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Liberal Luminaries in Senate Are Swing Votes on Bombing Syria

1:17 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Many senators began this week still uncommitted on whether they’ll vote for attacking Syria. Among the fence-sitters are enough “progressives” to swing the Senate’s decision one way or the other.

That decision is coming soon — maybe as early as Wednesday — and the Obama White House is now pulling out all the stops to counter public opinion, which remains overwhelmingly against a war resolution. The administration hopes to win big in the Senate and carry momentum into the House, where the bomb-Syria agenda faces a steeper climb.

Some Democratic senators who’ve cultivated progressive reputations nationwide — Barbara Boxer of California, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Al Franken of Minnesota — haven’t hesitated to dive into Obama’s war tank. Boxer, Durbin and Franken quickly signed on as carnage bottom-feeders, pledging their adamant support for the U.S. government to attack yet another country.

Other Democrats, like Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico, have made clear their intention to vote “no” when the war-on-Syria measure reaches the Senate floor.

But more than a dozen other senators widely viewed as liberal or progressive have held back from committing themselves on how they’ll vote. Here’s a partial list of those equivocators:

*  Both Massachusetts senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey

*  Both Oregon senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley

*  Both Colorado senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet

*  Both Washington senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell

*  Ohio senator Sherrod Brown

*  Wisconsin senator Tammy Baldwin

*  Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse

*  Hawaii senator Mazie Hirono

*  Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar

If you live in one of those states, or anywhere else in the USA for that matter, you can send a quick email to your senators and representative to tell them “No Attack on Syria” by clicking here.

Perhaps no “undecided” stance from senators is more egregious than the one from Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, who won a hard-fought race that elevated her from the House of Representatives last year on the strength of major progressive support.

Speaking at the annual Fighting Bob Fest in Madison last weekend, Baldwin sparked an angry response to her doubletalk about Syria. A video of the encounter shows a wooden politician who badly needs reminding of her progressive roots. In a suitably confrontational mode, activists serenaded Wisconsin’s junior senator with a stirring rendition of “Which side are you on Tammy?”

The symbolism could hardly have been more apt. Senator Baldwin was behind the podium at an event named after “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the senator from Wisconsin who led opposition to U.S. entry into World War One. In a Senate speech, La Follette denounced those who “inflame the mind of our people into the frenzy of war.”

Which side are you on Tammy… and Elizabeth, Ed, Ron, Jeff, Mark, Michael, Patty, Maria, Sherrod, Sheldon, Mazie, Amy?

Senators who portray themselves as progressive are at crossroads as they decide how to vote on attacking Syria. At this historic moment, with enormous consequences, will they cave in to the presidential juggernaut?

Later this week, senators will vote about launching a war on Syria. We’ve got to let them know — right away — that we are watching very closely. And will not forgive or forget any vote for war on the Senate floor.

Obama’s Willing Executioners of the Fourth Amendment

12:06 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

It’s now painfully clear that the president has put out a contract on the Fourth Amendment. And at the Capitol, the hierarchies of both parties are stuffing it into the trunks of their limousines, so each provision can be neatly fitted with cement shoes and delivered to the bottom of the Potomac.

Some other Americans are on a rescue mission. One of them, Congressman Justin Amash, began a debate on the House floor Wednesday with a vow to “defend the Fourth Amendment.” That’s really what his amendment — requiring that surveillance be warranted — was all about.

No argument for the Amash amendment was more trenchant than the one offered by South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan, who simply read the Fourth Amendment aloud.

To quote those words was to take a clear side: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Edward Snowden’s heroic revelations have made it possible for some House members from both parties to blow away the fog that shrouds so much tap dancing on Capitol Hill. When the Amash amendment went to the floor, there was no place left to hide.

To their historic shame, 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats voted against Amash’s amendment (while 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats voted for it). That’s how the measure lost, 217-205.

The record of the House vote tells us a lot. Top Republicans—including Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy—voted with Obama policies to keep smothering the Fourth Amendment. So did top Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

The stench at the pinnacle of GOP power hardly surprises most Democrats. But on civil liberties—as on so many other profound issues—a similar odor is emanating from the upper reaches of Democratic power on Capitol Hill, where Pelosi and Hoyer are far from the only Democrats who have become reflexive servants of indefensible Obama policies.

Consider some of the other Democratic luminaries in the House who voted against the Amash amendment: The Democratic National Committee’s chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s former chair Chris Van Hollen. The DCCC’s current chair, Steve Israel.

Some of the other Democrats who voted no on the Amash amendment include progressive-aura lawmakers like Ami Bera (Calif.), Joaquin Castro (Texas), Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), Joe Kennedy (Mass.), Annie Kuster (N.H.), Nita Lowey (N.Y.) and Louise Slaughter (N.Y.)

Deserving special mention for their deplorable votes against Amash’s amendment are Sheila Jackson Lee from Houston and Jan Schakowsky from Chicago. Both are vice chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

I’ve been critical of the Progressive Caucus for enabling Obama’s rightward moves by doing scant pushback. But credit where due: on Wednesday, aside from Jackson Lee and Schakowsky, the other six officers of the Progressive Caucus and a large majority of its more than 70 members supported the Amash amendment. Eloquence in the floor debate came from John Conyers (the lead co-sponsor of the Amash amendment), Jared Polis, Zoe Lofgren and Jerrold Nadler.

Yet they were no match for the White House, with its media spin machine and behind-the-curtain arm twisting.

President Obama has a firm grip on levers of power, and anyone who thinks that his administration has been chastened enough to tread more carefully on civil liberties is engaged in wishful thinking.

While the House has grown somewhat restive, the Senate has remained notably pliant for the surveillance state. An egregious—and, for some, surprising—example is Al Franken, who declared his support for the NSA surveillance program when news of it broke in early June. “I can assure you, this is not about spying on the American people,” Franken said. From his Senate office, one press release after another has been packed with blather like overstuffed sausages.

Franken is now saying he’ll introduce a bill for “transparency” because the public will support the current surveillance programs if they grasp what’s really involved: “I think that if there were greater transparency, Americans would have a better understanding of these programs.” Count on transparency to be a buzzword cloak for more of the same.

Another Democratic senator, Ron Wyden, has been vastly more candid. At a forum the day before the Amash amendment vote, Wyden said that for surveillance, as far as the Obama administration is concerned, “the authority is essentially limitless.”

An ACLU staff attorney, Alexander Abdo, was driving at the same point when he wrote days ago: “Perhaps the most fundamental problem with the NSA’s constitutional theory is that it has no limit. If the constitution is blind to the collection of our data and limits only the NSA’s later uses of it, then the NSA truly can ‘collect it all’ now and ask questions later. Our emails, phone calls and internet activities would all be very simple for the NSA to collect under the NSA’s theory. But it could go much further. It could put video cameras on every street corner, it could install microphones in every home and it could even remotely copy the contents of every computer hard drive.”

All three branches of the U.S. government are now largely under the control of forces with stunning contempt for basic legal processes required by the Bill of Rights. Mere words and mild reforms from members of Congress may mollify the gullible, but only a direct challenge to the Obama administration’s policies can rise to the level of the current historic imperative to restore civil liberties in the United States.

Denouncing NSA Surveillance Isn’t Enough—We Need the Power to Stop It

3:41 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Sign: Now Stalking Americans

What can we do about NSA spying?

For more than a month, outrage has been profuse in response to news about NSA surveillance and other evidence that all three branches of the U.S. government are turning Uncle Sam into Big Brother.

Now what?

Continuing to expose and denounce the assaults on civil liberties is essential. So is supporting Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers—past, present and future. But those vital efforts are far from sufficient.

For a moment, walk a mile in the iron-heeled shoes of the military-industrial-digital complex. Its leaders don’t like clarity about what they’re doing, and they certainly don’t like being exposed or denounced—but right now the surveillance state is in no danger of losing what it needs to keep going: power.

The huge digi-tech firms and the government have become mutual tools for gaining humungous profits and tightening political control. The partnerships are deeply enmeshed in military and surveillance realms, whether cruise missiles and drones or vast metadata records and capacities to squirrel away trillions of emails.

At the core of the surveillance state is the hollowness of its democratic pretenses. Only with authentic democracy can we save ourselves from devastating evisceration of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

The enormous corporate leverage over government policies doesn’t change the fact that the nexus of the surveillance state—and the only organization with enough potential torque to reverse its anti-democratic trajectory—is government itself.

The necessity is to subdue the corporate-military forces that have so extensively hijacked the government. To do that, we’ll need to accomplish what progressives are currently ill-positioned for: democratic mobilization to challenge the surveillance state’s hold on power.

These days, progressives are way too deferential and nice to elected Democrats who should be confronted for their active or passive complicity with abysmal policies of the Obama White House. An example is Al Franken, senator from Minnesota, who declared his support for the NSA surveillance program last month: “I can assure you, this is not about spying on the American people.”

The right-wing Tea Party types realized years ago what progressive activists and groups are much less likely to face—that namby-pamby “lobbying” gets much weaker results than identifying crucial issues and making clear a willingness to mount primary challenges.

Progressives should be turning up the heat and building electoral capacities. But right now, many Democrats in Congress are cakewalking toward re-election in progressive districts where they should be on the defensive for their anemic “opposition” to—or outright support for—NSA surveillance.

Meanwhile, such officials with national profiles should encounter progressive pushback wherever they go. A step in that direction will happen just north of the Golden Gate Bridge this weekend, when House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi appears as guest of honor to raise money for the party (up to $32,400 per couple) at a Marin County reception. There will also be a different kind of reception that Pelosi hadn’t been counting on—a picket line challenging her steadfast support for NSA surveillance.

In the first days of this week, upwards of 20,000 people responded to a RootsAction.org action alert by sending their senators and representative an email urging an end to the “Insider Threat Program”—the creepily Orwellian concoction that, as McClatchy news service revealed last month, “requires federal employees to keep closer tabs on their co-workers and exhorts managers to punish those who fail to report their suspicions.”

Messages to Congress members, vocal protests and many other forms of public outcry are important—but they should lay the groundwork for much stronger actions to wrest control of the government away from the military-industrial-digital complex. That may seem impossible, but it’s certainly imperative: if we’re going to prevent the destruction of civil liberties. In the long run, denunciations of the surveillance state will mean little unless we can build the political capacity to end it.

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Behind the Gushing: Kagan in Context

12:36 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Today, a few hours after I wrote the piece below, many Senate Democrats lauded the new Supreme Court nominee. Majority Leader Harry Reid predicted that Elena Kagan “will demonstrate that her primary allegiance is to fairness, justice and the rule of law, not ideology.” Some members of the Judiciary Committee — including Dick Durbin, Al Franken, Ben Cardin and Chuck Schumer — were positively gushy.

And then there was the upbeat response from a leading Republican member of the committee, Lindsey Graham, who offered this sunny comment: “I have been generally pleased with her job performance as solicitor general, particularly regarding legal issues related to the war on terror.”

** ** ** ** **

If President Obama has his way, Elena Kagan will replace John Paul Stevens — and the Supreme Court will move rightward. The nomination is very disturbing, especially because it’s part of a pattern.

The White House is in the grip of conventional centrist wisdom. Grim results stretch from Afghanistan to the Gulf of Mexico to communities across the USA.

“It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills,” President Obama said in support of offshore oil drilling, less than three weeks before the April 20 blowout in the Gulf. “They are technologically very advanced.”

On numerous policy fronts, such conformity to a centrist baseline has smothered hopes for moving this country in a progressive direction. Now, the president has taken a step that jeopardizes civil liberties and other basic constitutional principles.

“During the course of her Senate confirmation hearings as Solicitor General, Kagan explicitly endorsed the Bush administration’s bogus category of ‘enemy combatant,’ whose implementation has been a war crime in its own right,” University of Illinois law professor Francis Boyle noted last month. “Now, in her current job as U.S. Solicitor General, Kagan is quarterbacking the continuation of the Bush administration’s illegal and unconstitutional positions in U.S. federal court litigation around the country, including in the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Boyle added: “Kagan has said ‘I love the Federalist Society.’ This is a right-wing group; almost all of the Bush administration lawyers responsible for its war and torture memos are members of the Federalist Society.”

The departing Justice Stevens was a defender of civil liberties. Unless the Senate refuses to approve Kagan for the Supreme Court, the nation’s top court is very likely to become more hostile to civil liberties and less inclined to put limits on presidential power.

Here is yet another clear indication that progressives must mobilize to challenge the White House on matters of principle. Otherwise, history will judge us harshly — and it should.

For more than 15 months, evidence has mounted that President Obama routinely combines progressive rhetoric with contrary actions. As one bad decision after another has emanated from the Oval Office, some progressives have favored denial — even though, if the name “Bush” or “McCain” had been attached to the same presidential policies, the same progressives would have been screaming bloody murder.

But enabling bad policies, with silent acquiescence or anemic dissent, encourages more of them. At this point, progressive groups and individuals who pretend that Obama’s policies merely need a few tweaks, or just suffer from a few anomalous deficiencies, are whistling past a political graveyard.

At the same time, with less than six months to go before Election Day, there are very real prospects of a big Republican victory that could shift majority control of Congress. Progressives have a huge stake in averting a GOP takeover on Capitol Hill.

The corporate-military centrism of the Obama administration has demoralized and demobilized the Democratic Party’s largely progressive base — the same base that swept Nancy Pelosi into the House Speaker’s office and then Barack Obama into the White House. National polls now show Democrats to be much less enthusiastic about voting in November than their Republican counterparts.

The conventional political wisdom (about as accurate as the claim that “oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills”) is that when a Democratic president moves rightward, his party gains strength against Republicans. But Democrats reaped the whirlwind of that pseudo-logic in 1994 — after President Clinton shafted much of the Democratic base by pushing through the corporate NAFTA trade pact against the wishes of labor, environmental and human-rights constituencies. That’s how Newt Gingrich and other right-wing zealots got to run Congress starting in January 1995.

For progressives, giving the Obama administration one benefit of the doubt after another has not prevented matters from getting worse.

At the moment, U.S. troop levels are nearing 100,000 in Afghanistan.

Massive quantities of oil are belching into the Gulf of Mexico.

The White House has signaled de facto acceptance of a high unemployment rate for several more years, while offering weak GOP-lite countermeasures like tax breaks for businesses.

Nuclear power subsidies are getting powerful support from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, while meaningful action against global warming is nowhere in sight.

The Justice Department continues to backtrack on civil liberties.

And now, if the president’s nomination of Elena Kagan is successful, the result will move the Supreme Court to the right.

Progressives should fight the Kagan nomination.