Obama’s Terrible Record on Civil Liberties

Obama’s Terrible Record on Civil Liberties April 26, 2012

Steven Rosenfeld has an article about President Obama’s terrible record on civil liberties, which in some ways is actually worse than Bush’s record. I didn’t expect Obama to be great on those issues, but I certainly never expected that he would be as bad as Bush, much less worse.

Bush quickly expanded covert operations, creating a shadow arrest, interrogation and detention system based at Guantanamo that violated international law and evaded domestic oversight. While the Supreme Court eventually ruled that detainees have some rights, the precedent that the Constitution does not restrict how a president conducts an endless war against a stateless enemy was firmly planted. In response, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union proposed reforms the newly elected president could make. What few anticipated was how he would embrace, expand and institutionalize many of Bush’s war on terror excesses.

President Obama now has power that Bush never had. Foremost is he can (and has) ordered the killing of U.S. citizens abroad who are deemed terrorists. Like Bush, he has asked the Justice Department to draft secret memos authorizing his actions without going before a federal court or disclosing them. Obama has continued indefinite detentions at Gitmo, but also brought the policy ashore by signing the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which authorizes the military to arrest and indefinitely detain anyone suspected of assisting terrorists, even citizens. That policy, codifying how the Bush administration treated Jose Padilla, a citizen who was arrested in a bomb plot after landing at a Chicago airport in 2002 and was transferred from civil to military custody, upends the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878’s ban on domestic military deployment.

Meanwhile, more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, Washington’s wartime posture has trickled down into many areas of domestic activity — even as some foreign policy experts say the world is a much safer place than it was 20 years ago, as measured by the growth in free-market economies and democratic governments. Domestic law enforcement has been militarized — as is most visibly seen by the tactics used against the Occupy protests and also against suspected illegal immigrants, who are treated with brute force and have limited access to judicial review before being deported.

One of Bush’s biggest civil liberties breaches, spying on virtually all Americans via their telecommunications starting in 2003, also has been expanded. Congress authorized the effort in 2006. Two years later, it granted legal immunity to the telecom firms helping Bush — a bill Obama voted for. The National Security Agency is now building its largest data processing center ever, which Wired.com’s James Bamforth reports will go beyond the public Internet to grab data but also reach password-protected networks. The federal government continues to require that computer makers and big websites provide access for domestic surveillance purposes. More crucially, the NSA is increasingly relying on private firms to mine data, because, unlike the government, it does not need a search warrant. The Constitution only limits the government searches and seizures.

The government’s endless wartime footing is also seen in its war on whistle-blowers. Obama has continued cases brought by Bush, such as going after the “leaker” in the warrantless wiretapping story broken by the New York Times in 2005, as well as the WikiLeaks case, prosecution of Bradley Manning, and others for allegedly mishandling classified materials related to the war on terrorism. Its suppression of war-related information given to journalists extends overseas, where the State Department this month has blocked a visa for a Pakistani critic from speaking in the U.S. The White House also recently pressured Yemen’s leader to jail the reporter who exposed U.S. drone strikes. Meanwhile, the administration has stonewalled Freedom of Information Act requests, particularly the Justice Department, which has issued the secret wartime memos.

How bad is it? Anthony Romero, the ACLU executive director, exclaimed in June 2010 that Obama “disgusted” him. Meanwhile, the most hawkish Bush administration officials have defended and praised Obama.

Disgusted seems like the right word to me.

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  • Gregory in Seattle

    Thank goodness Obama has a D after his name, or he’d be much, MUCH worse.

    (Insert facepalm here.)

  • slc1

    Re Gregory @ #1

    Unfortunately there is no reason to believe that President Romney would be any better and good reason to believe that he would be worse. The reason why Obama has been able to get away with these actions is because the other two branches of government have failed to do their job of restraining the executive. The separation of powers concept has collapsed.

  • Dennis N

    The only definitive difference I see between the parties is that one side is much, much more likely to nominate SCOTUS judges that would vote against these violations once they’re on the court.

  • NoVaRunner

    I’m not sure Romney would be any worse than Obama will become if he’s re-elected, because the expansion of the surveillance state will continue on the same path regardless of who holds the Presidency. I don’t believe any President would take an action or enact a policy that would decrease the power of his office.

    One big difference between Obama and his predecessor is the extent to which Obama has used the Espionage Act to prosecute leakers–in fact, Obama has made more prosecutions under that Act than all previous Presidents combined.

  • slc1 wrote:

    The reason why Obama has been able to get away with these actions is because the other two branches of government have failed to do their job of restraining the executive. The separation of powers concept has collapsed.

    He’s also been enabled by the leadership of his own party, who also did little to put the brakes on this when Bush was doing it, and by even much of the Democratic rank and file, many of whom threw a fit when Bush did it and don’t much care now that Obama does it.

  • Dennis N wrote:

    The only definitive difference I see between the parties is that one side is much, much more likely to nominate SCOTUS judges that would vote against these violations once they’re on the court.

    I don’t think that’s the only difference. There are also big differences involving the constituencies they have to please. The Democrats don’t have to pander to the religious right, the Republicans do. You don’t see all these bills attacking women’s rights when Democrats have control of legislatures. They similarly differ greatly on issues like voting rights and gay rights. Those are very definitive differences. But when it comes to the war on terrorism, executive authority and other civil liberties issues, there isn’t much difference anymore (if there ever was).

  • Right now, I’ve pretty much given up on getting any favorable result for 2012 (I’ll still do my protest vote). I’m worried about our choices for 2016 and the danger that we’ll continue to have bipartisan support for all this crap.

  • Dennis N

    You’re right, I should have been more clear, I meant definitive difference on civil liberties related to prosecuting the “war on terror”.

  • slc1

    Re Ed Brayton @ #5

    One reason why the courts haven’t stepped in is because, under Rethuglican administrations, all too may judicial appointments either support the excesses of the executive or use the excuse of judicial restraint to prevent acting against it. Under Democratic administrations, the Rethuglicans and their conservative Democratic allies in the Senate have used the filibuster to prevent the appointment of justices who might exercise more judicial oversight. Thus, Obama appoints Sotomayor and Kagan, both centrists, instead of Diane Wood who the Rethuglicans would surely have filibustered.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    @Ed Brayton – Regarding the Democrats and gay rights: It is very important to note that every national advance has been made by forcing the President into a situation where he had no choice but to support equal rights.

    He was the last person to sign off on repeal of DADT, and then only after a federal appeals court forbid further enforcement of the law. He did absolutely nothing to support the repeal law as it made its way through Congress and fought very hard against a judicial repeal.

    And despite a lot of vague words about supporting marriage rights, at every turn he continues to oppose any kind of repeal of DOMA, either legislative or judicial. He has declined almost every opportunity to speak out against ballot measures to restrict LGBT rights, making a luke-warm comment against California’s Proposition 8 only as the ballots were being mailed out, and while in North Carolina a few days ago, remained abjectly silent on the imminent vote for a state constitutional amendment to forbid same sex marriage.

    As a gay man, I am beyond dismayed at how cowardly, how… Republican Obama has been on the matter of my fundamental civil rights. “Fierce advocate”? In a pig’s eye.

  • iknklast

    It’s not just civil liberties, either. Obama may turn out to be worse than Bush (he’s certainly as bad) on environmental issues. Part of the reason he might be worse is that when he tries to do the things Bush did, he can get it through because Republicans will quietly vote for the roll-back of the environmental regulations (which is what they want), and Democrats will assume it must be pro-environment because, let’s face it, many Democrats also believe Obama is “the most liberal president we’ve ever had”.

    I have a friend who regularly compares Obama to Lincoln, or to any other statesman he feels positive about. This is a friend who, in any other situation, is totally capable of thinking critically, but where Obama (and Mormonism) are concerned, he is totally incapable of seeing anything but warm fuzzies. He lumps all those who criticize the president for substantive reasons in with the racist crazies who hate the president because he’s black.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    @iknklast #11 – I get get that a lot as well: being a liberal who is not orgasmic over Obama somehow proves that I am a racist. I usually respond by quoting Theodore Roosevelt:

    The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else. (Emphasis added.)

  • slc1

    Re Gregory @ 310

    Mr. Romney has come out in favor of a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to that between 1 man and 1 woman. He has also promised to overturn the repeal of DADT by the Obama administration. If Mr. Gregory thinks he will be an improvement over Obama on the issue of gay rights, then he is smoking lefty luckies.

    I would also note that it was Democratic governors like Cuomo and O’Malley who pushed the legalization of same sex marriage in New York and Maryland, against the almost total opposition of the Rethuglicans in the state legislatures. In fairness, lobbying by former Vice-President Cheney did manage to convince 2 Rethuglican legislators in Maryland to support the bill and put it over the top.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    @slc1 #13 – Being less evil than the other guy does not magically turn Obama into an ally. Just because he is happy to leave out on the street to die of exposure and neglect does not make him better than someone who wants to break both our legs first.

  • Trebuchet

    I’ve been voting since the early 1970’s. Virtually every presidential candidate I’ve ever voted for was, in my mind, the lesser of two evils. That’s the case again this year.

  • Abby Normal

    Gregory in Seattle said:

    Just because he is happy to leave out on the street to die of exposure and neglect does not make him better than someone who wants to break both our legs first.

    That first guy sounds better to me. I won’t be buying either of them a Christmas card, but unbroken legs are definitely preferable.

    Incidentally, I agree with your main sentiment. I’m not planning to vote for either major party this year. But that doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge that one is marginally less destructive. I think a better analogy might be test scores. One gets a 35% and another 55%. They both fail, but one has a lot more ground to cover before they reach the minimum standard.

  • slc1

    Re Trebuchet @ #15

    Probably the best reason to hold one’s nose and vote for Obama is the likelihood that Justice Ginsburg is not very likely to make it to 2016. The question is, who do we want picking her replacement, Obama or Romney. Compare Roberts and Alito with Sotomayor and Kagan. The two Obama picks are undoubtedly not the first choice of liberals but they are certainly far better then Alito and Roberts. Given the influence of Robert Bork on Romney, as Mr. Brayton pointed out the other day, what we would end up with is another Alito or, even worse, Scalia or Thomas.

  • omcdurham

    Obama is not what I thought he would be. He has a cardboard spine. He has not only failed to stand up to the righties, but has caved to them on several occasions. I wonder if his bending to the right is indicative to his true leanings. Or Boehner has something on him…

  • Gregory in Seattle

    @Trebuchet #16 – A vote for the lesser of two evils is still a vote for evil. Until enough people demand good, evil is all we will ever get.

  • michaelmicelli

    This year it’s a no brainer for civil liberties. Johnson/Gray2012

    They will be on the ballot in all 50 states and they are by far the best men running. See where they stand on the issues.


  • dingojack

    Michaelm – oops you forgot the: ‘The above is a paid advertisement on behalf of the Johnson/Gray 2012 Campaign’ disclaimer. FTFY.


  • Michael Heath

    michaelmicelli writes:

    This year it’s a no brainer for civil liberties.

    No-brainer? So there are no economic or national security issues, just civil liberty that should determine our vote? This puts you at the level of those who vote pro-life or how the NRA tells them to vote.

    In addition, how’s Mr. Johnson coming along on developing his remedial math skills up to middle school level? Last time I saw him, in a nationally televised debate, he was still failing at understanding functions at the level of multiplication and addition/subtraction. I.e., his promise to cut spending enough to wipe-out the budget deficit with his very first budget. Not even Michelle Bachmann was stupid enough to make such an idiotic promise.

  • slc1

    Re Michael Heath @ #22

    Perhaps the critics of Obama should consider what the effect on civil liberties would be if Justice Ginsberg is replaced by a clone of Alito, Roberts, Thomas, or Scalia.