My View: Obama’s Record on Civil Liberties Dismal and Disappointing


Surveillance-KeyholeThis week I got into an interesting text exchange from an old friend challenging me on Obama’s less than acceptable record on civil liberties.  The problem that my friend had is that I largely agree with him on the President’s record on civil liberties.  However, I do not see the scandal on Benghazi or even the IRS.

The backdrop of Obama’s presidency is the eight years of the Bush administration, which is probably the worst black stain on America’s liberties since the 1960s, at least.  You have, at best, the questionable use of intelligence to plunge us into a costly, destructive, and needless war in Iraq, the use of torture, indefinite detention, the Patriot Act, wiretapping, and so on.

When President Obama won office, I figured his agenda would be fairly modest , but I was hoping he would keep his word that he would turn back the worst of the Bush administration excesses on privacy invasion by the government.  Sadly, many, if not most of the worst things, he has continued.

“He may have run for president on a civil liberties banner, pledging to reverse the legacy of George W. Bush,” a Reuters news analysis wrote this week.  “But as U.S. president for the last 4-1/2 years, Barack Obama has faced accusation after accusation of impinging on civil liberties, disappointing his liberal Democratic base and providing fodder for rival Republicans as he deals with the realities of office.”

This has not been a particularly good week, with the federal seizure of phone records from the Associated Press, and the inexplicable IRS targeting of Tea Party groups, among other problems.

For much of his administration, liberals and civil liberties advocates have either toned down criticism or even looked the other way as the President did things like leave Guantanamo Bay open, despite promises to close it – although he has pledged to do try to do so again.

That seems to have shifted this week.  For example, Anthony Romero, the executive director of the ACLU, said this week, “The IRS selective enforcement and the surveillance of reporters show a willingness to compromise values in the Obama administration.” He called the practices “enormously troubling.”

“And the tone is set at the top,” Mr. Romero added. “While not directly involved, the president bears responsibility for what his government officials can and should do.”

There was a good amount of hope in the first days of the administration – he pledged to reverse the legacy of President George W. Bush, and came from a background of a champion of civil liberties, as he was the first African-American president of the Harvard Law review, taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago and even wrote a book that extolled the constitutional values in a democracy.

NYU Law Professor Barry Friedman told Reuters this week, “There were reasons to think he would be different.  He seemed to be inculcated with constitutional values, because of his background and because of what he said during the campaign.”

James Goodale, a First Amendment attorney and chief counsel for the New York Times during the Pentagon Papers, wrote pointedly this week, “President Barack H. Obama’s outrageous seizure of the Associated Press’s phone records, allegedly to discover sources of leaks, should surprise no one. Obama has relentlessly pursued leakers ever since he became president. He is fast becoming the worst national security press president ever, and it may not get any better. “

As Mr. Goodale notes, the Justice Department sought the AP’s records to determine the source of a leak that informed the AP about a failed terrorist attack.

He writes, “What makes this action particularly egregious is that Justice didn’t tell AP what it was doing until two months after it obtained the records. This not only violates Justice Department guidelines for subpoenas of this sort, but also common sense, decency, and the First Amendment.”

Moreover, as Mr. Goodale notes, “The action against AP comes as no surprise because it is safe to say Obama is paranoid about stopping leaks. He has indicted six leakers, more than any other president in history. The previous record was three, and that encompasses the entire history of the country. But there surely is more to come.”

The Washington Post reports, “White House officials say that Obama is committed to improving his record on civil liberties, and that he will speak soon about how he intends to make his counterterrorism policy more transparent and consistent with the rule of law.”

They add, “His failure to do so has disappointed the left wing of his party, in particular, which expected more after a 2008 campaign that was framed in part as a response to the ideologically charged years of the George W. Bush administration.”

Unfortunately, some of the loudest critics on the right seem to suffer from myopia.  It’s easy to get outraged about the IRS scandal, but some of those yelling the loudest turned a deaf ear a decade ago when the IRS was going after the NCAAP.

While President Obama entered off with strong rhetoric pointing the finger at his predecessor, the Washington Post notes that “four months after taking office, Obama used the National Archives showcase of the Constitution to argue his point that abolishing torture, closing the military brig at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and establishing the rule of law around counterterrorism policies was in the country’s national security interest.”

“The decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable,” President Obama said, calling it a “framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass.”

But now we are stuck in a similar place.  While the administration did ban harsh interrogation methods, it has not dismantled the War on Terror/Homeland Security apparatus that the Bush administration enacted.  Worse yet, they have added some tricks to the Bush cache.

Unfortunately, Republicans have reacted both by overreach grasping for scandals in Benghazi that do not appear to exist.  Recent revelations show that some supposedly damning emails were actually either sloppily paraphrased or altered to look more incriminating.

As John Dean, no stranger to scandal, notes, “Viewing this situation analytically, Benghazi is a political scandal ONLY for Republicans. In truth, it is a scandal in search of an offending underlying transgression.  Actually, it is more like a GOP conspiracy theory, which keeps evolving as questions are answered by claiming new purported wrong, than it is like a scandal.”

I may be “obtuse” on Benghazi, but I still do not see what the scandal is.  If you want to argue that we did not handle security properly there, I agree and we failed to foresee the attacks.  But I seem to recall a similar situation a little over a decade ago.  There are some who still believe 9/11 is an inside job, but most people, I think, accept that there were simply mistakes that unfortunately the Bush administration exploited to encroach on civil liberties, use government surveillance on private citizens, and use as a prelude to war.

The unfortunate thing about the current situation is that the mechanisms the left was hoping to use, to turn back these incursions, have simply continued if not expanded them.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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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4 thoughts on “My View: Obama’s Record on Civil Liberties Dismal and Disappointing”

  1. Mr.Toad

    The Wikileaks guy Asaunge and the kid who committed suicide after being indicted for putting sensitive information on the net. These are fair areas for criticism and discussion about how you deal with the ability to use the internet to globally disseminate massive amounts of information in an instant.

  2. pbradyus

    You write:

    “As John Dean, no stranger to scandal, notes, “Viewing this situation analytically, Benghazi is a political scandal ONLY for Republicans. In truth, it is a scandal in search of an offending underlying transgression. Actually, it is more like a GOP conspiracy theory, which keeps evolving as questions are answered by claiming new purported wrong, than it is like a scandal.”

    But we have just found out that OB left the situation room while the terrorist attack was under way and before the ambassador was killed! He apparently went to bed as he had an very early flight to a fund-raiser in Vegas.

    As in all these scandals which point back to him, he has been missing in action or claiming to be so. If the President does not run the government, then who does?! All the information and the buck [as well as the bucks] stop there. To claim that he is unaccountable, that the IRS is independent, etc., makes good prose and good BS to fool some of the people! But when you think about it and when we get all get all the facts we will see his direct and indirect role in directing or inciting and fomenting these scandals. For example, we have his enemies list who the IRS, NLRB, and INS harassed, disabled, defunded and crucified or buried.

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