From the point of view of civil libertarians, the Obama administration has been an exercise in frustration, with every hopeful sign followed by failures to live up to its own promises.
The ACLU has just issued a report (pdf), titled “Establishing a New Normal: National Security, Civil Liberties, and Human Rights Under the Obama Administration,” which focuses on this pattern of inconsistency.
“The administration has displayed a decidedly mixed record,” explains ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romaro, “resulting, on a range of issues, in the very real danger that the Obama administration will institutionalize some of the most troublesome policies of the previous administration — in essence, creating a troubling ‘new normal.’”
As summarized in a press release announcing the report, “President Obama has made great strides in some areas, such as his auspicious first steps to categorically prohibit torture, outlaw the CIA’s use of secret overseas detention sites and release the Bush administration’s torture memos, but he has failed to eliminate some of the worst policies put in place by President Bush, such as military commissions and indefinite detention. He has also expanded the Bush administration’s ‘targeted killing’ program.”
The report is divided into seven sections covering transparency, torture and accountability, detention, targeted killing, military commissions, speech and surveillance, and watch lists. The most striking areas of the report, however, are those which focus not on torture or secret prisons but on less-publicized recent actions by the Obama administration.
The transparency section, for example, emphasizes that the program of “targeted killing” of suspected terrorists has been “shrouded in secrecy,” and that despite a FOIA request by the ACLU, “the CIA has refused even to confirm or deny whether it has records about the program.”
It also points out that rather than living up to Obama’s promise as a candidate that he would make sure whistleblowers got protection, “the administration has been prosecuting them.”
“It has charged Bradley Manning,” the report notes, “a 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst, for allegedly leaking a video showing the killing of two Reuters news staff and several other civilians by U.S. helicopter gunships in Iraq. (Reuters had spent nearly three years trying to obtain the video through FOIA; now that the video is in the public domain, it is clear that there was no basis for withholding it.)”
“We urge the administration to recommit itself to the ideals that the President himself invoked in his first days in office,” the report urges. “Our democracy cannot survive if crucial public policy decisions are made behind closed doors, implemented in secret, and never subjected to meaningful public oversight and debate. It cannot survive if the public does not know what policies have been adopted in its name.”
Another striking revelation appears in the section on surveillance: “Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration has invested border agents with the authority to engage in suspicionless searches of Americans’ laptops and cell phones at the border; Americans who return home from abroad may now find themselves confronted with a border agent who, rather than welcoming them home, insists on copying their electronic records — including emails, address books, photos, and videos — before allowing them to enter the country. (Through FOIA, the ACLU has learned that in the last 20 months alone, border agents have used this power thousands of times.)”
And the report blasts the use of watch lists of suspected terrorists as “a disaster that too often implicates the rights of innocent persons while allowing true threats to proceed unabated.”
“Rather than reform the watch lists the Obama administration has expanded their use and resisted the introduction of minimal due process safeguards to prevent abuse and protect civil liberties,” the report charges. “The result is an unconstitutional scheme under which an individual’s right to travel and, in some cases, a citizen’s ability to return to the United States, is under the complete control of entirely unaccountable bureaucrats relying on secret evidence and using secret standards.”
“There can be no doubt that the Obama administration inherited a legal and moral morass, and that in important respects it has endeavored to restore the nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s historic commitment to the rule of law,” the report concludes. “But if the Obama administration does not effect a fundamental break with the Bush administrationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s policies on detention, accountability, and other issues, but instead creates a lasting legal architecture in support of those policies, then it will have ratified, rather than rejected, the dangerous notion that America is in a permanent state of emergency and that core liberties must be surrendered forever.”