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Keeping Fisa In Perspective

There's been a wealth of FISA-related commentary in the blogosphere this weekend. For a valuable introduction, check David Kris's two-part primer on the subject at Balkinization (here and here).

Elsewhere, Michael Cohen over at Democracy Arsenal injects some much-needed sanity into the debate, responding to Glenn Greenwald's enraged call-to-arms against Democrats who supported the compromise. Cohen makes a number of good points: the Democrats were able to get some real concessions (compared to what was on the table in February) from the administration concerning protections for the international communications of Americans; the politics of the issue do not favor the civil-libertarian position; and allowing wiretapping orders issued under the Protect America Act to lapse would have genuinely hampered intelligence-gathering efforts. Cohen further writes:

I understand that people can disagree; but respect for genuine disagreements seems to be a one-sided game. Take as a final example, Greenwald's argument that progressives should raise money to target Democrats who supported this bill. ..."Dismantling the Constitution," "waging war on civil liberties;" honestly this is pure insanity. Does anyone truly believe that Democrats in Congress are intent on "dismantling the Constitution?" Seriously, Greenwald and others need to get a grip. You want to disagree with those Democrats who supported this bill, fine--I'm not here to tell you that you're wrong. But to suggest that progressives should then raise money to lessen the Democratic majority in Congress and subsequently ignore the fact that the only reason we are even having this debate is because of the lawless practices of George Bush; well if you think this is a good idea, you need to have your head examined.

There's no question the FISA compromise is very disappointing in a few respects, most notably because it means there will (apparently) be no judicial pronouncement on the legality of Bush's wiretapping program. I'm torn as to how I would have voted on the bill, were I a member of Congress. But it is most certainly not a threat to constitutional government in America, and to suggest that it's of such extraordinary, overriding importance as to merit primary challenges from the left against Democrats in center-right districts is, quite simply, nuts.

And it's also worth keeping in mind, in light of James Risen's New York Times Week in Review piece this weekend, that the executive-power debate will reset itself in seven months, and the bad precedents set by the Bush administration will endure only if Congress and the next president affirm them. Among other obvious benefits, one welcome change an Obama victory would bring is that presumably Republicans in Congress will suddenly remember that the Constitution makes the legislature a co-equal branch of government, and will stop demanding the cession of their institution's historical prerogatives to the White House.

--Josh Patashnik