Let’s dwell one more day on President Obama’s Rolling Stone interview, where he sought to rally his dispirited liberal base for the ’10 midterms. This was a key quote: “If we want the kind of country that respects civil rights and civil liberties, we’d better fight in this election.”
Was he kidding with that remark, or what? One big reason for the liberals’ midterm torpor is that Obama has repeatedly disrespected civil liberties, compiling a record that is virtually indistinguishable from the anti-civil liberties legacy of George W. Bush.
It’s odd that Obama would paint himself as a guy who “respects” civil liberties, given the fact that, among other things, his administration (a) supports enhanced government surveillance of the Internet, (b) prosecutes government whistle-blowers who release unauthorized information – with greater frequency than all previous administrations combined, (c) has continued the Bush policy that allows the National Security Agency to collect the domestic and international communications of U.S. citizens and residents, and (d) has continued the Bush strategy of telling the federal courts to buzz off; under the Bush-Obama doctrine, judges should be automatically barred from hearing any civil liberties case in which the government decrees that “state secrets” might be compromised.
The latest example of (d) occurred last Friday, when the Obama legal team asked a judge to throw out a federal lawsuit that seeks to stop the administration from assassinating an American citizen who has been linked to al Qaeda. The suit was filed by the father of Anwar Al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric born in New Mexico and thought to be living in Yemen. According to published reports, Al-Awlaki’s name is on a government hit list. The lawsuit is asking for the judge to issue an injunction that would halt the killing; the Obama team says that the case should not be litigated at all, because to do so would risk the exposure of state secrets.
(The Bush team didn’t invent the “state secrets” loophole. The U.S. Supreme Court did. In 1953, it said yes to the government’s contention that court cases involving such secrets should be deep-sixed. At the time, the government was arguing for the suppression of an Air Force report about a military plane crash. Then it turned out, years later, that there were no jeopardized secrets in that case at all; as the declassified report made clear, the crash was caused by Air Force “negligence.” Such is the legal precedent upon which the Obama team has been relying.)
Al-Awlaki may indeed be a bad egg, or worse. But what bugs civil libertarians, and many liberals in general, is that Obama’s lawyers have been invoking “state secrets” at every opportunity – even in cases inherited from Bush that deal with illegal torture and detention. And with respect to the current case, two civil liberties groups, the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, have assailed Obama: “The idea that courts should have no role whatsoever in determining the criteria by which the executive branch can kill its own citizens is unacceptable in a democracy. In matters of life and death, no executive should have a blank check.”
An ACLU lawyer added, “It’s a truly remarkable proposition, and one that surely would surely have been greeted with alarm had it been made by the last administration.” That remark was certainly no surprise, considering what ACLU national director Anthony Romero recently said about Obama’s civil liberties record: “This is not change, this is definitely more of the same.”
It’s telling that Obama’s record is being praised by people who would never vote for him. A conservative think-tank scholar wrote approvingly the other day in The Wall Street Journal: “Mr. Obama has discovered, as much as he may wish it otherwise, that he is a war president. And like his predecessor, he is not only a war president. He is presiding over a particular kind of war in Afghanistan and in the broader war against Islamic terrorists where intelligence is more critical than ever. The effectiveness of our intelligence tools — from the interrogation of captured enemy combatants to the capabilities of satellite reconnaissance systems — remains overwhelmingly dependent on their clandestine nature.” As for Obama’s critics on the left, “The more voluble they become, the more apparent it also becomes that Mr. Obama is doing the right thing.”
Regardless of which side is right or wrong on the substantive debate over security versus civil liberties, what matters politically is that Obama’s liberal base believes he is wrong. His Rolling Stone remark, about how he “respects” civil liberties, will surely puzzle rather than persuade. This is just one more reason why the base appears ill-motivated to vote in droves 33 days down the road.