In last night’s state of the union, an uncharacteristically boring speech climaxing in a bipartisan tribute to sacrificial militarism, the president had very little to say about civil liberties, one of the main focuses of his campaign in 2008. He uttered less than a paragraph. And with every word, he treated us like we’re all idiots. He spoke so little about human rights in respect to the war on terror, I might as well go through each line, including his preceding sentences when he declares he has pushed for restraint:
“So, even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks—through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners—America must move off a permanent war footing.”
This sounds good. But he has said this before, such as when he ended the “war on terror” in August 2009 and again in May 2010. And yet on the fundamentals of detention policy, drones, and his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, he has pretty much maintained this permanent war footing for five long years. If he finally does ratchet the war effort back, it will still mean he spent half a decade exercising ghastly powers and shredding liberties in a war that began seven years before he took office.
“That’s why I’ve imposed prudent limits on the use of drones – for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.”
He’s being vague here. He has in fact vastly expanded the use of drones abroad. Obama has killed about 2,400 people in his drone attacks, and the administration has long defined a terrorist pretty much as any male of military age killed by an attack.
And meanwhile, the militarization of law enforcement at home, from the local governments up to federal agencies, has continued, including in its use of drones. Amazingly, federal immigration officials assisted local and federal law enforcement with drone missions over 700 times between 2010 and 2012. They are collecting evidence to be used in normal legal proceedings. Is this prudent? We can debate that, but for Obama to suggest that he’s limiting a trend that began in earnest after he took office is a little disingenuous. Obama is very good at taking credit for making things better than they were under Obama.
Now for the biggest insult to our intelligence:
“That’s why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs – because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.”
This is almost not worth criticizing, it is so ludicrous. The NSA surveillance state was in full swing when Obama took power, but it has considerably expanded on his watch. The administration has been building a facility it Utah able to store more telecommunications data than is currently on the entire internet. One of Obama’s own useless task forces has concluded large swaths of the program is illegal—and the White House officially disagrees —and even the Republican National Committee sound like civil libertarians compared to the administration on this.
One more terrible insult:
“And with the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay – because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our Constitutional ideals, and setting an example for the rest of the world.”
So, it’s true that Congress, back when it was ruled by Democrats, inconvenienced Obama’s release of prisoners. But there is so much he could have done to close the prison base down by now.
Here he is, claiming the executive authority to bypass Congress on basic domestic policy, and yet he claims that, as commander in chief, he can’t simply order these prisoner transfers? But of course this is a lie. Keep in mind that he has been releasing prisoners—just as Bush released prisoners. He could have released the majority of them who were innocent five years ago. He could have issued executive pardons or used his authority as commander in chief over detention policy, the same authority Bush used to set these programs up in the first place. And if you argue that that authority was illegitimate, then surely a president unilaterally discontinuing the policy that’s illegitimate must be legitimate.
Obama’s task force on this issue also embarrassed him when it cleared many prisoners for release, a number of them also judicially cleared by judges during both Bush’s and Obama’s administration. The Obama administration actively appealed and blocked these releases, resulting in the prolonged torture and even death of inmates. Obama also effected the prolonged mistreatment of Chelsea Manning and the awful military trial of Omar Khadr, captured as a wounded child soldier in Afghanistan.
If there’s any more disgusting joke than Obama’s attempts to deny responsibility for the human rights abuses perpetrated by his own executive branch, a joke compounded in its awfulness by his constant attempts to butt in to areas he has much less business in. As with the NSA, he claims he needs Congress to rein in civil liberties abuses, and yet these are some of the easiest problems in government for him to snap his fingers and end this afternoon.
With the Obama presidency, we have seen civil liberties continue to suffer violence while, because of politics, fewer people seem to care. Progressives have softened their vigilance on these issues, and Republicans can criticize the abuses on the periphery, appearing hypocritical given their past in defending Bush.
On the kill list, on detention policy, on surveillance, on the TSA, on most areas of the war on terror that touch on civil liberties, matters have stayed the same or gotten worse under Obama. The few areas that have seen improvement were largely symbolic, as such policies as black sites and official torture ended at the end of the Bush years.
Watch this page for more critical analysis of his speech. I watched the whole thing. If you didn’t, and want a good rundown, Cato has one: