How Obama Became a Civil Libertarian's Nightmare
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In 2010, the ACLU and New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has represented many Guantanamo detainees, filed a suit asking a federal court to set legal standards when the government could use lethal force against a U.S. citizen who was overseas but not on an active battlefield. That suit was dismissed. But Eric Holder, perhaps giving a victory to critics who have condemned the administration’s secrecy, gave an speech this March at Chicago’s Northwestern University School of Law explaining Obama’s wartime actions and authority. The speech was exactly what Goldsmith had described a year earlier in The New Republic —nearly identical on substance to Bush administration policy, but with more attention to the packaging for the public.
“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger,” Holder began, quoting President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural at the height of the Cold War. “But just as surely as we are a nation at war, we are also a nation of laws and values,” Holder continued, saying, “Our actions must always be grounded on the bedrock of the Constitution.”
Holder explained the challenge for government was what to do after someone is found who is suspected of participating in a terrorist plot against the United States. He said the federal courts have done an excellent job in dealing with suspected terrorists since 9/11—and those who claim otherwise “are simply wrong.” But then Holder built the case for using a “reformed” military commission system—granting foreign detainees a right to counsel, a right to see evidence against them, and a right to cross-examine witnesses.
Moreover, Holder defended the administration’s right to transfer a terrorism suspect from civilian courts to military custody “based on the considered judgment of the President’s senior national security team.” And he said that in a “war with a stateless enemy” that the federal government has a right an obligation “to target specific senior operational leaders of Al Qaeda and associated forces,” just as the military shot down the plane with the top Japanese Admiral who led the Pearl Harbor attacks in World War II. “It is important to explain these legal principles publicly,” Holder said. “The Constitution does not require the President to delay action until some theoretical end stage of planning—when the precise time, pace and manner of an attack become clear.”
Holder then said there is no constitutional requirement that the President “get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of Al Qaeda or associated forces. This is simply not accurate. ‘Due process’ and ‘judicial process’ are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.”
Holder’s arguments sound reasonable until you stop and ask where it ends up. The U.S. is still involved in dubious warfare efforts overseas—particularly Afghanistan. But the full wartime powers invoked by Obama to endlessly fight stateless terrorists, which are on par to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s suspension of civil liberties in World War II, arguably are disproportionate to the scope of military actions. Moreover, people like Obama who are schooled in constitutional law know there are reasons why the foundation of American democracy is based on being a nation of laws—not arbitrary decisions by men—and are expected to respect that distinction govern with due deference and restraint.
Those who understand Obama’s civil liberties failing best include lawyers serving in the military, like David Frakt, a lawyer in the Air Force and Barry University School of Law professor. He recently wrote on Jurist.org that Obama’s targeted assassinations—a word Holder rejected in the speech—was the foreign policy equivalent of the domestic "Stand Your Ground" laws that led to Trayvon Martin's killing.