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Comprimising Civil Liberties

Don Rose 27 May 2009 4 Comments

Politics is always the art of compromise.  Barack Obama is a politician. Ergo, Barack Obama is a compromiser.

The term politicians prefer is “pragmatist”—more macho, less namby-pamby.

The question at hand, however, is not what term we use, but what principles are compromised—and what level of compromise is acceptable. Therein lies my concern.

What I am seeing in the president I supported is a history—not quite a pattern—of compromise on civil liberties. This I find not only uncomfortable, but potentially dangerous. I dislike using that cliché about the slippery slope, but it applies.

The immediate issue is preventive detention—or, as he put it last week—“prolonged” detention without trial of certain terror suspects imprisoned in Guantanamo. Essentially, Obama would lock up and throw away the key for about 100 prisoners deemed lethally dangerous—some trained in terrorist tactics.

They would not be brought to trial either because there is insufficient evidence against them or because the evidence is tainted—likely obtained by torture.

Obama, a constitutional law teacher, understands preventive detention is unconstitutional—unlike his predecessor, who used the constitution for toilet paper. Obama therefore says that one man should not make the detention decision for a prisoner, but suggests a process through which a panel of judges or other officials would be involved.

Back in the early ‘70s congress considered preventive detention as part of a draconian anticrime bill proposed for the District of Columbia, but thought better of it.  National security in today’s world, however, might make it more palatable.

Let’s be clear: Obama is not, as some critics charge, simply reverting to the Cheney-Bush policies he previously condemned. He is introducing a host of constitutional protections for the Gitmo prisoners, which would apply either in criminal trials or the military tribunals he now favors.

Virtually all proceedings against these prisoners would be more fair than anything that transpired in the past six years, but no matter how he dresses it up rhetorically we have a basic constitutional principle at stake. A principle shared by almost all our allies—with the exception of Israel and India.

It’s an exceptionally knotty problem because quarantining dangerous actors is a legitimate concern. No one wants these characters roaming free to rejoin terrorist cells. What we must do is find a way to bring them to trial—a way to refine the search for untainted evidence and develop new evidence to make a legitimate case against them, if indeed it is warranted.

We have the legal talent in this country to find a way to protect us from jihadists while respecting the constitution. In the long run, when we’re seen violating our own principles it helps our enemies inflame their argument against us and create more terrorists.

Beyond that, I worry about Obama’s willingness to elide civil liberties. Back when he was a state senator he dropped his opposition to a censorship measure to be imposed in public libraries in the name of protecting children. Why? Apparently because the bill was backed by State Sen. James Meeks, a Southside colleague whose support he needed on other matters.

In the U.S. Senate he wound up voting for the revised Patriot Act, drawing condemnation from the American Civil Liberties Union—which gives him a “lifetime” senatorial rating of 80 percent.

His most notorious flip during the presidential campaign was voting for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which included immunity for telecom companies that went along with Cheney-Bush in eavesdropping on Americans at home.

Candidate Obama pledged he would vote against the bill if it included telecom immunity, but reversed himself and voted for it. Some make the case that the phone companies were themselves victims of presidential pressure. But apart from letting telecoms off the hook, the bill—now law— expanded and legalized warrantless eavesdropping in violation of the Fourth Amendment. It opened the door to more governmental spying on us all.

Obama recently reversed himself on pledges of transparency by supporting “state secrecy” measures he previously assailed. Later he flipped on releasing torture photos.

Perhaps after review, Attorney General Eric Holder will conclude that those secrecy measures are the bunk. Perhaps the courts will permit publication of the photos and halt preventive detention. Perhaps, after reconsideration, the president will again reverse himself on some questionable measures. He is capable of rethinking issues and changing course in healthy directions as well as flip-flopping negatively.

But that slope still looks mighty slippery to me.

Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer


  • Lunamina said:

    Obama does know exactly what he is doing AND HE IS DOING ALL THE SAME THINGS THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION. I don’t care how flowery his language, it does not cover up the fact that he is EXTENDING BUSH ADMINISTRATION TACTICS! If he is so smart, why is he following everyone else Clinton and Bush). So far the only part about him that is different is that he uses the CHANGE word IN EVERY SENTENCE! I stopped supporting him after his flip-flop on FISA. I figured if he was going to flip so soon and so easily that he would do the same thing once he got in office and boy was I right. We are in desperate need of a 3rd national party in this country. The GREENS don’t seem to be doing very well but at this point I have nothing else to turn to.

  • Ian said:

    Obama might as well be Bush III. Iraq is destined for an indefinite occupation by tens of thousands of American troops, the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan is ramping up to new levels of atrocity, he refuses to hold law-breaking torturers and spies accountable, evidence of torture is buried, the kangaroo courts continue, and it sounds like he’s caving to Israeli demands for a timeline to bomb Iran. Please tell me what change this president brought, except for style.

  • Frank DeBarnone said:

    “………the bill—now law— expanded and legalized warrantless eavesdropping in violation of the Fourth Amendment. It opened the door to more governmental spying on us all.

    Obama recently reversed himself on pledges of transparency by supporting “state secrecy” measures he previously assailed.”

    I comment: Unfortunately, any party in power likes more power thus, they cannot resist the idea of keeping tabs on the biggest threat to their reign’s status quo which would the people themselves.

    Case in point 1 from the left: Remember the Clinton Aministration’s survey of Marines that asked if they would fire on their own people on US Soil if so directed?

    Case in point 1 from the right:I am convinced that the Bush created CIS is more concerned with internal monitoring capabilites than those of foreign threats.

    We can always site the Nixon Administration and the FBI under Hoover that spanned many generations. Spooks. Very scary stuff.

  • John Powers said:

    “Please tell me what change this president brought, except for style.”

    ah…easy one…the Europeans and most of the press like it when Obama is in charge. They didn’t like it when Bush was in charge.


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