Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold long ago earned a reputation as a leader willing to stake positions apart from those held by the majority of his colleagues, be they popular or not in the polls. This was already well known to Wisconsinites through his first terms in the '90s, and was earned nationally in 2001 with his support of confirming John Ashcroft as U.S. Attorney General and his lone vote against the Patriot Act. Various other similar stands followed, building Feingold enough of a following for a flirtation with a presidential campaign and a sustained bully pulpit, which he is now using in an effort to amend the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 in the Senate.
This bill has been one of the most contentious issues before Congress in recent months, changing the terms of the rule of law at the nexus of both American security and freedom. The U.S. House of Representatives easily passed a version on Friday, June 20 that would provide immunity for telecommunications companies for assisting the federal government in spying on their customers through a warrantless surveillance program established after the 9/11 attacks, despite many months of vocal opposition from civil liberties activists and legal scholars who assert that it is Constitutionally questionable at best and more likely patently illegal. Opponents of immunity have found more success in the Senate, though, at least in this latest tussle over the last couple of weeks.
Feingold and 2008 Democratic presidential primary candidate Chris Dodd from Connecticut led a filibuster of the bill last week, hoping to delay any action until after the body's Independence Day recess. They were successful in that effort, and are now looking to build support for amendments to the bill that would remove or delay any final decision on immunity, as well as provisions that would lay open Americans' international electronic communications to government surveillance.
As Feingold noted in a statement last Thursday, June 26:
I'm pleased we were able to delay a vote on FISA until after the July 4th holiday instead of having it jammed through. I hope that over the July 4th holiday, Senators will take a closer look at this deeply flawed legislation and understand how it threatens the civil liberties of the American people. It is possible to defend this country from terrorists while also protecting the rights and freedoms that define our nation.Feingold is now taking this campaign to the public, thanking constituents across the nation for their vocal opposition to the bill and support of the filibuster. On Monday, he released a short video statement through his Here is the video:
The heart of the video is when he briefly outlines his problems with the bills. Feingold states:
This is a terrible piece of legislation. It's got two major problems. One is very well known. The retroactive immunity for telephone companies, who may not have actually followed the law, instead just complying potentially with the government in giving up our private information against the statutes, this should be handled in a court of law. We should not just give them immunity. It's a terrible precedent for the rule of law and very unfair. But even worse, is the fact that this bill gives enormous power to the government to suck up all of our international communications; emails, text messages, phone calls, to kids over seas, to soldiers, to reporters, to business associates. It's unprecedented, with no court review. It's a huge giveaway. No Senator, and especially no Democrat, should be voting for this legislation.
This is a condensed version of the an extended statement Feingold made against the bill during deliberations in the Senate last Thurday, July 26. His opening remarks in it are also available for viewing online:
"In the end, my opposition to this bill comes down to this," the senator concludes. "This bill is a tragic retreat from the principles that have governed government conduct in this sensitive area for 30 years. It needlessly sacrifices the protection of the privacy of innocent Americans. And it is an abdication of this body's duty to stand up for the rule of law. I will vote No."
Now Feingold is working to get others opposed to the bill to speak against it to their senators at Fourth of July parades and fireworks displays this coming weekend.
Wisconsin Democratic Senator Herb Kohl has indicated his general support for the bill, albeit with amendments providing greater oversight of the surveillance program and a modified immunity that would allow for civil suits against the government rather than telecom companies. For Wisconsin voters who agree or disagree with this position and want to share their thoughts with him, this long weekend couldn't be a better time. Despite repeated phone calls to his Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. offices, though, Senator Kohl's staff would not reveal where or even if he is making any public appearances in the state over the Fourth of July holiday.