Obama versus civil liberties

January 4, 2012

Far from being the exception, the undermining of constitutional rights is standard operating procedure under capitalism, regardless of which politicians are in charge.

THE U.S. military can indefinitely detain U.S. citizens without trial--that's the latest of our supposedly "inalienable rights" sacrificed by the Democratic former constitutional law professor who currently inhabits in the White House.

After promising during his campaign to roll back the abuses of the Bush administration, Barack Obama has spent the last three years pushing through attacks on civil liberties that Republicans could only dream about. He is eliminating all doubts that the Democrats are as firmly committed as the GOP to strengthening the national security state at the expense of our rights.

As part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) signed into law by Obama on December 31, the military--under the authority of the president--is empowered to hold anyone "who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners...without trial until the end of hostilities."

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama

According to legal scholar Jonathan Turley, the NDAA represents "one of the greatest rollbacks of civil liberties in the history of our country."

Even the liberal New York Times, which regularly praises the Democratic Obama administration, described Obama's announcement that he would sign the bill as "a complete political cave-in, one that reinforces the impression of a fumbling presidency."

The ACLU's Laura Murphy pointed out that the last time Congress passed indefinite detention legislation was the Internal Security Act of 1950, passed during the McCarthy era. Then-President Harry Truman vetoed the Internal Security Act of 1950, but Congress overrode the veto.

As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald wrote, the Internal Security Act:

authorized the imprisonment of Communists and other "subversives" without the necessity of full trials or due process (many of the most egregious provisions of that bill were repealed by the 1971 Non-Detention Act, and are now being rejuvenated by these "war on terror" policies of indefinite detention). President Obama, needless to say, is not Harry Truman. He's not even the Candidate Obama of 2008, who repeatedly insisted that due process and security were not mutually exclusive, and who condemned indefinite detention as "black hole" injustice.

IN THE New York Times, Andrew Rosenthal wrote, "It's stunning that the president is willing to sign a bill that might effectively turn the right of habeas corpus into a mere privilege--even for citizens."

But it's not so "stunning" once you compare this measure with the Democrats' record on civil liberties over the past several years--from capitulation to the Bush administration on the USA PATRIOT Act and similar abuses to their own measures during the Obama years.

Beyond Obama's failure to honor his promise to close the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay--thus embracing the idea of indefinite detention of foreign nationals suspected of terrorism--his administration has overseen a vast expansion of executive power and attacks on rights that includes: failing to prosecute war crimes, whether committed by U.S. soldiers or former Bush administration officials; continuing the use of warantless surveillance; actively prosecuting Bradley Manning and other whistleblowers who have exposed war crimes; carrying out unlawful detentions on U.S. soil and repressive, illegal treatment of those accused of "materially aiding" terrorists; massively expanding the use of unmanned drones to attack and kill so-called "terrorists" (and, often, innocent civilians who happen to get in the way); carrying out extra-judicial assassinations of foreign nationals and at least one U.S. citizen (Anwar al-Awlaki); defending the right of the president to do so free from oversight by invoking "state secrets"; continuing the prosecution of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. on the flimsiest of evidence for crimes like "material support" of terrorism.

In other words, the Obama administration has shown its willingness at every step to trample civil liberties in the service of expanding executive power--and justify it by invoking the "war on terror."

Obama did attach a "signing statement" to the NDAA, proclaiming that he doesn't want to use the massive power which he was granting to not only his own, but to successor, administrations. "I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists," he wrote.

But then why enshrine such heinous power into law? The answer is that Obama is only too happy to have such a weapon at his disposal.

Even more laughable was Obama's assertion that his administration's so-called accomplishments in the "war on terror" have "respected the values that make our country an example for the world."

Maybe an example of the ruthless pursuit of power. But not respect for civil liberties or human rights.

THE QUESTION some might be asking is how Obama--the former law professor who promised to uphold the rule of law and protect civil liberties--could have so fully embraced the policies he has?

The answer isn't a personal failing on Obama's part, but that he and the Democratic Party are as committed as the Republicans to expanding and upholding U.S. power around the globe as the Republicans. Part of ensuring that is strengthening of the national security state to silence and repress any perceived threats to that power--whether at home or abroad.

In the 1950s, such attacks were aimed at socialists and communists. Today, the Obama administration claims its repressive laws are aimed at "terrorists." But combined with developments like an expansion of FBI spying, they can and will be used to silence dissent at home.

Consider Obama's former chief of staff and the current mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel. In preparation for planned protests against the NATO/G8 summit in Chicago in May, Emanuel is seeking permanent changes to city ordinances that would: raise fees for violations of parade regulations from the current $50 to a minimum of $1,000 per violation; double fines for protesters accused of resisting or obstructing police; restrict to two hours the time period for permitted demonstrations; restrict gatherings at public parks and beaches; and allow Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy to "deputize law enforcement personnel" and forge agreements with state, federal and local law enforcement agencies.

Or remember the many instances over the past months in which peaceful Occupy protesters were harassed, beaten, pepper-sprayed and summarily arrested from coast to coast--for even attempting to exercise their right to speak out against the system.

Far from being the exception, this is how the state operates in a bourgeois democracy. Violence and coercion are used when necessary, and stated principles of democracy are continuously undermined, regardless of which party is in charge.

We're encouraged to believe that the state stands above society as an impartial arbiter. But at heart, the state in a capitalist society protects those at the top--the 1 percent whose wealth dominates and directs the way the state is run.

The war on our rights at home is connected to U.S. wars abroad--and the pursuit of U.S. imperial interests around the globe.

Politicians from both sides of the aisle will claim to support and uphold the Constitution, but as soon as ordinary people begin to exercise our constitutional rights and agitate for change in a way that might actually impact the system, our "rights" become expendable.

That's why Obama's decision to sign the NDAA into law was not surprising in the end. But it's important in the coming months for activists to hold Obama accountable for his actions.

As Jonathan Turley rightly points out, beyond Obama's specific shredding of civil liberties, there is a broader danger--that those who might otherwise speak out against such measures will keep quiet because the Republicans, on the surface, seem so much more awful:

[P]erhaps the biggest blow to civil liberties is what [Obama] has done to the movement itself. It has quieted to a whisper, muted by the power of Obama's personality and his symbolic importance as the first Black president as well as the liberal who replaced Bush...In time, the election of Barack Obama may stand as one of the single most devastating events in our history for civil liberties.

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