Alone on the Hill

Self-described ‘Army brat’ Barbara Lee explains why she cast Congress’ only vote against giving the president a free hand to attack suspected terrorists.

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“It was a vote of conscience,” says California Democratic Representative Barbara Lee.

On September 15, the US Congress approved a resolution authorizing President Bush to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against anyone associated with the terrorist attacks of September 11. The measure passed 98-0 in the Senate and 420-1 in the House. The lone dissenting vote was a colonel’s daughter and longtime maverick from California — Democrat Barbara Lee.

“I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States,” Lee said on the House floor on Sept. 15. “There must be some of us who say, ‘Let’s step back for a moment and think through the implications of our actions today — let us more fully understand the consequences.'”

In the emotionally charged aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Lee’s lone vote of dissent brought gridlock to the telephone system in her Capitol Hill office and threats against her life. In the wake of the vote, the Capitol Police assigned a detail of plainclothes officers to guard Lee 24 hours a day.

Lee, whose congressional district includes the liberal bastions of Berkeley and Oakland, is a former social worker who got her start in politics as an aide to legendary progressive Rep. Ron Dellums. When Dellums retired in 1998, Lee won his seat; she was reelected last year with 85 percent of the vote.

Lee, the daughter of a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Army, insists that she isn’t a pacifist. Inevitably, however, she has been compared to Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, who in 1917 voted against the United States’s entry into World War I and, later in her career, voted against declaring war on Japan in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

This is not the first time Lee has taken a lonely stand against military action. In 1998, she was one of only five members of the House to vote against authorizing the bombing of Iraq over its refusal to allow weapons inspections by the United Nations. In 1999, she was the only member of the House to vote against sending US forces into Yugoslavia. Lee spoke with on Sept. 19.

Mother Jones: I read that you made up your mind as you were sitting in the National Cathedral during the prayer service for the victims. You listened, as so many Americans did, to the dean of the National Cathedral as he prayed that “as we act, we not become the evil we deplore.” At that moment, you said, you knew what you had to do.

Barbara Lee: Well, the vote was a very agonizing vote. Like the nation, I’m grieving and searching, in mourning, angry, trying to sort through all my feelings. I think everyone is doing that. And of course the memorial service was a time to really stop and reflect on all those who so tragically died, the victims and their families, and what an appropriate testimonial to them would be. … And so in that context I was listening to the members of the clergy, searching to try and see if I could find some direction and clarity. You know, in moments like these — when you’re agonizing, when you’re uncertain in terms of the ramifications of any very serious actions that you’re going to take — you have to go within, and use your head and your heart, and all the faculties that you have, to try to make decisions. And so, as I thought about that one line in the prayer, I said, “You know, this is the right vote — you’ve got to vote no.”

MJ: Did you know before casting your vote that you were likely to be the only dissenting member of Congress?

Lee: Oh, no — I did not know that. Many members have these same concerns. The use of restraint is of concern to a lot of them. We don’t want to see this spiral out of control; we don’t want to see the cycle of violence continue.

We all agree that we’ve got to bring these terrorists to justice and to make sure that they’re never allowed to perpetrate such an evil act as they did. And so all of us are dealing with that. We know that the President has the authority to go to war under the War Powers Act. The Congress has a responsibility to provide the checks and balances and to exercise some oversight. I don’t believe that we should disenfranchise the people of America in the war-making decision-making process. At least minimally, we should be able to know which nation we’re planning to attack and have some input into that. We should know what the exit strategy is. I’m not talking about all the details of a war plan, but certainly we should have more than a five-hour debate. To me, that’s just not the best way to make public policy.

I’m convinced that Congress’s role in this is to look at every dimension of international terrorism and to help develop a strategy to combat it, to stamp it out, and ensure the safety of our country. That’s why I voted for the $40 billion [disaster recovery and antiterrorism package]. You know, some people don’t think I should have voted for that. But I’m convinced that we’ve got to secure our airports, finance anti-terrorism programs, and provide the resources needed to deal with this — as well as to help the communities recover, and the families of the victims.

Some people were calling me un-American and all that. I know that I’m unified with our country. I feel and I know that my actions are as American as anyone else’s. I’m trying to preserve the people’s right to have some kind of oversight and some say in the cycle of violence that could occur if we go into war without an end in sight.

MJ: Were you prepared, coming off the floor of the House, for what was to follow? I read, for example, that you have been assigned bodyguards.

Lee: I knew when I realized that I was the only “no” vote that there’d be a lot of attention. But it wasn’t a calculated vote. It was a vote of conscience. So I had not planned what the consequences were. You know, people are angry, they’re frustrated. I try to explain my position, but there are some people who are just angry, and that’s understandable. But I believe that many people in our country — in the way the e-mails, the faxes, and letters are coming in — are beginning to understand what the use of restraint means. And believe me, they understand when you explain that this resolution gives up a congressional role in declaring war against a sovereign nation. And that’s a fact, that’s what this does. … And that does not mean that you don’t want these terrorists to come to justice, that you don’t want to stamp out terrorism. That’s not even a question.

I believe that the fervor and the pain of the moment have caused people, understandably, to react emotionally. And all I’m saying is that Congress should step back. Congress has got to be the body of government that does that. We are not the CIA, we are not the FBI, we are not the White House, we are not the Defense Department. We are the United States Congress; we have our role. And we can’t give up that role during a national-security crisis. The President already has his role and his authority to do what he needs to do. We do have a unique position, and our Constitution demands it. And for those of us who love America and consider ourselves good Americans, pro-Americans, waving the flag, we want to preserve that democracy, especially in times of crisis, and we want to preserve civil liberties, and we know and understand that it’s got to be balanced with public safety. Because we’ve got to secure the country, make sure that lives are not lost, and ensure that none of our actions create a spiral that could get out of control.

MJ: Do you feel, after the initial blast of anger, that you’re hearing more from people who are in support of your position?

Lee: I think it’s changed. We’re keeping really good tabs on e-mails and calls. We haven’t, of course, sorted through all of them, but nationally they’re running, I think, 60, 70 percent support, and in my district we’re up to 80 percent.

MJ: Do you think that our civil liberties are in danger in the aftermath of this tragedy? There’s talk, for example, of changing the wiretap laws.

Lee: I think that there’s going to be a rush to judgment on civil liberties, and a clamping down, a suspension of our democratic rights. And I believe that those who are good Americans would want to see this not happen and that we debate how to find a balance between the public safety and the protection of civil liberties. But if you have a five-hour debate, a rush to judgment, on a bill that Attorney General [John] Ashcroft puts forward, and you don’t give the Congress any political support to oppose that or to provide ways to ensure this balance, you’re in for a very scary period. We’ve got to be vigilant.

MJ: Do you think there are enough members of Congress who are concerned about the civil-liberties issues?

Lee: I hope so. … Somehow the public — once we bury our dead and get out of this mourning period — has got to be on the Congress consistently with regard to their input into this. We gave away that franchise in the resolution on war-making powers. But on civil liberties, it’s not too late.

MJ: Have any of your colleagues been angry with you?

Lee: Oh, no. Even Republicans with whom I disagree ideologically have told me that even though they really disagree with my vote they at least know that I believe in something. Many very conservative members have been quite respectful. I think that they all are struggling through this. This was not any vote I cast to demonstrate any hostility toward any person or party or the Administration.

MJ: Last Friday night, on the House floor, you cited Wayne Morse, one of two senators who voted against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which gave President Lyndon Johnson the power to wage war in Vietnam. You quoted Morse as saying, “I believe that history will record that we have made a grave mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States.” Then you added: “Senator Morse was correct, and I fear we make the same mistake today.” But don’t you think that there’s a loss of institutional memory on Capitol Hill, that there are Members of Congress who would say, “Wayne who?”

Lee: Oh, yes. So much today is poll-driven. You know, we need people to become empowered at this moment, now that our civil liberties are being eroded. We need people to become more involved in the political process. I believe that firmly.

I wish the press were paying more attention to the erosion of the Constitution and the slippery slope that we’re getting into, by giving up the right of the Congress to talk about when and how and where we go to war. I don’t think that’s been covered enough, and it should be. That’s an important right to preserve in a state of national crisis such as this.


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Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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