Five documentary filmmakers from Holland videotape a small audience listening to a presentation in the Washington, D.C. United Methodist Building. The attendees are understandably skittish at the sight of this foreign film crew. As volunteer lobbyists who have come from around the country to convince their congressmen to cease mass government surveillance, they have a complicated relationship with cameras and microphones. The speaker, Chris Lewis, begins by asking the cameramen in the room to tape him and not the attendees, adding, “We are talking about privacy after all.”
Lewis is the Vice President of Government Affairs for Public Knowledge, a public interest group that promotes “openness of the internet.” Shortly after the Edward Snowden’s leaks, Public Knowledge and over one hundred other public advocacy groups formed the Stop Watching Us coalition. Today, October 25, on the eve of the coalition’s 2,000-person Rally Against Mass Surveillance in D.C., Lewis and his colleagues have scheduled meetings with more than fifty congressional offices for protesters who want to express their opinions individually.
Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel with the ACLU, and Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology, take the stage after Lewis. Nojeim talks strategy. Congressmen in the Senate and House Judiciary Committees will be the most important lobbying targets as they might introduce the USA FREEDOM Act, he says, a law that will modify the PATRIOT Act and FISA to cease bulk phone and internet surveillance. The act is particularly important for privacy advocates now that the Intelligence Committees are planning to pass a competing bill that would codify many of these same surveillance practices.
“It is like two trains coming at each other, and one is going to knock the other off the tracks. We hope ours makes it through,” Nojeim tells the audience. This weekend’s protest and lobbying efforts are meant to turbocharge the FREEDOM train.
Richardson puts the lobbyists’ individual efforts into context. “Do not feel compelled to know a huge amount of detail or really sink in to this stuff,” she says. It seems that these volunteers are not here to offer reasoned arguments against mass surveillance, but rather to let their representatives know how much the issue means to them as voters. Most of the speakers stress that enthusiasm is more important than facts.
At the end of meeting, Lewis tells the volunteers to find their teams, which organizers have prearranged based on each person’s state of residence. The idea is to have these constituents talk to their own representatives. Although I am not here to volunteer, I join the team closest to me: the Georgians.
The Georgia group consists of two people. Michele Moore, a woman in her 60s, introduces herself. She wears a puffy neon yellow jacket, aqua-blue eye shadow, a matching blue neckerchief, and what looks like the entire contents of a well-stocked jewelry box. The other Georgian volunteer, Warren Goodwin, is a blue-eyed, boy-faced firefighter from Atlanta with the vocabulary of a Cambridge professor. He identifies as an anarchist and wears a black T-shirt emblazoned with the acronym F.N.R.D. surrounding an eye in a pyramid — a reference to a trilogy of novels about the Illuminati. I consider asking him if he thinks displaying the Illuminati symbol on his chest will have any effect on his persuasiveness as a lobbyist, but he preempts the question. “I’m not wearing this to the meetings,” he assures me, pulling out a mustard-brown suit jacket from his bag.
I ask Warren why he is volunteering. He gives me what sounds like a pithy quote he has prepared for reporters: “Without privacy, there is no free speech. We are turning our cellphones into wiretap devices and our computers into the ‘telescreens’ of Orwell’s 1984.” Warren adds that Public Knowledge’s solutions are piecemeal; he thinks that we should be defunding the PATRIOT Act and FISA rather than amending them.
Michele and Warren discover that the organizers have only scheduled one meeting for them with the staff of Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. Because they have four spare hours, and because they are ambitious, Warren calls the offices of other Georgian politicians to schedule more. He arranges meetings with the staffs of Congressman Phil Gingrey, Congressman Paul Brown, and Senator Saxby Chambliss. I ask if I can shadow them as a student reporter. “It’ll be great to have an Asian face. We need diversity,” Michele responds.
Security at the Cannon House Office Building is tight. Passing through is a chore, even more so today because Michele has brought a backpack and three computers strapped to a hand truck. We hold up the line of visitors for an uncomfortable five minutes to help her to go back and forth through the metal detector, disassembling and reassembling her accoutrements.
We soon find ourselves in the tall, marbled halls of the House Office Building, which pack the congressmen’s offices side-by-side like dorm rooms. Warren and Michele know the layout well from past lobbying stints; Warren had advocated to end U.S. aid to Indonesia to secure the independence of East Timor and Michele had supported whistleblowers in the financial industry.
The first two meetings with Congressmen Gingrey and Brown’s people fall through due to scheduling errors. Disappointed and with no staffers to talk to, Warren and Michele resort to harassing the bewildered interns working the front desks. The receptionist tells us that they might have an opening in a few hours.
We return to Gingrey’s office to meet with an aide for ten minutes — not a half hour with the chief-of-staff like Warren and Michele were hoping. Warren starts the pitch: “We are here to restore the Fourth Amendment.” He launches into a discussion about the collection of metadata, painting FISA as the harbinger of a dystopian America.
Michele adds, “We are two Georgians who believe strongly that there is great potential for abuse.” She quotes Snowden’s statement about a “Turnkey Tyranny,” the idea that though the surveillance is currently benign, it could be misused in the near or distant future. Warren and Michelle have gone far beyond the two-line message that the organizers suggested this morning: “I understand now that the government is collecting information on innocent people, and we want it to stop. It is unconstitutional, it violates right to privacy, and I need you this fall to support efforts to reign it in.”
This extra effort, however, seems lost on the polite but frustratingly equivocal aide. Michele and Warren are unsure if they are making any impact. They are uncomfortable just being a couple of passionate voters; they want their arguments to be evaluated and debated so that the staffers can truly understand why they are against mass surveillance, not only that they are against it. Later that afternoon, Warren said it would have been better had the aide openly disagreed with them. Then it would not have felt like talking in an echo chamber.
As we leave, Michele makes one last effort to break the aide’s cool and unyielding demeanor. She slyly mentions, “I see Phil [Gingrey] at the YMCA all the time.” Once outside the building, she explains that this remark is part of a carefully devised political mind game. “Now that they know I’ve seen his skinny little knees at the gym, we might have more luck.”
Michele and Warren are hoping for a better meeting with Saxby Chambliss’s people. Though they have a less than flattering opinion of the Senator — Warren chooses the term “fascist” — the meeting with his staff is especially important. So important, in fact, that this is the only time that Michele asks me to check her hair and makeup. She looks good. We meet up with another team of lobbyists and enter the office.
The front desk intern tells us there has been another scheduling error. “We drove all the way here to see him, you know how it is,” Michele implores. The intern apologizes, but says that the staffers have briefings all day. The lobbyists push, strutting their Georgian origins and likening the drive between Atlanta and D.C. to an odyssey of Homeric proportions. They manage to arrange a fleeting five-minute meeting with another demurring staffer, but he soon leaves for another briefing.
Upon leaving Chambliss’ office, one of the Public Knowledge advocates in the other team tells Michele, a volunteer photographer, and me to go to Senator Al Franken’s office to attend a pre-scheduled meeting with one of his aides specializing in Internet privacy. Michele, after the disappointments of the morning, is excited to talk to someone well-versed in the issue.
Yet before long, we find ourselves in yet another senator’s office with no one to talk to due to what the receptionist calls a “snafu.” She offers us a meeting in a half hour with a different staffer, who is unfamiliar with the subject, down on the first floor.
As we exit the office, Michele makes a furious beeline for the first floor. The photographer, wanting to discuss strategy, tells her to wait up. “Don’t tell me what to do!” she yells back. I chase after her.
“I don’t know who our photographer friend is, but he seems to want to take over,” Michele tells me once we’ve found the office. For the whole day, she has been a well of calm optimism; this sudden spate of anger is startling. Perhaps, as error piled on top of error, and disappointment added to disappointment, this last “snafu” finally broke the camel’s back. She had recounted earlier in the day that, on previous trips to Washington, staffers treated her as a “nutjob.” She was hoping that this time, in light of the NSA leaks, she would actually make a change and voice her opinions. This day has most likely not lived up to her expectations.
The photographer, a portly man with asthma, takes a while to catch up with us. When he finally does, he wails at Michele, “You are out of control!”
“No, you are out of control!” she shoots back.
They squabble over the power structure of our lobbying team.
Michele and Warren’s less-than-triumphant day in D.C. is not surprising. According to Professor James Thurber, who directs the Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute at American University, privacy groups like Public Knowledge are fighting an uphill battle.
“The winners in Washington are those who want to keep the status quo,” says Thurber in an interview with The Politic. Public interest groups intent on change need to develop a kingmaker reputation by demonstrating that they can mobilize a sizeable contingent to threaten a representative come election time. Groups like the AARP and the NRA access congressmen by flaunting their nationwide grassroots structures, which allow them to mobilize voters in a certain state. “An intern may talk to you in the office, if you’re lucky,” says Thurber of less established groups.
Public Knowledge’s struggles are twofold. For one, privacy groups usually do not have a well-developed grassroots base, which is especially important because their target is formidable. “There is definitely an establishment in the intelligence, defense, and telecommunications communities that makes it very difficult to gain power and threaten a member of congress,” Thurber says. He further claims that mobilizing volunteer lobbyists is a mistake and balked at the notion that facts could play second fiddle to enthusiasm.
“If you have a bunch of amateurs coming in and volunteering because they feel strongly about [an issue], it’s very hard to have a common core of authority to pursue a clear objective.”
Warren might disagree. When I meet up with him at the end of our day in D.C., his optimism is unscathed. He describes his experience as “the activation energy of a chemical reaction.” In the coming weeks, he plans on calling the offices he has visited over and over again to build on the small impact of his visit; he will undoubtedly return to Washington soon to restate his case. Warren believes that it was this sort of tenacious activism that finally ended U.S. foreign aid to Indonesia, and thus secured the independence of East Timor. He is confident that the privacy movement will grow and that he can help pull off another victory in the struggle against the NSA. In lieu of funding or institutional influence, Warren trusts the power of persistence.