Obama’s Terrible Civil Liberties Record

Obama’s Terrible Civil Liberties Record November 7, 2012

Glenn Greenwald asks an interesting question: Who is the worst president we’ve ever had on civil liberties? There are many to choose from, of course, and he discusses all the major candidates. He points out that most of the worst policies were justified by wars, which is certainly true of Lincoln (who suspended habeas corpus without congressional approval, something absolutely forbidden by the constitution), Wilson (who pretty much shredded the First Amendment to put dissenters from WWI in prison) and FDR (who famously built the Japanese internment camps). And he essentially combines Bush and Obama into one president on this issue, both using the war on terror to justify a massive assault on the Bill of Rights:

And then there are the two War on Terror presidents. George Bush seized on the 9/11 attack to usher in radical new surveillance and detention powers in the PATRIOT ACT, spied for years on the communications of US citizens without the warrants required by law, and claimed the power to indefinitely imprison even US citizens without charges in military brigs.

His successor, Barack Obama, went further by claiming the power not merely to detain citizens without judicial review but to assassinate them (about which the New York Times said: “It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing”). He has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, dusting off Wilson’s Espionage Act of 1917 to prosecute more then double the number of whistleblowers than all prior presidents combined. And he has draped his actions with at least as much secrecy, if not more so, than any president in US history.

All true, of course. And Greenwald argues that, while the Japanese internment certainly affected more people, it was also temporary. And it is the permanence of the Bush/Obama war on terror policies that sets them apart:

Ultimately, there are two critical factors that, for me at least, are highly influential if not decisive in determining the proper ranking. The first is the extent to which the civil liberties abuses are temporary or permanent.

Most of the contenders for worst civil liberties abuses were “justified” by traditional wars that had a finite end and thus dissipated once the wars were over. Lincoln’s habeas suspension did not survive the end of the Civil War, nor did FDR’s internment camps survive the end of World War II. The Alien and Sedition Acts were severely diluted fairly quickly, while the bulk of Wilson’s abuses which survived World War I lay dormant until the War on Terror. As horrible as they were, these radical erosions were often finite, arguably by design, since the wars which served as their pretext would foreseeably end at some point.

This is one key factor that distinguishes the War on Terror. By its nature, it will never end, at least not in the foreseeable future. It is a “war” far more in a metaphorical sense than a real one.

Since it began, both administrations who have waged it have expressly acknowledged its virtually indefinite – and thus unique – nature. In May 2009, when Obama unveiled his proposal for “preventive detention”, he said: “Unlike the Civil War or World War II, we can’t count on a surrender ceremony to bring this journey to an end.” He added that we’ll still be fighting this war “a year from now, five years from now, and – in all probability – 10 years from now.”

Just last week, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration is creating permanent bureaucratic systems to implement its War on Terror powers as it “expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years”. Specifically, “among senior Obama administration officials, there is broad consensus that such operations are likely to be extended at least another decade.” That “suggests that the United States has reached only the midpoint of what was once known as the global war on terrorism.”

Civil liberties abuses justified by a finite war can be awful while they last, but then they cease. Abuses that are systematized based on the premise that they are to be permanent do far more than that: they radically alter the nature of the government and the relationship of the political class to the citizenry.

This, to me, has always been the most uniquely pernicious aspect of the War on Terror civil liberties assaults of the last decade: they will not end when the “war” does because the “war” will have no end. Each new power is embedded permanently into the political framework, incrementally transforming the political culture and the species of government itself.

I would rate Obama worse than Bush on every relevant subject other than torture (he did prohibit torture, at least officially, though he is just as bad, maybe worse on applying the rule of law in cases of torture), for two reasons. First, because his support for those policies all but eliminated even the mild objections to the growing national surveillance state among Democrats. The civil liberties groups — the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, etc. — have remained admirably consistent, as have fringe members of Congress like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, but the rank and file in Congress quickly lost any appetite for trying to limit the damage when Obama took office (and Democratic leaders in Congress like Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein were complicit in the demise of civil liberties from the start). With Bush in office, there was at least some tacit resistance, though never enough to stop the onward march of executive power; with Obama in office, there is a clear bipartisan consensus against the Bill of Rights.

Second, because Obama knows better. As a constitutional scholar, something Bush could barely pronounce, he knows the damage he is doing. He knew that the FISA amendments were extremely corrosive to the rule of law and the cause of justice when he threatened to filibuster the bill if it included telecom immunity; he threw principle under the bus when he instead voted for the bill without protest. He knew that the use of the State Secrets Privilege to deny the victims of torture and illegal surveillance made the separation of powers all but obsolete and ended the rule of law when it comes to executive power because he said so himself repeatedly when Bush was asserting it. Since taking office, he has done the very thing he criticized in every single legal challenge to what is now his own essentially limitless authority.

As a constitutional scholar and a black man who spent years working in inner city communities, he surely knows that prosecutorial immunity, the abuses of the war on drugs and the lack of access to DNA evidence is dooming innocent people to prison (especially young black and Latino men) and making the 4th amendment all but a dead letter. That did not prevent him from being on the wrong side of all of those issues every time they came before the Supreme Court.

Two other points. First, as Greenwald notes, these policies that erode civil liberties are often accompanied by other policies that advance them. There is no pure soul to be considered; presidents can and do both horrible things and good things, often simultaneously. Second, there is no question that a President Romney would be just as bad on all of these issues and significantly worse on a host of others, like women’s rights and gay rights. So neither is there a pure choice of candidates.

But if you voted for Obama, I hope that you will also hold his feet to the fire on civil liberties, where his record is nothing short of appalling. Don’t pretend that it’s all okay, that he’s got some super-secret plan to reverse all of this in his second term. He doesn’t. Civil liberties used to matter to Democrats, but it doesn’t seem to much anymore — at least when a Democrat is in the White House (Clinton was also pretty bad on these issues, though not nearly as bad as Obama). I sure as hell don’t plan on letting up on that criticism.

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  • “I hope that you will also hold his feet to the fire on civil liberties.”

    Many of us have tried. For our efforts Democrats start screeching about how we are trying to Republicans elected and to just shut the fuck up.

    It is a no-win situation: either you are a fanatical party loyalist who worships the President as infallable, or you must be utterly destroyed before you destroy America.

  • Funny how the legitimate criticisms of Obama’s administration (such as in the OP) are mysteriously left out of the far-right’s criticisms of Obama (as implied in their predictions of incipient UN-Muslim dictatorship in the previous post).

  • Drew


    Well they can’t criticize Obama for things like those in the OP mostly because the policies are supported and usually proposed by Republicans in the first place.

    You can’t criticize someone else for voting yes on something you yourself voted yes on without damaging yourself in the process.

  • If I were more conspiratorial, I’d accuse both parties of being in cahoots on the issue, and that all the Republican noise was to drown out the rational criticism of Obama.

    Anyway, I’ll get my lighter. Can’t let him think my reluctant vote means I don’t hate him for this stuff. Think I’ll try writing an open letter or something to Obama and the Democratic party this weekend.

  • Nick Gotts (formerly KG)

    Among other things, progressives should surely be looking for their candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2016 now – one who is sound on civil liberties among other issues. Kucinich, I recall, ran in 2008 but got nowhere. My knowledge of American politics isn’t sufficient to know what other names might make sense, but don’t put it off!

  • Pieter B, FCD

    I tried pinning Russ Feingold down about this at a Q&A a few months back. He had expressed grave concern about it in his talk, a conversation-format thing with Robert Greenwald. I asked him several times how we were supposed to “hold Obama’s feet to the fire” when he apparently didn’t get any promises about it in return for signing on to the campaign as one of many co-chairs. No meaningful answer ensued.

  • Abby Normal

    I asked him several times how we were supposed to “hold Obama’s feet to the fire” when he apparently didn’t get any promises about it in return for signing on to the campaign as one of many co-chairs. No meaningful answer ensued.

    I suppose a literal interpretation would be counter-productive.

  • laurentweppe

    I think the problem with civil liberties being shredded in the name of the war on terror is similar to the problem with the absue of powers from cops and prosecutors done in the name of the war on drugs: in both case, most of the harmful effect are felt by a minority of the population with little political and mediatic clout, which means that most people will

    1. Never have to experience it directly

    2. Never see a loved one suffering from it

    3. Never be shamed into doing the right thing by the media


    4. Will have a non-negligible chance of being targetted by more-patriotic-than-thou bullies if they express any sort of principled opposition.

    And if the majority of the voting adults do not dare rise up against an injustice, chances are that elected officials will not try to take the forefront, allowing a bad system to endure through sheer inertia long after a majority has been convinced that’s it’s wrong.

  • Ichthyic

    I sure as hell don’t plan on letting up on that criticism.

    still, it would have been nice if you and Greenwald and a host of others could have maybe at least waited ONE FUCKING DAY, to let the rest of the world enjoy the many positive things that came out of this election series, and the many negative things that were avoided.


    fucking killjoys.

  • robertharvey

    “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.”

    Article One, Section 9, clause 2 does provide for suspension of theh right HC in case of rebellion. I think the Civil War qualifies.

  • okstop

    Sure, but it says this in Article One, which describes the limits of Congress’ power, which (if I understand this correctly) implies that suspending the writ of habeus corpus is the prerogative of Congress, not the Executive Branch. That said, it certainly WAS a time of rebellion. What’s puzzling to me is that Lincoln almost certainly could have gotten the rump Congress (as it were) to approve a suspension, so why didn’t he? The Constitution does not, to my knowledge, explicitly state that habeus corpus can only be suspended with approval from Congress, so clearly this had to be established in the jurisprudence – was it just not clearly decided then? Or was it already an established point, one that Lincoln chose to ignore? My Con Law is not as strong as I’d like.

  • Suido

    @AbbyNormal #7

    *Snort* One internet for you.

    Depends, if you work for the CIA you might get immunity for your actions. Just as long as you’re not huffing and puffing on a whistle at the same time.