Obama flip-flop on telecom surveillance vote?

Seemingly on the surface, it appears as though Obama has changed his tune on the idea of people being able to sue telecom companies which aided the Bush administration following 9/11 with the terrorist surveillance program.

This story from Fox News explains the details:

Barack Obama voted Wednesday afternoon for a surveillance bill that includes a provision he once opposed, giving Republicans ammunition in their argument that he is shifting positions to appeal to political moderates.

The bill, which passed the Senate and is expected to be signed by President Bush, would set new rules for government eavesdropping, and includes a measure giving immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on Americans without court permission after Sept. 11.

Obama voted for an amendment earlier Wednesday that would have stripped the bill of such immunity — but after it failed to pass, he still supported the overall bill.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, a senator from Illinois, angered liberals when he first voiced support for the compromise last month.

He said at the time that it was a “close call,” but that the legislation made sure that the president “can’t make up rationales” for wiretapping without warrants.

He said the legislation “met my basic concerns.”

Obama fought against such immunity last year. He released a statement in December saying he “unequivocally opposes giving retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies. … Granting such immunity undermines the constitutional protections Americans trust the Congress to protect. Senator Obama supports a filibuster of this bill, and strongly urges others to do the same.”

He reaffirmed his opposition in a February statement that said, “There is no reason why telephone companies should be given blanket immunity to cover violations of the rights of the American people.”

Before Obama even arrived at Capitol Hill on Tuesday, McCain’s campaign needled him for supporting the compromise.

“A few short months ago, Barack Obama outwardly opposed terrorist surveillance legislation, saying that he would filibuster any bill that includes immunity for American telecommunications companies,” spokesman Tucker Bounds said. “Today, the U.S. Senate will approve legislation providing the immunity Barack Obama supposedly opposed, and despite his promise, he will not support a filibuster.

“What Barack Obama will do is show that he’s willing to change positions, break campaign commitments and undermine his own words in his quest for higher office.”

Nothing too big here but it does appear to be a change of position since Obama first supported giving people the right to sue such companies.

  • Christopher Schwinger

    I read that many Obama supporters are revolting because of this.

  • Babs

    Yep, the Code Pink org says they’re starting a “Move Obama” thing, and may move their support to Nader if he doesn’t “move” back to the left to the people who got him this far.

  • IndiMinded

    A pretty awful compromise to make, I’d say. Looks like this is a bad election for civil liberties. You know I actually had hope, too. If he suddenly starts approving of the use of Bush’s “signing statements” I think I’ll really despair.

  • Grey

    I can’t hate him for this one.

    Telecom immunity is… a touchy topic, but ultimately the basic idea behind it is revenge. While it may be absolutely fair for people to seek retribution for the violation of their privacy, it’s far more important to prevent further instances of injustice. To continually butt heads over an issue where people are so divided will only ensure that nothing gets done.

    I can respect this particular decision, especially because I’m of the opinion that he was astute enough to know it would be unpopular.

  • Grey

    Oh, and personally I thought the title and the content was assuming a bit much again.

    The impression I got from reading the title and commentary was that Obama is in support of telecom immunity. That’s not quite accurate- he supported a measure that had a provision for telecom immunity. He did so because he was willing to sacrifice that for the rest of the bill, which imposed new regulations on government eavesdropping.

    The fact that he voted earlier for a amendment(which had failed) that would have stripped the bill of the telecom immunity bit is more evidence of this.

    I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be so critical but the title of the article and the bit about changing his tune seem misleading to me.

  • Jeremy

    Yeah, this might be a good flip for Obama. This definately isn’t helping his present support base, since the vote that he made actually pissed some of his supporters off.


    The title is not misleading. He did, literally flip flop. Wether this was a good flip flop or not, it was indeed a flip from his previous stance on telecom immunity regardless of what the main portion of the bill was about.

  • IndiMinded

    It’s about a lot more than revenge, Grey. It’s about a principal: is the law the law, or is the president’s word the law? If the president says “this is legal” and the law contradicts him, who is in the right? If we have a corrupt president in the future, should companies who deal with him in corruption have to worry about the illegality of their action?

    Well I guess that’s settled. It’s alright everybody, the president says this is cool.

  • Grey

    To Jeremy: In the sense that he said he was against it and he voted for it, it’s technically a flip flop, but I don’t see it that way because his actual opinion of telecom immunity most likely hasn’t changed.

    To Indiminded: I’m not arguing that telecom immunity is ok, I’m saying that cracking down on eavesdropping is ultimately more important than punishing the telephone companies. Yes, telecom immunity is bad, but the alternative is that no agreement is reached and the loophole for further questionable activities remains. It’s not an easy call either way, but for myself, I’ll agree with Obama and accept a smaller evil to achieve a greater good.

  • Christopher Schwinger

    Good statement, IndiMinded. Since this act of Congress, this FISA renewal, violates the Fourth Amendment, the Fourth Amendment wins (since it is part of the Constitution), and PEOPLE need to demand impeachment for all those who supported it! This is hardly an issue of “the ACLU opposes FISA, so it must be conservative”. It is about the Constitution, and I hardly hear talk of the Constitution from most of the candidates in this long, drawn-out presidential race. The media fawns over people who don’t care about our Constitution. George W. Bush said “The Constitution is just a [g-d] piece of paper”–regardless of his party affiliation, he needs to be impeached. FISA gives him dictatorial powers, powers that Woodrow Wilson and FDR took and got away with. We shouldn’t repeat the mistake by letting “a national emergency” further a police state.

  • Babs

    Well, ok, I’m going to throw in two cents worth. By my understanding, the bill was saying that the telecommunication companies could not be held accountable for actions they were TOLD to take, and authorized to take from the US Government in the past. So that if the bill went the way Obama originally wanted it to go – and swore to filibuster, those companies would be punished for following the instructions of the US Government. I don’t believe that should happen either. What the ground rules and restrictions are in the future are a different matter. But to retroactively punish them for something they were ordered to do is just wrong. Which is probably why it passed by such a heavy margin.

    While Obama genuinely did flip flop on this, I agree it’s a matter of opinion whether it was a good flip or bad. The worst fallout he’s getting is from his own supporters, so it’s nothing I really see as something for republicans to worry about. They were even quoting supporters asking for refunds on contributions on the Obama website last night on the news. It’s not good when trouble is within the camp itself, and Jesse Jackson sure didn’t help the situation any yesterday, did he? Obama needs to quell the problems in his own camp before coming at McCain again on any issue.

  • IndiMinded

    Babs, several companies such as Qwest were asked by the government to go along with this and they refused to do so. Do you really think these other telecom companies had fools for CEOs? They knew what they were doing and they knew it was illegal – there are very specific procedures the government is legally obligated to follow for making information requests of these companies, and they were not being followed.

    BUT they believed that because if the President of the United States of America was asking them to do this illegal thing, than it must be ok. Because the president’s word trumps our country’s actual law.

    During all the time the president had this project going, he did his very best to keep it secret. Don’t be fooled for a second into thinking he was open about it or thought it might actually be legal. He made public statements to the contrary WHILE he was enacting that program. And if those statements didn’t tip the telecom companies off that something was wrong, than nothing could have.

    Russ Feingold has a very enlightening rant on the subject if you like http://www.counterpunch.org/feingold07092008.html

  • Babs

    I don’t dispute what you say, Indi, I just don’t think that they should be punished for obeying an executive order as it would seem to them from the President. Just because some refused doesn’t alter that. I look at it the same as a soldier either obeying the order of a commanding officer or not. If you do, and the order was wrong, that’s not the soldier’s fault, it’s the commanding officer’s fault. If you don’t, you could be court martialed. So if I were in these companies places, I would have carried out the order as well. Just my opinion, and it must be a popular one, according to the vote.

  • IndiMinded

    Ok Babs, but just so we’re clear: the distinction we’re making between your viewpoint and mine comes down to the question I voiced before – if we have a corrupt president in the future, should the companies who deal with him in corruption be made accountable for the illegality of their actions?

    That’s the question, you and I just came up with different answers. This is the precedent we’re setting. If you work with the president, you don’t have to worry about the legality of your actions.

    It is not this battle being fought, it’s the battles to come. Next time the government tries to get private companies to cooperate, will they feel it’s the easiest, safest, and most profitable path to cooperate, regardless of the law? Or will they have good reason to pause and consider their options?

  • Babs

    As I said, Indi, I don’t disagree with you on that part. The answer to me is that we need to have safeguards against a president doing anything illegal – if it, in fact, was illegal – and the only way to do that is to make sure he is held accountable by the Congress and Senate with a checks and balances system. If anything was illegal in this case, it’s on Bush’s head, not the telecommunications companies.

    The idea that we could have a corrupt president in the future………..uh, aren’t we a little late on that one? *LOL* j/k 🙂

  • nyth

    Babs, you are very wrong on one point. Even if the executive branch tells a company to comply with some illegal action, it should still be illegal.

    To use your own analogy, if a commanding officer orders you to rape someone, the order is illegal. If you actually fallow through with the order, your actions are also illegal.

    Furthermore, the executive branch has no legal authority over any private business. Any of the businesses that ignored the request to allow warrant-less wiretapping were in no danger of legal ramifications.

    What this really comes down to is that the President has just been made “above the law”. Saying that the bill will make sure that this doesn’t happen again is asinine. It was already illegal before this bill, so what difference will it make that it is still illegal afterwords?

    The executive branch still broke the law. All the immunity does is set a precedence that in the future the President can do whatever he feels like, and expect a law to go through saying that it was OK, but just this once.


    Flip Flop Flip Flop Obama mania is gonna drop and go pop

  • IndiMinded

    Nah Babs, we don’t know corruption in America. Our politicians know they have to play their cards carefully and cover their tracks well if they want to do anything sneaky. Bush presses his luck wherever and whenever he can, but we’ve got a good system of checks and balances, and a loud-mouthed free-wheeling media. Try telling someone from a 3rd world country about our corruption sometime, they’ll think you’re either funny or crazy.

    This issue, for instance, gets to me because I’d like to see my civil liberties preserved unmarred in the coming years. But hey, at least we can call something like privacy a “right” to begin with. 😉

  • nzpudding

    The closer to the elections we get the more information the candidates will be privvy to prior to becoming the President. I would guess that Obama more than McCain will shift from his original positions several times when he becomes more privvy to classified information and matters of National Security.

    This is no real biggy and to be frank, the more Obama can piss off the Code Pink loons the better, they’re a real bag of whackjobs!