correspondence with him.

    3. Constructive tone

    From our last letter: “in the spirit of your open/responsive government campaign pledges, we wish to share our ideas for how we may work together to further the goal of…”

    We could parallel this almost exactly, while citing a different goal.

    Other examples of this constructive tone:

    “the area we think we can help you with the most”.

    “we want to work on changing the minds of senators”

    “You have the tools and we have the people power. Together, we are confident we can bring Change”

    “Of course, if you do this, our committed members will surely capture the video of your inspiring oratory, load it to YouTube and spread your words to our friends and family far and wide. We trust in your ability to bring a new way of doing business to Washington and look forward to helping you make that Change a reality.”

    “Senator Obama, the caption reads, “I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington… I’m asking you to believe in yours.” We’re ready to put these words into practice.”

  17. Mark Dorlester says:

    I totally agree with Harry – the letter, especially the close, needs to be positive. I like the idea of offering to go viral with video of his “inspiring oratory.” I think we should use those words also, earlier, referencing his 2008 promises as a veiled reference to going viral with earlier promises if no new ones are made.

    Also, in the draft I posted, the bullet on CIPA should be 4th, not 1st, in the list.

    Also, I see in his July 3 response, he “support(ed) striking Title II (of the FISA Amendments of 2008) from the bill;” this was an amendment he voted for before final passage. Question: what is the current status of Title II (retroactive immunity etc.) in the changes going through the HJC & SJC?

  18. Mark Dorlester says:

    One additional thought: last summer, he wanted something from us – our votes. Frankly, today I think that if he wants anything from us it’s our silence.

  19. Troy Leutz says:

    “The Senate bill introduced to enforce these limits, S. 1686, was in the main stifled at the reported orders of your own legal staff.”
    What does this mean? I don’t understand. I think this needs to be reworded.

  20. Mark Dorlester says:

    About a month ago, a Patriot Act reauthorization bill was introduced by Sens Leahy, Cardin and others, basically a White House bill which preserved some of the worst Patriot Act provisions (but did improve others). Sen Feingold introduced a major amendment bill, the JUSTICE Act, which we strongly supported. When hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee were held (which Leahy chairs), Sen Feinstein (not Feingold), who chairs the Senate Intel Committee, basically objected on behalf of the White House, citing secret meetings. Most of the JUSTICE Act was then trashed … by the Democrats.

  21. harrywaisbren says:

    Chip Pitts of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee ( made the following comments on our open letter via email:

    I like the open letter very much. My only suggestions would be:

    1. To take out the sentences re Lamar Smith and there being 7000+ NSLs last year and perhaps less than 1% terrorists . . . any terrorists identified by any such avenue will be seen by many (most) Americans, and the administration, as justifying the particular technique. But as with torture, that ignores the reality that fact-based techniques that, unlike NSL’s, have a greater predicate/requirement of individualized suspicion are much more likely to identify real terrorists without the downsides of wasted law enforcement resources and other costs of the NSL-type fishing expedition techniques.

    2. Obviously, to update the references to e.g. “Wednesday’s hearing” and proofing the letter to check quotes and punctuation.

    3. Perhaps to add a sentence at the appropriate point linking the Patriot Act and FISA issues to the other related issues of unchecked executive power, e.g. by saying something like: “Notwithstanding your often stirring rhetoric and discretionary actions, can you understand how we could look at the entire cluster of unchecked executive actions the Bush administration took — ranging from warrantless surveillance and datamining, to relying on the coerced evidence and second-tier justice in military commissions, to indefinite detention, to invocation of the state secrets privilege and hiding evidence of photos confirming torture — and be concerned that instead of permanent reversals of such techniques they all continue in one form or another and will continue unless you provide clear leadership to restore the substance as well as semblance of the rule of law in this country?”


    Chip Pitts

  22. […] has illustrated that we are successfully building momentum. We have been making major progress on our open letter to Obama in particular, and are soliciting preferred times for our final call this Thursday before we launch […]

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