Common Cause Blog
This is a story about more than just the national security implications of government surveillance, but it begins there.
The New York Times reported in a front page story earlier this month that the Central Intelligence Agency is paying AT&T in excess of $10 million annually for information from the company’s telephone records, including the international calls of U.S. citizens. The article pointed out that this work “is conducted under a voluntary contract, not under subpoenas or court orders compelling the company to participate, according to officials.” The story adds yet another chapter to the still-unfolding revelations about National Security Agency surveillance. Every week seems to bring new reports about the close and almost seamless ties that bind the several intelligence agencies to the huge telecom and broadband companies that bestride our nation’s communications infrastructure.
When I became a Member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2001, I assumed I would be privy to at least a credible amount of information about what the companies under FCC oversight were doing behind the scenes. My expectations went unfulfilled.
Did I expect the nation’s most sensitive intelligence information to be shared with me? No, I did not. But would it have been helpful for me to know more about how the industry executives who visited me on a whole range of non-national security communications industry issues were at the same time working hand-in-glove with the White House and these secretive agencies on a far more intimate and confidential basis than I was? Yes, absolutely.
Warnings about various special interest-government complexes hearken back to President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech wherein he warned of the dangers that the military-industrial complex held for democratic government. Historians consider Ike’s admonition as a high-point of his Presidency. Since that speech almost 53 years ago, the influence of special interests and corporate power has only grown — at the White House, in Congress, and among the federal agencies.
Maybe I’m a slow learner, or maybe I just wasn’t supposed to know, but it finally dawned on me that the CEOs and top management who came calling on me at the FCC were far better informed and connected than I was — because their companies were the ones running these sensitive monitoring and surveillance operations in behalf of the national security agencies. It was, very often, their workers and their technologies that drove the process. Meanwhile, industry leaders themselves served on such influential but hush-hush boards as The President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee.
As I began to grasp the power of these huge companies to leverage their influence on non-national security matters, I also began to understand that my influence as a Commissioner at an independent federal agency was more limited than I had thought. In a lengthy July 25, 2013 article in the National Journal, Chief Correspondent Michael Hirsh traced in considerable detail how our nation’s leading telecom and tech companies supported — and even helped create — the “surveillance state.” It is, of course, a story going back long before Iraq and Afghanistan to the days of World War II, and it’s the stuff of a thriller novel — except it’s not that entertaining.
Hirsh tells how the NSA became an influential voice in the evolution of our communications systems, becoming a “major presence” in such seemingly non-defense decisions as industry mergers and consolidations. But these transactions weren’t “non-defense” to the intelligence agencies. On the contrary, it was easier and more efficient for the agencies to deal with huge industry players where the number of decision-makers was narrowed and where the sheer power of size helped get the national security job done.
It wasn’t news to me that these huge companies wielded far-reaching power all across Washington. I just didn’t realize how much power until I had been there a while. Then I began to think: what difference does it make if one or two Commissioners at the FCC don’t approve of a pending merger between telecom giants? (And, goodness knows, there are plenty of such transactions!) I conjured up images of a national security agency meeting at the White House and someone saying, “This guy Copps down at the FCC is opposed to this merger.” And I could envision a White House or national security type saying, “So what? These companies are working with us on all kinds of secret projects, and that takes precedence over any Commissioner’s worries about diminishing competition in communications or about consumer protection.”
And so the consolidation bazaar rolls on, companies continue to merge, and we find ourselves in a world wherein a few dominant players drive the last spikes into the coffin of competition. I am not arguing that national security concerns alone brought us to this point; there are plenty of other reasons that Big Telecom wants to grow even bigger. I am saying that both parties to this national security-communications industry complex derived great benefits (in their eyes) from this partnership. I am saying the tentacles of this cooperative enterprise reach widely and deeply into many aspects of our national life. And I am saying the American people need to know more — much more — about this.
We can argue the pros and cons of national security surveillance, and it is a debate worth having. But this debate needs to be informed by facts. Maybe we can’t have all the facts in all their detail, but certainly we need more than we presently possess. There is a point where national security depends upon secrecy. There is also a point where national security depends upon sunlight. The balance is sadly out-of-whack right now, and we are paying the price in the loss of government credibility both at home and abroad.
Finally, we need to conduct this discussion in a broader context because it is part of even larger issues. Every day brings non-national security revelations about companies developing and deploying new ways to invade our personal space, capture every available fact about our daily lives and habits, and share them for purely commercial benefit. This is not an issue separate from what I have been discussing in this piece. And, as deeply troubling as the privacy and consumer issues are, the implications for democracy are just as severe. Open communications are a prerequisite of self-government. Any short-circuiting of this openness diminishes the ability of free people to chart their own democratic future.
On Tuesday November 12 representatives from Common Cause Massachusetts, Move to Amend, MASSPIRG, Better Future Project, MassVOTE, AFL-CIO Massachusetts, and State Senator Jamie Eldridge met with Senator Warren’s staff to urge action on a strong democracy amendment. We delivered over 6,000 petition signaturesand a letter signed by 30 citizen action organizations in Massachusetts.
Just one week later Senator Elizabeth Warren joined the rest of the Massachusetts congressional delegation in cosponsoring a strong democracy amendment to protect our elections and policymaking from the undue influence of money in politics. A constitutional amendment is necessary to restore and protect our democracy after a long series of Supreme Court decisions, culminating in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), have left Congress and state legislatures helpless in the fight to rein in big money’s iron grip on the electoral process and to resist corporate abuse. Specifically, Senator Warren cosponsored SJ.RES.19, a constitutional amendment filed by Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico.
The same letter was also issued to Senator Markey and we plan to deliver the petition signatures to him at a meeting next week. Senator Markey cosponsored Udall’s amendment at the end of October.
Common Cause applauds the Senators’ swift action on this important issue. Please take a second to thank both Senator Markey and Warren for cosponsoring a strong democracy amendment by sending a tweet.
We look forward to working with both Senators to cosponsor a democracy amendment that addresses the issue of corporate constitutional rights, another troubling result of Citizens United and previous court decisions that has allowed corporations to circumvent laws to protect our health, safety, environment, and democracy.
In the House, the eight current members have already filed or cosponsored democracy amendments that cover both the issues of money in politics and corporate constitutional rights. The Democratic candidate, Katherine Clark, for the remaining Congressional seat is on record in support of a constitutional amendment.
Every now and then, right wins out – even in Washington.
The Senate’s vote today rolling back the filibuster rule and allowing a simple majority of senators to determine the fate of most presidential nominations is a big victory for our democracy. There’s much, much more to do to fix the Senate, but this is an important step. You can read our press release about it here.
Common Cause has been working for several years now on Senate rules reform and there are a lot of smiles being shared around our office today. But the biggest grin, I’m pretty confident, is on the face of someone who’s not here.
That would be Bob Edgar, our president from 2007 until his untimely death last April. Bob’s dogged pursuit of filibuster reform was critical to building the coalition of good government activists who have focused public attention on what traditionally has been an “inside the beltway” issue. He and Emmet Bondurant, an Atlanta lawyer who serves on our national governing board, were the driving forces behind our lawsuit challenging the filibuster’s constitutionality; that case is still pending, by the way, and today’s win strengthens our determination to see it through.
For all of us here, maybe the nicest thing about today’s events was Sen. Tom Harkin’s public acknowledgement of Bob’s role – and Common Cause’s – in advancing filibuster reform. Sen. Harkin is the modern day father of filibuster reform in the Senate; Bob was proud to be with him in the battle, as are all of us.
Common Cause Massachusetts strongly supports online voter registration and early voting, two key provisions in the Election Laws Reform Act that passed the Massachusetts House on Wednesday by a vote of 142-10. These important reforms will make voting more convenient, shorten long lines on Election Day, and increase participation in our elections.
This accomplishment is the result of a hard fought lobbying and grassroots campaign fueled by supporters many calls, emails and visits with their legislators. Kudos also to our coalition partners and to the legislative leaders who fought beside us for a good bill!
The bill now moves to the Senate where we must keep the pressure on to add even more reforms to the House bill, including post-election audits and teen pre-registration that passed the House overwhelmingly last year. With strong grassroots support we are hopeful that a truly comprehensive bill will ultimately be signed into law.
Here is the press release our coalition sent out on Wednesday night:
The Election Modernization Coalition today applauded the Massachusetts House of Representatives for passing two important election law reforms—online voter registration and early voting—as part of a larger package that also included additional training for election administrators and several election reform study committees. The bill passed overwhelmingly, 141 to 10, after several hours of debate.
“This is a major victory; we commend the House for moving these significant election reforms forward. They will make voting easier and more convenient and encourage more voter participation. We look forward to working with the Senate to further strengthen the bill,” said Pam Wilmot, Executive Director of Common Cause Massachusetts.
“At a time when voting rights are under attack across the country, the Massachusetts State House should be applauded for taking a stand against voter suppression by passing legislation that encourages the participation of all Bay State voters,” said Sara Brady, Policy Director at MassVOTE.
“We need to do everything we can to remove barriers to exercising the right to vote,” added Gavi Wolfe of the Massachusetts ACLU. “We hope these reforms, and more, make it to the Governor’s desk without delay.”
Janet Domenitz, Executive Director of MASSPIRG, commented: “In today’s world, most transactions, from the trivial to the most important, happen electronically. With online voter registration, we bring one of the state’s most important democratic tools into the 21st century.”
If passed by the Senate and signed by the Governor, Massachusetts would join 19 other states in passing online voter registration, which allows citizens to register to vote online if they are already in the registry of motor vehicles database. Information is automatically matched and voters must show identification when voting for the first time. States like Georgia and Arizona have found it to be more secure and cost effective, cutting voter registration processing costs significantly as well as boosting registration numbers. Early voting is currently available in 32 states.
“The League of Women Voters of Massachusetts is pleased that the legislature is working to update the state’s election laws. Online voter registration will greatly increase the chances citizens will register to vote, and early voting options will make it easier to cast a ballot. We look forward to meaningful election reform legislation this session,” said Anne Borg, LWVMA co-president.
“This important bill reduces some barriers to voting, and we are eager to work with the Senate to achieve even more improvements to modernize our elections process,” said Eva Millona, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA).
“While online voter registration and early voting are significant, we can do even better,” said Deborah Shah, Executive Director of Progressive Massachusetts. “We urge the State Senate to pass early voting and online voter registration along with other reforms like pre-registration for teens, post-election audits of our voting machines, and Election Day registration. Massachusetts has not updated its voting laws in decades and we have a lot of work to do to catch up with other states in modernizing our elections.”
The Election Modernization Coalition is comprised of 45 advocacy groups and led by ACLU Massachusetts, Common Cause Massachusetts, League of Women Voters Massachusetts, MASSPIRG, MassVOTE, MIRA Coalition, and Progressive Massachusetts.
Common Cause and the Election Modernization Coalition strongly support online voter registration and early voting, two key provisions in the Election Laws Reform Act (H.3722). These important reforms will give voters more choices and help encourage participation in elections. We support this bill’s swift passage in the House and hope it will come to the floor this week.
While we were disappointed that the bill does not incorporate more reforms, including post-election audits and teen pre-registration that passed the House overwhelmingly last year, we remain hopeful that a truly comprehensive bill will ultimately be signed into law.
The Election Modernization Coalition includes Common Cause, MassVOTE, Massachusetts League of Women Voters, Massachusetts ACLU, MASSPIRG, Progressive Massachusetts, and the MIRA Coalition.
Filibuster reform has picked up a pair of important supporters in the Senate.
California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, who had been considered strong supporters of the filibuster rule, have had a change of heart and are now ready to throw it out — at least for confirmation votes on presidential appointments.
Feinstein told the “Talking Points Memo” website that Republican filibusters blocking votes on three of President Obama’s judicial nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia pushed her over the brink. . “It is unconscionable for a president not to be able to have his cabinet team, his sub-cabinet team, and not be able to appoint judges,” she said. Meanwhile, the Huffington Post quoted Boxer declaring herself ”very open to changing the rules for nominees,”
On Monday, just 37 of 100 senators were able to block action on Obama’s nomination of Judge Robert Wilkins to fill a seat on the DC Circuit. Fifty-four senators, a majority the 100-member body, favored proceeding to a debate and vote on Wilkins but were stymied by the filibuster rule, which requires agreement by 60 senators.
A group of reform-minded senators came close to changing the rules earlier this year but were sidetracked by the latest in a series of “gentleman’s agreements” under which the Senate’s old guard pledged to cut back on the use of filibusters to block debate and action. “The new day lasted one week, and then we’re back to the usual politics,” Feinstein said.
Common Cause’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the filiubster rule is scheduled for argument in the DC Circuit Court in January.
There were a number of extremely close municipal elections earlier this month. At least three will be subject to recounts in the coming week: Lawrence mayoral election, Amesbury mayoral election, and Palmer casino approval question.
Recounts are open to the public and are a great way to see the nitty gritty of our elections and democracy firsthand. Below are details for all of the upcoming election recounts. (Please let me know if there are others and I will add them to the list.)
When: Saturday, November 23 at 10 a.m.
Where: South Lawrence East School
Contact: Lawrence Elections Division
Initial results had City Councilor Daniel Rivera beating incumbent Mayor William Lantigua by 58 votes, out of more than 15,000 cast.
When: Thursday, November 21 at 9 a.m.
Where: City Hall Auditorium
Contact: Amesbury City Clerk
Initial results had incumbent Mayor Thatcher Kezer losing to Ken Gray by only two votes, out of 4,182 cast.
When: Tuesday, November 26 at 9 a.m.
Where: Palmer Library Community Room
Contact: Palmer Town Clerk
Initial results had the casino measure defeated by a margin of 93 votes, out of 5221 cast.