5 Worst Obama Assaults on Civil Liberties Besides the AP Scandal

The Obama era has been one of the worst for domestic civil liberties.

Is anyone really surprised that Attorney General Eric Holder said that the Justice Department followed the rules in seizing two months of telephone records from 20 Associated Press journalists to investigate a CIA leak as he recused himself from a FBI investigation?

The Obama era has been one of the worst for domestic civil liberties. It has become the status quo for law enforcement at every level to spy on Americans. Los Angeles police track tens of thousands of cars daily. Seattle police read text messages without search warrants. California police look at old e-mails the same way. Internet companies say they will protect users’ privacy, but have policies that still give police what they want. 

Which brings us to the Justice Department’s subpeona of the AP’s phone records for an investigation into who leaked details about a failed terror attack to the country’s largest news organization. The DOJ informed the AP on Friday that it had obtained the phone records, creating an uproar in media circles. But no one should be surprised.

“This administration is as untransparent as the Bush administration—if not more,” Dana Priest, Washington Post investigative reporter told the new released documentaryWar on Whistleblowers, which traces how the Bush and Obama White Houses have declared war on a litany of national security and Pentagon leakers. “They have really tried very hard to prosecute people who they believe have leaked information.”

“It does have an intimidating effect—not just on leakers, but on the process, on us doing our job” said Michael Isikoff, NBC investigative reporter, told the filmmakers. “And I think the impact is the American public learns less and American democracy is poorer rather than richer as a result of these prosecutions.”

The Dismal Obama Years

Civil libertarians have had very few victories under Obama. In March, a federal District Court blocked the FBI from ordering telecom companies to turn over customer data and blocked FBI gag orders on this domestic spying program, although the government will appeal. And last fall, a federal court also suspended a section of a major defense bill that gave the government permission to arrest people who were suspected of speaking with alleged terrorists, which included the journalists who sued. However, another federal court reinstated that provision pending appeal. 

Moreover, even Obama’s latest pledge to try to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been seen as disingenuous—and not because Republicans in Congress say they will block that move—but because he hasn’t issued an executive order to do it. 

These developments underscore that Obama barely differs from the George W. Bush when it comes to the ‘War on Terrorism.’ While Obama has not continued some tactics used by his predecessor, such as CIA black sites and torture, he’s gone further than Bush with targeted assassinations and with expanding the domestic national security state.
 
Let’s list Obama’s assault on civil liberties including newest attack on whistleblowers.
 
1. War on whistleblowers. The seizure of AP phone records is just the latest twist in a deepening war on media whistleblowers. Obama has revived the century-old Espionage Act to prosecute more then double the number of whistleblowers than all prior presidents combined. And he has draped these actions in secrecy. For example, the DOJ told the AP last Friday that it had already taken the phone records with one line in a letter.
 
2. War on domestic dissent. The Atlantic’s Wendy Kaminer, writinga powerful piece after Obama’s second inaugural said, “Kelly Clarkson’s musical paean to liberty seemed more sincere.” She lists five areas where the Obama is worse that Bush on civil liberties. “They include, but are probably not limited to, summary detention and torture; the prosecution of whistleblowerssurveillance of peaceful protesters; the criminalization of journalism and peaceful human-rights activism; and extensive blacklisting that would have been the envy of Joe McCarthy; and secrecy about a shadow legal system that makes the president's ‘We the people’ trope seem less inspirational than sarcastic.”
 
3. Expanded surveillance state. In May 2011, Obama signed a renewal of several of the Patriot Act’s most controversial segments, including the use of ‘roving wiretaps,’ the government’s expanded access to business records, and the ‘lone wolf’ provision, which allows surveillance of individuals not affiliated with any known terrorist organization.  And last December, Obama signed five-year extension of the FISA Amendments Act, which was temporarily blocked in federal court but the administration is appealing it.
 
4. No legal recourse. Obama has claimed power not merely to detain citizens without judicial review but to execute them if they join America’s enemies abroad, about which The New York Times said, “It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing.” The Bush administration never claimed this right, but last fall The Washington Post reported the administration was formalizing a process for approving kills or captures and initially the CIA will not be bound by the new rules.”
 
5. Expanded military tribunals. Military justice systems do not fall under the U.S. Constitution. In late 2011, Obama signed a bill codifying theadministration’s stance on military commissions and detention of terror suspects that extended Bush war on terror doctrine.
 
But this is not even the full list of the civil liberties abuses under Obama. His response to the Wikileaks case and prosecution of Bradley Manning and lack of transparency on his national security portfolio despite campaign pledges, pose an undeniable conclusion: Obama, the former constitutional law professor, is no friend of civil liberties.
 

 

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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