The now-defunct Defense of Democracies was created in February 2008 as a spin-off organization of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) to undertake advocacy campaigns that FDD could not participate in as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. Defense of Democracies' first task was an ad campaign in late February 2008 aimed at pressuring the House of Representatives to pass legislation that would extend a controversial warrantless wiretap program and give impunity to telecommunications corporations that had complied with Bush administration surveillance policy.
Having 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status means an organization "may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates." Defense of Democracies, however, had 501(c)(4) status; it was a nonprofit that was permitted to lobby and engage in other forms of political action, as long as they were not its primary activity. The group called itself an action fund, whose mission was "to support and encourage policies, procedures and laws necessary to defeat terrorism."
Defense of Democracies' spokesman, Brian Wise, distinguished between the FDD and its spin-off, telling Washington Independent reporter Spencer Ackerman that, "'Defense of Democracies [provides] issue advocacy, whereas the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies is a policy institute and academic institution.'" Wise also acknowledged that FDD created Defense of Democracies for the express purpose of being able to undertake activities that FDD otherwise is forbidden from doing because of its tax status.
Defense of Democracies' first action was to run a series of television ads in 15 different congressional districts, produced by attack ad guru Larry McCarthy of McCarthy, Marcus, Hennings, Ltd. The campaign of what Newsweek called "secretly financed political attack ads," accused the House of Representatives of allowing an intelligence-gathering law to lapse, thereby impeding the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The final moments of the 30-second spots were tailored to the particular districts in which they ran. An ad that ran in Connecticut concluded with the following appeal: "Tell Chris Murphy that Congress must do its job and pass the Senate's Terror Surveillance Bill," referring to the first-term Connecticut representative. Ads in other districts targeted Reps. Nancy Boyda (D-MO), Joe Courtney (D-CT), Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH), and Tim Walz (D-MN), all of whom were freshmen representatives, as well as a more general ad targeting Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
A Hartford, Connecticut news station ran a segment on the attack ads in which Murphy told WTNH's political correspondent that, "This is a Republican group that is running ads only against targeted Democratic freshmen; these are political ads that really grossly misstate the truth." Courtney told the station he was angered by the ads' implication that somehow the House had crippled intelligence collection. "The notion that somehow the system went dark, or that we can't act quickly to put new taps, is false. The fact of the matter is under the preexisting law, which is in place now, we can put taps on with a three-day window to get court approval after the fact," he said.
The ads angered several Democrats who sat on the advisory board of Defense of Democracies' supposedly bipartisan parent group, FDD, leading to their resignation from the board. Among the departed board members was Donna Brazile, former campaign advisor to Al Gore. She issued a statement on February 25, 2008, severing her ties from FDD, saying, "I strongly condemn [FDD's] misleading and reckless ad campaign. The organization is using fear mongering for political purposes and worse, their scare tactics have the effect of emboldening terrorists and our enemies abroad by asserting our intelligence agencies are failing to do their job. I am deeply disappointed they would use my name since no one has consulted me about the activities of the group in years.
"When I first joined the foundation several years ago, it was a bi-partisan organization that was committed to defending democratic values and protecting the nation against threats posed by radical Islamic terrorism. Unfortunately, due to the influence of their funders, in the last few years, FDD has morphed into a radical right wing organization that is doing the dirty work for the Bush Administration and Congressional Republicans."
According to a March 2008 Newsweek report, Clifford May, FDD president and past spokesman of the Republican National Committee, said that he planned "to spend $2 million on the ads, but declined to identify who is financing the effort, saying he set up the group [Defense of Democracies] as a tax-exempt nonprofit."
Although its spate of television ads pivoted on the implication that some officials were soft on terrorism, the ads did not mention the issue of giving immunity to the telecommunications companies that complied with Bush administration warrantless wiretap programs. Yet the issue—or what the issue stood for—seemed important to Defense of Democracies, which linked to a National Review Online article by Andrew C. McCarthy, co-chair of FDD's Center for Law and Counterterrorism. In addition to opening his piece by parroting lines from the attack ads, he delivered an impassioned plea for the telecoms to be given retroactive immunity so they will cooperate. Without them, he argued, "we lose our technological edge over enemies who are bent on killing Americans." He added that democracy is not about being "paralyzed" by judges who "get it wrong", but that "At bottom, the dispute over the warrantless-surveillance program is about the division of power between the political branches: Is it the executive or the legislative department that has ultimate authority over foreign intelligence collection? (His wife, he disclosed, worked for Verizon.)