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Nine Democrats Vote No On Safeguards Against Government Spying. Why?

CNN calls it “a bill that that will significantly increase the number of lawmakers notified about the administration’s most secret intelligence activities”, and notes that Republicans opposed it because they didn’t want government powers to spy against Americans to be weakened. Charles Djou was the one Republican to vote in favor of the measure when it came up for a vote in the House of Representatives last night.

Djou wasn’t the only member of the House of Representatives to cross the aisle, however. Nine Democrats voted against the bill. Their names, and their progressive legislative grades in the That’s My Congress legislative scorecard system for the 111th Congress, are below:

Mike Capuano – 58 out of 100
Chris Carney – 23 out of 100
Dennis Kucinich – 68 out of 100
Barbara Lee – 74 out of 100
Pete Stark – 61 out of 100
Diane Watson – 58 out of 100
Henry Waxman – 61 out of 100
Peter Welch – 58 out of 100
David Wu – 61 out of 100

Don’t think of these progressive scores as like what you might see in school, where grades are inflated, and even a mediocre student can expect to get between an 80 and 90 percent. Think of a 100 score on this scale as an absolutely perfect progressive record, reflecting every single action the That’s My Congress system categorizes as progressive – even cosponsorship of unsuccessful pieces of legislation. The highest actual progressive score in the entire House of Representatives in this system is an 81.

Given that, the 8 of the Democrats listed above can be placed in the strong to moderate progressive category. Only Representative Carney can be categorized fairly as a right-leaning Democrat, with a progressive score only slightly above his “regressive” right wing score.

Carney hasn’t explained his vote, either on the floor of the House or through a press release. That fits with Carney’s general congressional record, which doesn’t reflect a very communicative public servant. One might guess that, given Carney’s rightward tilt, his reasons for opposing the legislation are the same as the Republicans’.

The legislation was H.R. 2701, an intelligence authorization bill. That means the legislation gave the permission of Congress for spying activities. Many members of Congress have been upset because, though they’re asked to give authorization for Executive Branch spying, they aren’t actually told what that spying activity is. They’re being asked to legislate in the dark, with only 8 members of Congress in senior leadership positions made aware of the broad parameters of federal government spying activity.

There’s a great deal of cause for concern with this secrecy, given the record of federal government spying under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Under both Presidents, revelations have taken place of government spying against political dissidents and the existence of gigantic dragnets gathering Americans’ private electronic information and communications. It’s been learned that almost all the spying that takes place under “War On Terror” laws like the Patriot Act has nothing at all to do with terrorism.

Many members of Congress are justifiably eager to force the White House to share more information about the government’s abusive spying programs. H.R. 2701 would provide a little bit more information to Congress, though it only expands the number of members of Congress given briefings from 8 to 37. Furthermore, the legislation gives the President a loophole, allowing information about spying to be concealed from this slightly larger group, just so long as the President writes a vague justification of the secrecy. So, H.R. 2701 doesn’t provide the kind of accountability for government spying that’s really needed.

Is that why eight progressive Democrats in the House voted against the legislation? It’s hard to say. Most members of this small group did not explain their votes, but Dennis Kucinich did, and his vote in opposition had nothing to do with the anemic quality of its reforms. Explaining his vote, Kucinich said,

“I support the dedicated public servants of our intelligence community and commend their efforts to ensure our national security. However, I must oppose the Motion to Concur in the Senate Amendment to H.R. 2701, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010.

I continue to grow concerned that covert intelligence activities may constitute violations of the Constitution and that they severely undermine the rule of law. I am further concerned that these activities are conducted with total impunity. This legislation includes provisions to establish mechanisms of accountability over operations conducted by the intelligence community. I support those provisions. However, the compromise language included in this bill further weakens already weak disclosure requirements. More importantly, the provisions meant to address a lack of accountability included in this bill will do nothing to control intelligence activities that are tantamount to war.

It was reported in The Washington Post this week that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has deployed a covert ‘well-armed 3,000-member Afghan paramilitary force’ that is used for ‘surveillance, raids and combat operations in Afghanistan.’ The senior official quoted in the article admits that these teams are also ‘crucial to the United States’ secret war in Pakistan.” In addition to this troubling revelation, the CIA has conducted over 20 drone attacks in Pakistan just this month. Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions has called on the United States to comply with international rule of law and disclose the criteria for individuals that may be targeted, how the government ensures the drone attacks are legal, and the nature of the follow-up the government conducts when civilians are killed. Thus far, the Administration has failed to provide any of this information.

These actions severely undermine the rule of law and our moral standing in the world. We only stand to gain more enemies if we continue to conduct seemingly indiscriminate drone attacks in a country with whom we are not at war. We can only further diminish our national security with our war in Afghanistan, which includes significant covert intelligence operations.

This legislation will not quell the intelligence activities that urgently require reform. If this bill allows intelligence agencies to continue covert wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and even Yemen, I cannot support this bill. I oppose this legislation and urge my colleagues to do the same.”

Representative Kucinich’s opposition has to do with spying in Afghanistan. Kucinich favors the cessation of U.S. military and intelligence operations in Pakistan, and the speedy withdrawal of American soldiers from Afghanistan as well. So, he used H.R. 2701 as a chance to speak on speak on these foreign policy issues, not to demand greater government accountability on domestic surveillance.

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