I Get Letters

Every time I write to my elected officials over some new Bush Administration outrage, I always click the "I request a personal reply" box. Not that I'm expecting an actual personal message from anyone, but I at least like to know what the form letters are claiming. I was pleased to see that both of my Senators voted against the FISA bill, but I wanted to make sure that they knew I expected them to vote that way, and they'd better be fighting that damn thing in six months.

I may or may not have been insulting to Gonzo. I'm only human, after all.

Well, today, Senator Obama's reply arrived. Let's just say I was less than impressed. I've highlighted a few passages that jumped out at me.

Dear Paul:

Thank you for contacting me regarding your concern about the President’s domestic surveillance program. I appreciate hearing from you.

As you know, the 109th Congress came to a close without legislative action on the issue of domestic surveillance. After months of negotiations with the White House, Republican leaders were unable to produce a bill capable of drawing enough support to break a bipartisan filibuster. A day before the Judiciary Committee took up a “compromise" bill that I believe afforded the President too much power without sufficient oversight, a bipartisan group of senators expressed to Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter their reservations about his proposal.

The domestic surveillance debate is still ongoing, but the shift in party control on Capitol Hill has clearly had an impact on this critical debate over the balance of power in our system of government. On January 17, 2007, after conducting its wiretapping program without court approval for over 5 years, the Justice Department announced that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court had approved its program to listen to communications between people in the U.S. and other countries if there is probable cause to believe one or the other is involved in terrorism. Then, in early February, the Justice Department announced that it will give the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees of both chambers of Congress access to previously withheld documents on the NSA program. The congressional committees with jurisdiction over this issue hailed the agreement as a step in the right direction.

I am disappointed that at the last-minute, Congress passed hastily crafted legislation to expand the authority of Attorney General Gonzales and the director of National Intelligence to conduct surveillance of suspected foreign terrorists without a warrant or real oversight, even if the targets are communicating with someone in the United States. As you know, this legislation was signed into law by the President on August 5, 2007, and expires after six months.

Providing any president with the flexibility necessary to fight terrorism without compromising our constitutional rights can be a delicate balance. I agree that technological advances and changes in the nature of the threat we face may require that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), enacted in 1978, be updated to reflect the reality of the post 9/11 world. But that does not absolve the President of the responsibility to fully brief Congress on the new security challenge and to work cooperatively with Congress to address it. I am hopeful that Congress will revisit this extraordinary grant of powers before its 6-month expiration date to develop legislation that meets this challenge while protecting the rights of Americans.

The American people understand that new threats require flexible responses to keep them safe, and that our intelligence gathering capability needs to be improved. What they do not want is for the President or the Congress to use these imperatives as a pretext for promoting policies that not only go further than necessary to meet a real threat, but also violate some of the most basic tenets of our democracy.

Like most members of Congress, I continue to believe the essential objective of conducting effective domestic surveillance in the war on terror can be achieved without discarding our constitutionally protected civil liberties. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress, and with the President, to meet this uniquely American challenge.

Thank you again for writing. Please stay in touch as this debate continues.


Barack Obama
United States Senator
Well, gee golly and gosh, Senator, thanks for your response. I can tell you're really fighting the Bush Administration on the important issues.

While I'm glad to receive a response to my letter, I've got to say, I'm extremely disappointed, to use your words, in this milquetoast reply. (And if your office is sending out such blasé responses without your knowledge, I'm even less impressed.) For someone that has been constantly touted as a fiery and passionate speaker, this has to be one of the formiest form letters I've ever read. We're not angry because we want the president to "fully brief Congress on the new security challenge," we're angry about abuse of power. We're angry that Bush and his cronies have used 9-11 as an excuse to spy on Americans and their political enemies, and all the Democrats have done is pick up the bullshit refrain that this is all somehow to stop "terrorists." This has nothing to do with terrorism; this is all about strengthening the Republican Party and furthering their plans. This also isn't the time for a "delicate balance." This is the time for a goddamned fight. You don't need to cower from a lame duck.

I'm becoming more and more frustrated with my "Senator," a man who was whisked into office by constituents with the highest of hopes, who almost immediately began a bid for the Presidency, and abruptly vanished from our state. I was watching the news the other day, and Obama's recent visit to Illinois was treated as it should be, as a rare and exciting event. However, there was none of the irony and frustration that should have accompanied such a story. No one was asking "Where the hell have you been, Senator? We know you're running for President, but we voted you in because we thought you'd help us here." Out of all the stories I've seen on my local news about Obama, I can't think of a single one that referenced anything but his Presidential campaign. There has been nothing about his work in this state.

I made the point in my letter to Senator Obama that Illinois (and Chicago, particularly) residents aren't very forgiving when they've been screwed over. You know what I hardly ever see anymore? Obama bumper stickers. There were squillions of them when he was running for Senator; now that he's a "national" figure, somehow they've all vanished. If he loses the Democratic nomination (and frankly, I think he will), he's going to return to a state that isn't too happy to see him.

Let's just say that I hope, for his career's sake, he's got some help for Illinois on the back burner.

He might also want to change his letter signature to "Barack Obama, United States Presidential Candidate," if he's being perfectly honest.

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