Obama’s Disappointing Record on Civil Liberties

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obama-libertiesTo say that, to many on the left, the first term of Barack Obama’s presidency has been a profound disappointment is an understatement. While a victim, to some extent, of the realities of his times, President Obama had an opportunity to rectify eight years of questionable civil liberties policies and not only failed to do so, but codified some of the worst atrocities.

Nevertheless, to call him “the most disastrous president in our history in terms of civil liberties, as George Washington professor and columnist Jonathan Turley does, simply ignores the horrible track record we have in this country on such issues. Whether it is the Alien and Sedition Act, the Johnson Administration, the Nixon Administration, the looking the other way as J. Edgar Hoover ran roughshod over the rights of people, or the Bush II administration, Obama would have a high hurdle to cross to get to the worst.

Nevertheless Mr. Turley makes some strong points that President Obama not only failed to reverse some of the worst Bush II administration decisions, he actually codified and normalized them.

“President Obama not only retained the controversial Bush policies, he expanded on them,” Professor Turley points out. “The earliest, and most startling, move came quickly.”

“Soon after his election, various military and political figures reported that Obama reportedly promised Bush officials in private that no one would be investigated or prosecuted for torture,” he wrote.

It is a view shared by those such as Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union who said a year ago, “I’m going to start provocatively … I’m disgusted with this president.”

Asked why he was so animated, Mr. Romero responded in an interview with POLITICO in the fall of 2010: “It’s 18 months and, if not now, when? … Guantanamo is still not closed. Military commissions are still a mess. The administration still uses state secrets to shield themselves from litigation. There’s no prosecution for criminal acts of the Bush administration. Surveillance powers put in place under the Patriot Act have been renewed. If there has been change in the civil liberties context, I frankly don’t see it.”

Moreover, Professor Turley notes that President Obama has turned this into a non-issue which barely registers on the political radar – that would be the most alarming damge done by President Obama.

“Protecting individual rights and liberties – apart from the right to be tax-free – seems barely relevant to candidates or voters,” Jonathan Turley writes.

He continues, “One man is primarily responsible for the disappearance of civil liberties from the national debate, and he is Barack Obama. While many are reluctant to admit it, Obama has proved a disaster not just for specific civil liberties but the civil liberties cause in the United States.”

Mr. Turley rightly argues that civil libertarians have long had a dysfunctional relationship with the Democratic Party. He is correct that they are a captive voting bloc with nowhere to turn in elections.

But he adds: “Not even this history, however, prepared civil libertarians for Obama.”

Mr. Turley is correct, many civil libertarians were ready to fight and work to regain the ground lost under George Bush following 9/11.

“Historically, this country has tended to correct periods of heightened police powers with a pendulum swing back toward greater individual rights,” he writes.

Not only did they turn to President Obama, but candidate Obama captalized on the movement against Bush’s civil liberties policies and “portrayed himself as the champion of civil liberties.”

We can go down the list of “accomplishments” for Obama in this respect.

He announced in his first year that “no CIA employee would be prosecuted for torture.”

He would later promise not to “prosecute any of the Bush officials responsible for ordering or justifying the program and embraced the ‘just following orders’ defense for other officials, the very defense rejected by the United States at the Nuremberg trials after World War II.”

He failed to close Guantanamo Bay as promised.

He would continue the use of “warrantless surveillance and military tribunals that denied defendants’ basic rights.”

He would continue to assert the right to kill even US citizens accused of terrorism.

And as Mr. Turley notes, “His administration has fought to block dozens of public-interest lawsuits challenging privacy violations and presidential abuses.”

All of that is egregious in the view of many civil libertarians, and even some ordinary people are appalled and alarmed at the excessive intrusion into private lives by government. But the worst, according to Jonathan Turley, is what Obama has “done to the movement itself.”

He writes, “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. Indeed, only a few days after he took office, the Nobel committee awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize without his having a single accomplishment to his credit beyond being elected. Many Democrats were, and remain, enraptured.”

He calls it “almost a classic case of the Stockholm syndrome, in which a hostage bonds with his captor despite the obvious threat to his existence.”

He notes, “Even though many Democrats admit in private that they are shocked by Obama’s position on civil liberties, they are incapable of opposing him.”

This actually is a point that expands far beyond this issue area. In general, those on the left are appalled at the Obama administration but they look at the cast of characters from Herman Cain’s naiveté, to Gingrich’s insidiousness, to Perry’s stupidity, and Romney’s ambition, and they see nowhere else to turn.

As Professor Turley writes, “Some insist that they are simply motivated by realism: A Republican would be worse.”

On the other hand, “realism alone cannot explain the utter absence of a push for an alternative Democratic candidate or organized opposition to Obama’s policies on civil liberties in Congress during his term. It looks more like a cult of personality. Obama’s policies have become secondary to his persona.”

Here I disagree. I think those on the left, until perhaps the last few months, have been beaten down both by a disastrous economy and a moribund presidency. It was not until the Occupy movement, with a brief period following the Wisconsin incident, that the left has actually awakened from a three-year slumber.

Writes Mr. Turley, “Ironically, had Obama been defeated in 2008, it is likely that an alliance for civil liberties might have coalesced and effectively fought the government’s burgeoning police powers. A Gallup poll released this week shows 49% of Americans, a record since the poll began asking this question in 2003, believe that ‘the federal government poses an immediate threat to individuals’ rights and freedoms.’ “

However, he now notes, “Yet the Obama administration long ago made a cynical calculation that it already had such voters in the bag and tacked to the right on this issue to show Obama was not ‘soft’ on terror. He assumed that, yet again, civil libertarians might grumble and gripe but, come election day, they would not dare stay home.”

He argues that this calculation may be wrong.  He argues, “Obama may have flown by the fail-safe line, especially when it comes to waterboarding. For many civil libertarians, it will be virtually impossible to vote for someone who has flagrantly ignored the Convention Against Torture or its underlying Nuremberg Principles.”

He argues that, but I do not see it happening. I think most on the left, even the civil libertarians, will take one look at the field of Republican pretenders and fall into line quickly. That is certainly what President Obama is counting on.

If Mr. Obama loses it will be because he lost the middle class and the independents, not the left civil libertarians.

Nevertheless, Mr. Turley concludes, “In time, the election of Barack Obama may stand as one of the single most devastating events in our history for civil liberties. Now the president has begun campaigning for a second term. He will again be selling himself more than his policies, but he is likely to find many civil libertarians who simply are not buying.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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22 thoughts on “Obama’s Disappointing Record on Civil Liberties”

  1. rusty49

    Or Obama realized that many of Bush’s policies were the right thing to do so he stuck with them.

    David, can you explain what is “Romney’s ambition”?

  2. Rifkin

    ACLU Wack-job: [i]”President Obama had an opportunity to rectify eight years of questionable civil liberties policies and not only failed to do so, but codified some of the worst [b]atrocities.[/b]”[/i]

    Atrocities? Get a grip, David. There have been no civil liberties atrocities under Obama. I cannot think of any under Bush, either. Then again, you are in the same wrong-headed camp as the ACLU extremists who think helping someone with severe mental illness by forcing him to take medications which make him better is “an atrocity.” For shame. [quote]Webster: atrocity: An extremely wicked or cruel act: “war atrocities”.[/quote]

  3. David M. Greenwald

    “David, can you explain what is “Romney’s ambition”?”

    He’s the candidate that remakes himself to win at all costs. I don’t think he stands for anything other than himself – which probably makes him the least dangerous person in the field and not so unusual for politicians.

  4. David M. Greenwald

    “There have been no civil liberties atrocities under Obama. “

    So waterboarding is not an atrocity, wiretapping isn’t an atrocity, indefinite detention without due process of law is not an atrocity, got it.

  5. Rifkin

    Yes, water-boarding enemies who are determined to destroy the United States is not a civil liberties atrocity. It might not be the best policy, however. An atrocity, David, would be a policy of mass murder. That is the policy of our Islamist enemy. You don’t seem to get the difference. You don’t seem to have any basis for your thinking.

  6. Don Shor

    I suppose we could take Mr. Turley’s objections one at a time.
    Obama tried to close Guantanamo. He was rebuffed by strong congressional opposition from both parties, including de-funding of any alternatives. Foreign governments wouldn’t accept Gitmo detainees unless the US resettled some of them domestically first. So there was no place to send them and no funding to create a place for them. Only a couple of dozen could actually be prosecuted. Ultimately, Guantanamo had to remain in place because there was no alternative that was acceptable to Congress.
    Next?

  7. Don Shor

    [i]He would continue to assert the right to kill even US citizens accused of terrorism.
    [/i]

    Yes, and the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki demonstrates the wisdom of that policy. Do you believe his killing was unjustified?
    Next?

  8. Rifkin

    [i]”… wiretapping isn’t an atrocity …”[/i]

    Illegal wiretapping is wrong. It is not an atrocity by any measure. Most wiretapping is done with a court order. That is neither atrocious nor illegal.

    [i]”… indefinite detention without due process of law is not an atrocity …”[/i]

    It is the same policy we had with our German enemies in World War II. We brought them to the United States and held them indefinitely (until the war ended). The main difference is that our Al-Qaeda enemy is far more dangerous if he is let go.

    I know for a fact that when WW2 ended, most of the Germans who were held in Santa Barbara (where the UCSB campus now is) were given the choice of being sent back to Germany or integrating into the United States and most of them chose to stay in the U.S. Those guys were not hardened Nazis. They were just conscripted soldiers for Germany, their country.

    But the Al-Qaeda soldiers are different. They are mostly* committed to the idea that they must kill Americans and Jews and anyone else who does not subscribe to their ideology. So when we let one of these POWs free, they are a great threat to re-join the ongoing battle and kill our people. That has happened with detainees we have freed from Guantánamo ([url]http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/08/world/middleeast/08iraq.html[/url]). That is why these enemies must be detained.

    *Mostly? I’m sure some are exceptional. Some can be rehabilitated. Some don’t actually believe in the Islamist cause. But most of them do. As with the case of Abdullah Salim Ali al-Ajmi, we Americans and all freedom-loving people would be best off if his ilk were never let go.

  9. Don Shor

    One detailed review of the Guantanamo detainees; note that the authors are attorneys for two of the detainees. But it is remarkably complete regardless of any bias.
    [url]http://law.shu.edu/publications/guantanamoReports/guantanamo_report_final_2_08_06.pdf[/url]

    From Wikipedia: “775 detainees have been brought to Guantanamo. Most of these have been released without charge. The United States government continues to classify many of these released detainees as “enemy combatants”. As of May 2011, 171 detainees remain at Guantanamo.[7] As of December 2008, around 50-60 detainees have been cleared for release, but have not actually been released due to difficulties in repatriating them.[8] The unrepatriated include ethnic Uyghurs who were training to fight for independence from the Chinese government in Xinjiang province, and who are now wanted by the Chinese authorities.[8]”

    Let’s just say that closing Gitmo proved to be much more complicated, politically and logistically, than candidate Obama realized.

  10. Rifkin

    [i]”The unrepatriated include ethnic Uyghurs who were training to fight for independence from the Chinese government in Xinjiang province …”[/i]

    The case of the Uyghurs is the most complicated of all. There are currently five of them still at Guantánamo. Others have been sent to Albania, where most of the population is Muslim, as the Uyghurs are.

    One thing I know about their case is that for the longest time, no country would take them, for fear of China. Obviously, we could not send them back to China, where that government would have killed them instantly. They would have loved to have sought asylum in the U.S., but three were two problems with that: 1) we did not want to piss off the Chinese over an issue which was not important to us; and 2) because they were in fact militants (or terrorists), it was against U.S. policy to give them asylum.

  11. medwoman

    Rifkin

    With regard to water boarding, I am unclear under what if any circumstances you would consider it an atrocity. You do not consider it an atrocity
    When used “against those who are determined to destroy the United States”.
    Would it be an atrocity in each of the following circumstances:
    1) Hypothetically if used against an American soldier captured in Iraq while trying to take down the Hussein regime thereby to a loyalist, destroy
    his government ?
    2) How about an American captured by a local member of the Taliban in Afghanistan ?
    3) Historically speaking, how about an American captured during the Korean war ? Is water boarding or other forms of torture warranted in this circumstance?

    My question is really, do you support the use of water boarding as a legitimate tactic of war for any group who feel that their form of government is threatened by an outside, or occupying force ? Or do you believe that such tactics are justifiable only when the United States or it’s allies are threatened ?

  12. David M. Greenwald

    I’m sure Darrel Smith ([url]http://bangordailynews.com/2011/02/12/news/three-years-later-woodland-homicide-still-unsolved/[/url]) would have preferred to have been robbed. Does that making robbery okay in your book?

  13. medwoman

    rusty49

    With Americans as the apples and all other nationalities as the oranges ?
    With regard to the morality of an action, it is the action itself that is to be judged, not the identity or opinion of the perpetrator.

  14. David M. Greenwald

    Not all, it’s simply making the point through analogy that just because one action is less bad than another, does not make the lesser of the evil any less evil.

  15. Rifkin

    MEDS: [b]1) Hypothetically, (is water-boarding an atrocity) if used against an American soldier captured in Iraq while trying to take down the Hussein regime thereby to a loyalist, destroy his government? [/b]

    RIF: [i]No, that would not be an atrocity. I would expect far worse from a regime like that of Saddam Hussein. And, in fact, his regime did far worse to his enemies thousands of times every day. Here, for example, is a picture of one Iraqi mass grave we found after we overthrew Saddam:

    [img]http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2005/06/07/international/trial.184.1.650.jpg[/img]

    [/i]There is a HUGE gulf of legitimacy between a force of evil like Saddam, who murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and a force for good like the United States. That does not make water-boarding any less unpleasant. But our goals are to help people. Saddam’s goals were to help himself and terorize people.[/i]

    MEDS: [b]2) How about an American captured by a local member of the Taliban in Afghanistan?[/b]

    RIF: [i]My answer is exactly the same as given about Saddam. Equally so, the Taliban in Afghanistan is likewise a force of evil. We are not. But it remains the case that evildoers like the Taliban cut people’s eyes out and let them bleed to death in a soccer stadium and bury them in mass graves. They don’t bother with the softer stuff like water-boarding.[/i]

    MEDS: [b]3) Historically speaking, how about an American captured during the Korean war?[/b]

    RIF: [i]You have asked the same question 3 times. My answer remains the same. You would do better to pick an enemy which has some degree of legitimacy–the PRK regime has none–and which has a history of treating its captives humanely.[/i]

    MEDS: [b]Is water-boarding or other forms of torture warranted in this circumstance?[/b]

    RIF: [i]It cannot be warranted by them, because they are illegitimate forces of evil. So the answer is no.[/i]

    MEDS: [b]My question is really, do you support the use of water-boarding as a legitimate tactic of war [i]for any group[/i] which feels that its form of government is threatened by an outside, or occupying force?[/b]

    RIF: [i]Any group? No. Legitimate actors? Sometimes.[/i]

    MEDS: [b]Or do you believe that such tactics are justifiable only when the United States or its allies are threatened?[/b]

    RIF: [i]I feel the tactic is justified only when there is a strong likelihood that doing so will serve the cause of good. An example of that is when you have a terrorist who has a lot of information about upcoming acts of evil and there is no better method of extracting that information from him in a timely manner. I am aware that there are some interrogation experts who believe that is never the case. There are many others who believe water-boarding has been used succesfully and that those successes have saved the lives of innocent people who would have been killed or maimed by the bombs that could not go off. I don’t claim to be an expert either way. I am happy to leave it up to policymakers to listen to the experts and decide which is the best way to go in cases like that of Khalid Sheik Muhammed, who was water-boarded.[/i]

  16. medwoman

    Rich

    “But our goals are to help people”
    “I feel the tactic is justified only when there is a strong likelihood that doing so will serve the cause of good”

    This presupposes that we get to define what is good and what is evil. I can guarantee you that if I were an Iraqi mother whose child had been killed by invading Americans, I would not see my child’s death as having served the cause “of good”. And I would certainly not feel that they had helped me. Our intentions may be to help, but our actions have destroyed thousands of lives. These people are just as dead or injured as if our intentions had been, in our eyes, evil. To use an inherently evil practice is inherently evil no matter what words you use to attempt to soften it.

  17. Rifkin

    MEDS: [b]”This presupposes that we get to define what is good and what is evil.”[/b]

    Of course. It also presupposes that we are a force for good, and people like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Saddam and the PRK are forces for evil. Knowing what is right and decent and honorable is not hard for a second grader to figure out. Knowing how Saddam was as dictator of his country was not hard to figure out that was evil. Same with the horrible deeds of the Taliban and the Kims of North Korea. Anyone who has a moral compass knows which side is good and which is bad. It’s not like this is a gray area. It is clearly black and white.

    MEDS: [b]I can guarantee you that if I were an Iraqi mother whose child had been killed by invading Americans, I would not see my child’s death as having served the cause “of good”. [/b]

    You could say that about American forces which liberated Germany from Hitler and the Nazis. Of course any family which lost a child in the liberation would be terribly upset. But that fact does not make the actions of getting rid of a Hitler or a Saddam anything but a good cause and a cause for good.

    You might say we could have just waited out Hitler. That we did not have to use the violence of war to get rid of him. But to say that–equally so with later forces for evil like Saddam–is completely amoral. It’s saying [i]so what if that means 2 million more Jews would die in Hitler’s ovens if we waited.[/i] Only someone lacking a moral compass would think that it is better to have not killed any innocent Iraqis on the road to killing Saddam than to have done what we did, freeing tens of millions of people from an evil menace.

  18. Rifkin

    What lefties like you seem to forget is America is a good country. The left bizarrely thought that we invaded Iraq to steal Iraq’s oil. That was the charge made over and over again. But there never was any truth to it. It was a part of the big Marxist lie that America is “imperialist.” I heard the same sort of lies when we pushed the Serbs out of Kozovo, that we were doing so to steal the mineral wealth of the Kozovars. No truth to that lie either.

    The unfortunate fact is that we did no real good for ourselves by stopping the rape of Kozovo. But at least we did ourselves no real harm there either. By contrast, our liberation of Iraq was a selfless act on behalf of Iraq and Iraq’s neighbors who were threatened by Saddam. But that war did no good for us, and it did a lot of harm to Americans and America. We spent untold hundreds of billions of dollars which could have benefitted our people on that war. We will never recoup that lost treasure. And for some 4,500 Americans who died in that fight, their deaths did not really benefit the United States in any material sense. Almost as bad as our 4,500 dead, we returned home 40,000 or 50,000 young men and women with very serious physical wounds and psychological trauma. We will be paying that cost for decades. I am happy that Saddam is off the scene. The people of Iraq are much better for it. The people of his neighbors are much better for it. But I don’t see how the death of his evil regime really helped our country.

    MEDS: [b]Our intentions may be to help, but our actions have destroyed thousands of lives.[/b]

    Your accounting is wrong. You are missing the other half of the equation. When Saddam was in power, he was murdering hundreds of thousands of people. He was using poisonous gas on tens of thousands of Kurdish Iraqis. He was oppressing and killing and raping millions of Shiites who made up the majority of his country. He allowed no freedom for anyone in his country. He had invaded two of his neighbords and killed a million Iranians and thousands of Kuwaitis. He had bombed Saudi Arabia and Israel for no just cause. He was paying terrorists and their families if they would murder Jews. He tried to attain a nuclear arsenal until Israel destroyed his reactor. You include none of that in your accounting. Shame on you.

    MEDS: [b]These people are just as dead or injured as if our intentions had been, in our eyes, evil.[/b]

    You need to think about the other side a bit. You cannot just focus on perhipheral injuries. You need to focus on the tens of millions of people who lived and got some measure of freedom because we had the courage (or stupidity) to defeat Saddam. You are really missing the big picture from the eyes of Saddam’s millions of victims.

    MEDS: [b]”To use an inherently evil practice is inherently evil no matter what words you use to attempt to soften it.”[/b]

    We never once used an inherently evil practice. We never had a policy of trying to harm civilians. We did not do what our enemies did and continue to this day in Iraq to do. I concede that our actions were not perfect. There was the embarrassing issue of misconduct by a small number of U.S. personnel at Abu Graib prison. But obviously, when you know that tens of thousands of people were tortured to death there by Saddam, the dumb actions of a handful of our people taking embarrassing pictures and the like does not compare.

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