Human Rights

8 Ways Obama Is As Bad -- Or Worse -- Than Bush On Civil Liberties

Despite a rare court victory on Friday, Obama's legacy is dismal.

Photo Credit: WhiteHouse.gov

Civil libertarians won a rare court victory against the Obama Administration’s ‘War on Terror’ on Friday when a U.S. District Court blocked the FBI from ordering telecom companies to turn over their customer’s data, such as e-mails and other records, and blocked FBI gag orders on this domestic spying program.

“In today's ruling, the court held that the gag order provisions of the statute violate the First Amendment and that the review procedures violate separation of powers,” Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyers, who brought the suit, said. “Because those provisions were not separable from the rest of the statute, the court declared the entire statute unconstitutional.”

This is the second time in recent months that civil libertarians have won a court victory over the Obama administration, although it is all but certain that it will appeal and seek to suspend the ruling. Last fall, a federal court 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 several journalists who sued. However, another federal court reinstated that provision pending appeal.

“What is appears to illustrate is there are probably duel U.S. Pakistani nationals or maybe U.S. Afghan nationals who are being detained in military facilities and denied due process,” said Chris Hedges, an ex-foreign correspondent who sued.

What these developments underscore is that the Obama Administration barely differs from the George W. Bush Administration when it comes to the ‘War on Terrorism.’ While the Obama Administration has not continued specific tactics used by his predecessor, such as CIA black sites and specific torture techniques known as “enhanced interrogation,” it has gone further than Bush in other areas, such as with targeted assassinations using drones, and expanding the domestic national security state.

“There are the two War on Terror presidents,” wrote Glenn Greenwald recently. “George Bush seized on the 9/11 attack to usher in radical new surveillance and detention powers in the PATRIOT ACT, spied for years on the communications of US citizens without the warrants required by law, and claimed the power to indefinitely imprison even US citizens without charges in military brigs.

“His successor, Barack Obama, went further by claiming the power not merely to detain citizens without judicial review but to assassinate them (about which the New York Times said: ‘It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing’). He has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, dusting off [Woodrew] Wilson’s Espionage Act of 1917 to prosecute more then double the number of whistleblowers than all prior presidents combined. And he has draped his actions with at least as much secrecy, if not more so, than any president in US history.”

Let’s go through these and other areas that, as the National Journal said, should result in an “F” for Obama when historians assess his civil liberties record.

This February, BillMoyers.com published a list of eight contrasting the Obama and Bush Administrations on civil liberties. On six of the eight areas, Obama expanded or codified his predecessor’s policies:

1. Patriot Act is renewed on May 27, 2011: “Obama signs 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. 

2. Wiretaps and Data Collections: “On December 30, 2012, Obama signs a five-year extension of the FISA Amendments Act. Provisions for more oversight and public disclosure failed to pass Congress.” (This is the law that the Electronic Frontier Foundation challenged and won a U.S. District Court injunction against last week. The administration has 90 days to appeal.)

3. Obama Abandons Plans To Close Gitmo: “On March 7, 2011, Obama signs an executive order creating a system of indefinite detention at the Guantanamo Bay prison. Congress had recently passed a bill effectively preventing the president from moving Guantanamo detainees to the U.S., and has since passed additional restrictive legislation. In January 2013, Obama administration reportedly is closing the State Department office responsible for shutting Guantanamo and resettling detainees.”

4. CIA Black Sites—Closed: “On Jan. 21, 2009, in his first day in office, Obama orders the closure of CIA prisons. Reports of rendition, proxy detention by other countries, and black site prisons run by the military in Afghanistan emerge during Obama’s first term.” (If these sites have been closed, this would be a civil liberties victory.)

5. Targeted Killings: The Administration has developed a “targeted killing “playbook,” In October 2012, “The Washington Post reports the Obama administration is tightening the process for approving kills or captures and concentrating it in the White House. At least initially, the CIA will not be bound by the new rules.” (Bush never publicly asserted a presidential right to execute citizens abroad, but Obama claimed that authority and has exercised it in the September 2011 strike on New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki.)

6. Drone strikes, civilian deaths: On “April 30, 2012: Obama counterterrorism adviser John Brennan admits that some number of civilians have died from strikes. On May 29, 2012: The New York Times reports that the Obama administration counts all military-age males in a drone strike zone as enemy combatants unless they are proven innocent after the fact. The numbers of civilian deaths claimed by officials are inconsistent with one another, and considerably lower than independent counts.”

7. Enhanced interrogation—torture: The Obama White House banned these techniques upon taking office. “January 22, 2009: Obamabans all abusive interrogation techniques and obliges the CIA and all U.S. agencies to comply with the Geneva Conventions and Army guidelines for interrogation.”

8. Military commissions: Congress codified military commissions, which is a justice system that does not fall under the U.S. Constitution. “December 31, 2011: Obama signs a bill codifying the administration’s stance on military commissions and detention of terror suspects as justified by the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. February 2012: The seventh conviction of a detainee in front of the military commission at Guantanamo.”

In six of these eight categories, Obama extended or expanded the Bush Administration’s war on terror doctrines. But this is not even the full list of major civil liberties abuses under Obama, according to The Atlantic’s Wendy Kaminer, whose recent piece after Obama’s second inaugural said, “Kelly Clarkson’s musical paean to liberty seemed more sincere.”

9-13. Kaminer lists another five areas where the Obama Administration is worse that Bush, bring the total to 11 areas where Obama has failed to uphold civil liberties. “Civil libertarians have been cataloguing and futilely litigating the gross abuses of post-9/11 era for years,” she writes, then ticking off another five categories:

“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; 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. Precisely because civil libertarians have focused on these abuses, they're old news.”

Indeed, the Administration’s response to the Wikileaks case and prosecution of leaker Bradley Manning, its surveillance of Occupy Movement protesters, the sections in the National Defense Authorization Act that allow the U.S. military to arrest suspected terrorist on U.S. soil (which he signed into law, despite White House misgivings), and lack of transparency on many of these programs despite campaign pledges to the contrary, pose an undeniable conclusion: on national security, Obama and Bush are more alike than not.

 

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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