Taking liberties

Barack Obama's speech on the "war on terror" was hailed as a change of course by his liberal supporters--but four-plus years of action speak much louder than those words.

President Obama in the Oval OfficePresident Obama in the Oval Office

INDEFINITE DETENTION at Guantánamo Bay. Waterboarding and military courts. Warrantless wiretapping and vindictive smear campaigns against political opponents.

For millions of people who came to despise the administration of George W. Bush, these exemplified Republican rule during the "war of terror" era--symbols of the arrogance, secrecy and ruthlessness of a White House that clearly considered itself above the law.

Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign promised a different course in Washington--if not on every issue, then at least on those, like civil liberties and human rights, where the Democrats said they differed so fundamentally from Republicans. After all, Obama was once a constitutional law professor.

But that was then, and this is now. In its four-plus years in office, the Obama administration has overwhelmingly continued its predecessor's policies in the "war on terror." Obama has put a more palatable face on those policies--as with his speech last week in which he pledged to impose some limits after more than a decade of the never-ending "war on terror."

This was greeted by liberals as evidence that Obama was finally going to "do the right thing." But actions speak louder than his words. The administration has maintained and even escalated Bush-era policies such as indefinite detention of "war on terror" detainees, warrantless surveillance, prosecution of whistleblowers and even the assassination of U.S. citizens. No one speech erases that record.

Right now, the administration is under scrutiny because of a series of scandals, from the Justice Department's fishing expedition into the records of journalists who reported leaked government information, to accusations that the IRS targeted right-wing groups aligned with the Republicans.

The media ought to treat the abuses of power committed in the name of "war on terror" as appalling scandals, too. But even those controversies that do get front-page headlines confirm the reality, whether the president's liberal supporters like it or not--that Barack Obama has put a Democratic seal of approval on the lying, spying and expansion of government power of the Bush era.

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THIS SPRING has been the season of scandals for the Obama administration--and it doesn't look like it will fade away anytime soon.

One that definitely won't die down--not given the right-wing media echo chamber, anyway--is the revelations that IRS officials were apparently targeting right-wing groups, including Tea Party offshoots, for additional scrutiny and auditing. Obama's only defense seems to be that he didn't know it was happening.

The right's outrage about IRS wrongdoing has plenty of hypocrisy about it. Such organizations--frequently well-funded Astroturf groups propped up by wealthy donors like the billionaire Koch brothers--do routinely exploit loopholes due to their tax-exempt status. One favorite trick is to accept unlimited donations without having to disclose who the donors are, and then turn the cash over to conservative Super PACs

Still, the IRS does have a long history of politically charged actions. More often, though, it has saved its energies for harassing left-wing groups. For example, back in 2006, the IRS, under the command of George Bush, threatened the liberal All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., with loss of tax-exempt status because the pastor delivered antiwar sermons. During the same time frame, right-wing churches routinely brought pro-war speakers to their pulpits.

Another scandal hitting the Obama administration right now has uncanny echoes of Richard Nixon's Watergate. The Associated Press announced last month that the government informed it of a massive, secret seizure of phone records from its reporters as part of an investigation into a leak about the CIA's involvement in foiling a Yemen-based plot to bomb an airliner.

The FBI secretly obtained two months of phone records for more than 20 telephone lines (including home and cell phones) for reporters and editors at AP. It was later discovered that communications with at least one Fox News reporter and a New York Times reporter were also seized as part of investigations into other leaks.

Officials claim the White House wasn't directly involved in the investigation. However, Attorney General Eric Holder personally signed off on the warrant request for the phone records, leaving little doubt that this spying was sanctioned at the highest levels of the administration.

The White House says it will investigate whether the seizures of phone records went too far. But given its record over the past four-plus years, why would anyone trust the administration? Among other things, the Obama administration has launched a full-scale attack on government whistleblowers--most prominently, Bradley Manning, who faces a court martial and possible life imprisonment for his role in exposing war crimes to the muckraking website WikiLeaks.

And the Obama White House seems determined to outdo the Bush administration in broadening government surveillance powers. According to a May New York Times article, the administration is on the verge of backing a FBI overhaul of surveillance laws that "would make it easier to wiretap people who communicate using the Internet, rather than by traditional phone services." Part of the proposed overhaul would allow the government to fine companies (starting at $25,000 a day) that don't comply with federal wiretap orders, leading to the near-certainty that many would cave.

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GIVEN ALL of this, it would be a mistake to see Obama's May 24 speech on the "war on terror" as a major change of course for the administration.

In the speech, Obama said, among other things, that the war on terror is "unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant future." Such statements led the New York Times to write an adulatory editorial--posted online just minutes after Obama's speech ended:

President Obama's speech...was the most important statement on counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks, a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America. For the first time, a president stated clearly and unequivocally that the state of perpetual warfare that began nearly 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the not-too-distant future.

But as Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote, the Times' line on the speech was pre-packaged, courtesy of the Obama administration itself:

How was the NYT able to post such a detailed and lengthy editorial about Obama's speech almost immediately upon its conclusion? Clearly, they were given a special preview of the speech by some administration official, who fed them exactly the message the White House wanted them to receive. And they ingested it fully. As one civil liberties lawyer put it to me, the NYT editors got snookered, not despite the special access they received, but because of it.

Most of all, they got snookered because they wanted to, because--like so many progressives--they are eager to see Obama in the light in which they originally saw him. Nobody likes to believe they were fooled or tricked or so enthusiastically supported a politician who does things they find horrible.

That's why a mere speech, filled with all sorts of mixed messages, leads the NYT editors to all but declare that Obama has heroically ended the war on terror--even though just one week before, one of his top military officials told the U.S. senate that the war would last at least another decade or two.

In fact, when you analyze the substance of Obama's speech, it hardly marks a departure from the "war on terror" policies and presidential authority that Obama has expanded while in office.

While Obama suggested that drone attacks should be curtailed, for example, he also declared that they would still be used against foreign combatants who had undergone the same kind of scrutiny that radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was subjected to. Obama had the gall to claim he didn't believe it "would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen--with a drone, or with a shotgun--without due process."

Such a statement is laughable. Al-Awlaki was never tried or convicted before Obama gave the secret order to assassinate him--and al-Awlaki's son and two others became collateral damage.

On CNN's The Lead, left-wing journalist Jeremy Scahill--whose new film and book Dirty Wars exposes the carnage inflicted during Bush and Obama's "war on terror"--told Jake Tapper:

My reaction to the president's speech is that it really is sort of just a rebranding of the Bush-era policies, with some legalese that is very articulately delivered from our constitutional law professor, Nobel Peace Prize-winning president. But effectively, Obama has declared the world a battlefield and reserves the right to drone-bomb countries in pursuit of people against whom we have no direct evidence or who we're not seeking any indictment against.

As Greenwald pointed out, the Obama speech can ultimately be read one way by progressives, as a curtailment of the "war on terror"--and another way by conservatives, as an affirmation that the "war on terror" will continue. "No matter how good it made some eager-to-believe progressives feel," Greenwald concluded, "it's impossible rationally to assess Obama's future posture regarding the war on terror, secrecy and civil liberties except by his actions."

Barack Obama has proved by those actions over four-plus years that he is committed to upholding U.S. imperial interests and defending the political status quo, no matter what civil liberties or human rights must be violated. There's no reason to believe that a man whose administration has expanded executive power more aggressively even than the Bush White House is suddenly about to change course.