An open letter to President Obama on the Patriot Act (DRAFT)

Draft! Work in progress!  Feedback welcome!

The open letter will be published Monday evening, and this will be one of many posts announcing it.

Final version intended for Pam’s House Blend

Dear President Obama,

In response to Get FISA Right’s July 2008 Open Letter, you promised to run “a White House that takes the Constitution seriously, conducts the peoples’ business out in the open, welcomes and listens to dissenting views, and asks you to play your part in shaping our country’s destiny.”    With Patriot Act and FISA reform once again before Congress, we would like to accept your invitation.

— from Get FISA Right’s An Open Letter on the Patriot Act.  Please sign on at xxxx.

The December 31 deadline for reauthorizing three key clauses of the Patriot Act — and the possibility of introducing reforms in the process — is fast approaching.   While the legislative details are complex* the basic outline of the debate is straightforward:

  • pro-civil liberties Democrats are proposing significant new protections
  • Republicans and “independent” Joe Lieberman are proposing reauthorization without any new protections
  • Blue Dogs are somewhere in between
  • the Obama administration has spoken of its openness to reform, but during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings worked behind the scenes with Senator Sessions to significantly weaken the legislation

That’s not the change I thought I was voting for.

What we want

We ask you and your administration to take a strong stand to support significant reform of key sections of the Patriot Act, incuding National Security Letters, Section 215, Lone Wolf, Sneak and peak, and material support.  Legislatively, we ask for your public support of HR 3845 and 3846, and amendments adding similar protections to S 1692.

Just as importantly, in light of your promises regarding open government, we ask you to respect the people’s passion regarding our rights as citizens and to respond in an open and transparent way.

It’s all very reminiscent of the situation last summer, when Get FISA Right organized on to protest then-Senator Obama’s support for the Bush Administration’s odious legislation.  It’s pretty incredible when you think about it.  In the heat of a presidential campaign, a bunch of us met each other online, wrote a letter to the next President of the US … and got enough attention that he wrote back!   True, he didn’t change his position.  But the episode showed the power of grassroots organizing on social networks — and established a base for an ongoing dialog.

Since then, the protest on has justifiably gone down as a watershed for online organizing in the US.  Yay us!  Oh, and Obama’s become President; we congratulated him by airing an ad in Washington DC on Inauguration Day.  Disappointingly, though, the Obama Administration has largely followed the Bush Administration’s line on civil liberties.  Not to sound like a broken record or anything, but that’s not the change I thought I was voting for.

President Obama, the Organizing for America caption still 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 believe, and hope you do too.

In one of our many discussions about the open letter, Sally G paraphrased Obama’s response to us as saying that although we might disagree, grassroots activism was part of the reason for his success, and that he expected to be held accountable.  Who knows, it might just have been a line to mollify his angry supporters.  I’d rather believe that he meant it, and that by working to get him elected we have indeed brought real change to Washington.  We shall see.

Why he should listen

Americans of all stripes have grown increasingly wary of giving up liberty for the illusion of security.  Get FISA Right’s 23,000 community organizers are the largest grassroots issue-oriented group on Organizing for America, and we are only one of many organizations across the political spectrum working to restore or civil liberties…. If you join us, you can inspire the same wave of grassroots energy that propelled you to the Presidency.

Why should Obama listen to us?  It’s a question we wrestled a lot with while writing the letter.   The ongoing questions about OFA’s effectiveness, the Democrats’ difficulty in engaging their 2008 base, and what looks to be a difficult 2010 election season for the Democrats all give us some leverage here.

The downside from not listening to us is fairly obvious.  Losing our support would present another challenge for the 2010 elections.  And as happened last summer, we could tap into a larger narrative about Obama’s disenchanted activists — almost certainly stories that the administration doesn’t want to see.

In the letter, we focus instead on the opportunity.  I think that Obama, and his key political strategists, understand that they won the election in large part thanks to their social network strategy — the unique combination of and their presence on YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, BlackPlanet and the other sites.  Since the election, though, OFA has been unable to  reactivating this energy to cut through obstructionism in Congress.  As a result, the administration’s ambitious legislative agenda is moving painfully slowly.  The Patriot Act battle is the perfect opportunity for President Obama to change the situation by aligning himself firmly with the grassroots activists who put him in office.

We hope he’ll see it that way too.

How you can help

Of course, the first step to that is just getting him to see it — he’s got a lot on his plate.  As with last summer, the plan is for a groundswell of support and attention in the blogosphere, leading to attention from mainstream media.

If you’d like to be part of that groundswell, here’s how you can help:

  • sign on via the BORDC’s site here
  • if you’re on Twitter, sign the petition
  • if you’re on Facebook and MySpace, share this post on your profile
  • if you’ve got a blog, please repost the open letter and ask your readers to sign on.  there’s a template for a sample post at XXXX

As Obama said many times as a candidate, change doesn’t come from Washington; change comes to Washington.

Together we can reject the politics of fear, and turn the page on the abuses to our constitutional rights of the last 8 years.

Please join us.


* Kim Zetter’s Handy Chart Tracks Proposed Amendments to the Patriot Act on Wired’s Threat Level gives an overview of the bills reported out from the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, and links of to Center for Democracy and Technology’s detailed analysis.