Ten Years Later: Get FISA Right and the Future of Civil Liberties Activism

July 4, 2018

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We advocate rejecting the politics of fear, revisit the flawed FISA Amendments law and Patriot Act, and safeguarding the people’s rights under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Get FISA Right

 

Please, Senator Obama, Say NO to Telecom Immunity and Get FISA Right launched on June 26, 2008, with posts by Mardi on my.barackobama.com and Mike Stark on Open Left.  The media hook of Obama supporters using his own social network to pressure him with an open letter got a lot of coverage, and by July 2, we were the biggest group on MyBO.   On July 3, Obama responded to our open letter on MyBO  – an event that’s often seen as a watershed for social network activism in the US.*

Alas, it wasn’t enough.  Obama declined to support the filibuster by Senators Feingold and Dodd.   On July 9 2008 Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act – giving the government virtually unrestricted access to collect Americans’ international communications, and granting retroactive immunity to telecoms that had cooperated in illegal Bush-era spying.

We kept organizing after the vote, running crowdfunded pro-civil liberties TV ads during the Republican National Convention that August and in DC in January 2009 for Obama’s inauguration. In early 2009 we allied with DREAM Activists and undocumented youth, the Stonewall 2.0 LGBTQ movement, and peace activists in the Ideas for Change competition.  Since then, as newer groups like Restore the Fourth and Fight for the Future have taken the lead, we’ve come back to life from time to time – most recently, to let people know about Get FISA Right alum Shahid Buttar’s Congressional campaign.

Our tenth anniversary’s a good opportunity to check in, reflect on the past and what we can learn, and talk about what next.

So whether or not you were part of it back in the day, we’d love to hear your memories of Get FISA Right – and thoughts about the future of civil liberties activism.

Here’s a few thoughts to kick things off …

The view from 2018

As we predicted in 2008 (and even after the Snowden revelations highlighted the intelligence agencies’ abuse of their power), Congress has repeatedly expanded the scope of warrantless wiretapping – and failed to introduce any meaningful safeguards.  With the Trump Administration becoming increasingly authoritarian, and Democratic leadership complicit, risks that seemed abstract or hypothetical to many people a decade ago are overwhelmingly real.

And social networks have become a much more challenging place for activism since the glory days of Get FISA Right, Un Millón de Voces contra las FARC, and Join the Impact in 2008:

And so on.  It’s almost like people with power are scared of what might happen when people organize online and are doing their best to stop it.

A large growd up people with signs on the steps of an official-looking building

Restore the Fourth protest in New York, 2013

Still, as Restore the Fourth reminded everybody in 2013 – and hundreds of thousands of people around the country are once again showing this week at ICE facilities as part of the week of action – grassroots energy remains out there — and people continue to connect on social networks. And as grim as the overall situation is, there’s also been substantial progress in a lot of areas. For example:

  • Groups like Black Lives Matter, the Water Protectors, and StopLAPDSpying – along with intersectionally-focused leadership in civil liberties coalitions and academia – are increasingly highlighting the relationship of government surveillance to the prison-industrial complex, immigration, racism, and environmental justice.
  • Momentum has shifted against Facebook and Twitter, and new decentralized platforms like Mastodon may prove to be better environments for civil liberties activists
  • Explicitly anti-oppressive new projects like Torn Apart / Separados and Douglass, and new tools for activism like Signal, Loomio, SecureDrop, better.place, and Pursuance, are still at a relatively early stage but point the way to new possibilities

Learning from the past – and looking forward

As Get FISA Right heads into its second decade, there’s still a big potential role for grassroots social network activism in the fight for civil liberties – and for justice.   There’s a lot to learn from our experiences.  What worked?  What didn’t?   How would we adapt things to today’s, and tomorrow’s environment?

So please share your perspectives – in the comments here, on the Get FISA Right wiki, on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Mastodon, and Diaspora, or wherever else works.  We’ll collect the responses and follow up with a post in a week or two.  In the meantime,  help us get the word out by sharing, liking, tweeting, emailing, and otherwise letting people know.

Thanks to everybody who’s been involved with and supported Get FISA Right and the fight for civil liberties over the last decade.  Looking forward to the next ten years!

doj_stop_spying

 

* The hundreds of the replies to Obama in the MyBO conversation are gone, but here’s the copy of Obama’s response the campaign cross-posted to the Huffington Post.   The Get FISA Right wiki has more of the context, including A brief historyCoverage, and  This time, *we’re* writing the history.

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Restore the 4th says, Call now! Sunset 702!

December 20, 2017

Tweet at your Congressmember today to prevent a sneak vote for mass surveillance!

In the House, surveillance hawks are trying to ram through a bill extending mass surveillance, without time for debate or amendment.

If we can delay or defeat this vote, every day will make a huge difference in this fight. Section 702—the legal authority the NSA relies on to engage in this mass surveillance—theoretically expires in 12 days; the closer we get to that deadline, the more leverage we have to pass real reforms.

The vote on this is likely to happen today, so there’s no time to make phone calls or send emails. Please tweet at your members of Congress using www.decidethefuture.org and urge them to vote NO on H. R. 4478.

Many thanks to Restore the Fourth for providing this timely notice to their subscribers, and apologies for reposting it here, but we are a shoestring volunteer group. We encourage our readers to get involved with Restore the 4th , which works to protect us from overreaching, unconstitutional mass government surveillance.


Anniversary on the Eve of an Election

October 25, 2016

Today is an important anniversary: 15 years ago on October 25, Senator Russ Feingold was the lone senator to vote against the so-called PATRIOT Act. GetFISARight was not yet a group then; the FISA vote that sparked our formation was far in the future. Now, we are little more than a WordPress site and a Twitter account—and Russ is running to take back his seat. When Sen. Feingold ran for reëlection in 2010 at the height of the Tea Party movement, this group actively supported him; we and many others were disapointed when his principled refusal to take DNC or SuperPAC money resulted in a loss. (Remember, with John McCain in earlier days [2002], he cowrote the McCain-Feingold Act [a.k.a. the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act]; holding true to his principles was certainly a factor in, if not solely responsible for, costing him his reëlection).

Now, Sen. Feingold is looking to return to Washington, and despite what we have learned about the abuse and misuse of a bill rushed through just weeks after the shock of “9/11”, as that horrible series of events has come to be called, he is still being criticized for refusing his vote on that day. Despite improvements in the originally-proposed text, he stood by his defense of the need for proper process even, maybe especially, in dangerous times.

So, here we are approaching Election Day 2016; standing by our previous endorsement (without consultation with my colleagues on this page, as we are rarely in touch, but with trust that they agree), I encourage all to celebrate this anniversary by doing something to support Russ Feingold’s campaign—send an e-mail, make a call, post a Tweet, send a dollar to Russ’s campaign, make a profile picture honoring his integrity—your choice!
Here is a link to an article about his electoral race: http://tinyurl.com/zl7by8p

For those Bernie Sanders fans among us, here is a quotation from that article:

On Oct. 5, during a speech in Madison, Sanders said “Russ and I have worked together for years and I can not wait, believe me, to see him back at my side in the U.S. Senate. And when we talk about issues you, what you know, and what Russ know’s is this movement towards oligarchy. There are too many billionaires controlling this country. The Koch brothers and others have bought the United States Government.” Sanders continued, “Maybe I’m old fashioned but I kind of believe democracy is one person one vote, not billionaires electing their candidates.”

I remain on Senator Feingold’s e-mail list to this day; unable to find this text elsewhere in order to link to it, I reproduce it here:

On this day 1‌5 yea‌rs ago, I was the sole member of the United States Senate to vote against the Patriot Act. And, 1‌5 years later, I am still being attacked for my vote.

When I cast that vote, only si‌x we‌eks had passed since the horrendous attacks on 9‌/‌11. Initially, I wanted to vote for an early version of the bill, which I believed protected individuals civil liberties while also updating our laws to account for new technologies.

But then, the Bush administration held secret meetings, took shortcuts, and introduced a new version of the Patriot Act that couldn’t be changed. This isn’t how our democracy should operate: Behind closed doors and without transparency. It was outrageous.

The final version of the Patriot Act gave the federal government far too much power to spy on the American people. Congress held its breath and crossed its fingers that this power wouldn’t get abused, and the bill was passed.

When I voted no, I voted my conscience, and I voted to do right by the people of Wisconsin and the people of America. I voted no because national security and civil liberties should not be mutually exclusive — and should be beyond partisan politics.

Now, 1‌5 ye‌ars later, Senator Ron Johnson and his allies are still attacking my vote against the Patriot Act. If Senator Johnson and his super PACs were listening to the people of Wisconsin, they would know one thing: their attacks won’t work.

There are just over tw‌o wee‌ks left in this campaign. It’s going to take the full force of this grassroots team to combat all these outrageous right-wing attacks and win this race.

I did not include the donation link, but Sen. Feingold’s campaign site is russfeingold.com

My penultimate item is a link to the text of Sen. Feingold’s speech 15 years ago: http://tinyurl.com/zl7by8p

Then, I close with a section of Sen. Feingold’s speech—the section on the specific cause that brought this group together, getting FISA right:

I am also very troubled by the broad expansion of government power under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA. When Congress passed FISA in 1978 it granted to the executive branch the power to conduct surveillance in foreign intelligence investigations without meeting the rigorous probable cause standard under the Fourth Amendment that is required for criminal investigations. There is a lower threshold for obtaining a wiretap order from the FISA court because the FBI is not investigating a crime, it is investigating foreign intelligence activities. But the law currently requires that intelligence gathering be the primary purpose of the investigation in order for this lower standard to apply.

This bill changes that requirement. The government now will only have to show that intelligence is a “significant purpose” of the investigation. So even if the primary purpose is a criminal investigation, the heightened protections of the Fourth Amendment won’t apply.

It seems obvious that with this lower standard, the FBI will try to use FISA as much as it can. And of course, with terrorism investigations that won’t be difficult, because the terrorists are apparently sponsored or at least supported by foreign governments. This means that the fourth amendment rights will be significantly curtailed in many investigations of terrorist acts.

The significance of the breakdown of the distinction between intelligence and criminal investigations becomes apparent when you see the other expansions of government power under FISA in this bill. One provision that troubles me a great deal is a provision that permits the government under FISA to compel the production of records from any business regarding any person, if that information is sought in connection with an investigation of terrorism or espionage.

Now we’re not talking here about travel records pertaining to a terrorist suspect, which we all can see can be highly relevant to an investigation of a terrorist plot. FISA already gives the FBI the power to get airline, train, hotel, car rental and other records of a suspect.

But under this bill, the government can compel the disclosure of the personal records of anyone – perhaps someone who worked with, or lived next door to, or went to school with, or sat on an airplane with, or has been seen in the company of, or whose phone number was called by — the target of the investigation.

And under this new provisions all business records can be compelled, including those containing sensitive personal information like medical records from hospitals or doctors, or educational records, or records of what books someone has taken out of the library. This is an enormous expansion of authority, under a law that provides only minimal judicial supervision.

Under this provision, the government can apparently go on a fishing expedition and collect information on virtually anyone. All it has to allege in order to get an order for these records from the court is that the information is sought for an investigation of international terrorism or clandestine intelligence gathering. That’s it. On that minimal showing in an ex parte application to a secret court, with no showing even that the information is relevant to the investigation, the government can lawfully compel a doctor or hospital to release medical records, or a library to release circulation records. This is a truly breathtaking expansion of police power.

Onward together!


Years Later, Some Oversight!

June 12, 2016

Back when this page was first started, NSLs—national security letters—were a big topic of conversation.  Secret, without accountability, they were a large part of what we saw as wrong with FISA and its implementation.  They are an integral part of the PATRIOT Act, which was passed hurridly in a time of fear, and we have called the repeal, or at least reform, of that misnamed legislation from the beginning.

Well, it seems as though others share our concerns, and thanks to Yahoo! for their publication of three of these after the wildly inappropriate gag orders were lifted.  Here is the story, from ActivistPost:
http://www.activistpost.com/2016/06/yahoo-exposed-fbi-tricks.html

The story quotes a Yahoo! representative as follows:  “The release of these documents and information regarding NSLs today is consistent with our commitment to share as much information as we legally can regarding government data requests. We believe there is value in making these documents available to the public to promote an informed discussion about the legal authorities available to law enforcement.

“Each NSL included a nondisclosure provision that prevented Yahoo from previously notifying its users or the public of their existence,” the company ominously stated.

And these NSLs are not uncommon; again quoting from the above article, “as of 2013, the Obama administration admitted an average of 60 per day were being issued. Alarmingly, in its latest transparency report, Apple claimed the number of “national security orders” — including NSLs — had doubled in just six months.”

I am not sure that I have any solutions to suggest—keep pushing for transparency, of course, and maybe check into the People’s Convention in Philadelphia before the Democratic Convention; they are developing a People’s Platform; some sort of reform might be a good suggestion.  Here is their Web site (full disclosure: I will be attending the convention and have worked with organizers before on this and other projects): https://thepeoplesrevolution.org/

 


Tell the USTR today: NO to the TPP!

January 13, 2016

#TPPIsTreason
We don’t need another such bad deal—NAFTA and CAFTA have done enough damage, and we are hearing the same unrealistic promises about the #TPP.
Today is the last day to tell the U.S. Trade Rep “hell, no!” (until 11:59 p.m.) They are specifically asking about effects on jobs and employment, but will accept comments on any issue with the TPP.
Read more and find the regulations.gov link (and links to more details) here: http://interoccupy.net/blog/tell-the-ustr-the-tpp-is-bad-for-jobs


Protect Our Encryption!

October 8, 2015

There is a petition on whitehouse.gov asking the president to support strong encryption: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov//petition/publicly-affirm-your-support-strong-encryption
This is an important issue for those who value their privacy, and is approximately 50% to the 100,000 goal needed for a presidentail response.
GetFISARight has a history with these petitions; in our first days, we joined with other groups to reach #5 in the Ideas for Change—scroll down (or use the month menu in the right column) to revisit our glory days—let’s do it again!
These issues still matter—maybe more than ever, with the TPP and related trade agreements being negotiated—so let’s do what we can to push this over the top by the Oct. 30 deadline!


Experts from broad coalition conduct briefing on bipartisan Surveillance State Repeal Act

March 25, 2015

My report from the briefing. Special bonus photo at the end, so read the whole thing.

Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition

Rep. Mark Pocan, sponsor of the Surveillance State Repeal Act

As reported in ThinkProgress and elsewhere, experts from across the political spectrum convened in the Cannon House Office Building on Tuesday afternoon to strongly advocate the Surveillance State Repeal Act (SSRA) before an audience of press, public, and congressional staff.  The act, numbered HR1466, was released by Representatives Pocan (D-WI) and Massie (R-KY) last week; they are seeking additional co-sponsors in the House and a partner bill in the Senate.  In his own brief comments, Rep. Pocan pointed out “this isn’t just tinkering around the edges, this is a meaningful overhaul of the system.”

On hand to discuss the proposed legislation — and the urgent need for it — were Patrick Eddington (CATO Institute, former senior policy adviser to Rep. Rush Holt), Zack Malitz (CREDO Action), Shahid Buttar (Bill of Rights Defense Committee, BORDC), Norm Singleton (Campaign for Liberty), and…

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