Obama’s Illegal Assaults

How once-controversial ‘war on terror’ tactics became the new normal.

Glenn Greenwald

Anti-torture activists demonstrate June 23, in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo by: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

Barack Obama has continued virtually all of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s once-controversial terrorism and civil liberties policies, a fact now recognized across the political spectrum. Even the right wing acknowledges these policies have continued under the Obama presidency, which is interesting, because for decades Republicans have made political hay by accusing Democrats of being weak on national security (or soft on terrorism” in this age of terror).

What now gives Americans nationalistic purpose is our ability to hunt someone down and riddle their skull with bullets and dump their corpse into the ocean.

For example, Jack Goldsmith, a right-wing ideologue and a high-ranking Justice Department official in George W. Bush’s first term – when enhanced interrogation techniques” (what the civilized world calls torture”) were frequently employed – has criticized Dick Cheney’s daughter and Irving Crystal’s son for claiming that Obama has abandoned these policies. In a 2009 article for The New Republic, he writes:

This premise that the Obama administration has reversed the terror policies is wrong. The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it and has narrowed only a bit. All of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol and rhetoric.

The first area where we see this is true is in indefinite detention – the idea that human beings can be caged for years without an opportunity to defend themselves or contest the validity of the charges against them (if they are lucky enough even to be charged). The president’s plan for closing” Guantanamo was not really to close Guantanamo at all. It was simply to move it 2,000 miles north to Illinois, where the controversial aspects of it – namely, imprisoning people for life without due process – were going to be fully preserved and retained.

Another policy that Obama has continued, and actually worsened, is the idea that habeas corpus, the most minimal right a prisoner can have, isn’t guaranteed under the constitution. In 2008, the Supreme Court actually ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that prisoners at Guantanamo do have the right to habeas corpus. But – despite the horrendous record of imprisoning people without due process, including the obviously innocent – the Obama administration took the position that habeas corpus applies only to prisoners in Guantanamo, not anywhere else that the United States imprisons people, such as at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. The administration has thus far won in court with this argument, meaning that it has won the right to circumvent the Supreme Court decision by simply not bringing prisoners to Guantanamo. Instead, it simply imprisons them in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Finally, let’s not forget one of the most controversial aspects of the Bush assertions of executive power: the Bush presidency’s warped version of the state secrets privilege. The Obama administration has continued this doctrine to the point that policies many condemn as blatantly criminal – like illegal eavesdropping and rendition and torture – are now, under this administration, declared such vital state secrets that they cannot even be subjected to judicial review.

Disturbing innovations

And then there are the Obama administration’s own two disturbing innovations in national security policies and practices.

The first is the idea that the president has the right and the power to target American citizens not just with warrantless eavesdropping, as Bush did, but with assassination. 

In January 2010, the Washington Post reported that four Americans were on Obama’s list of terrorists whom the CIA is instructed to hunt down and murder. One of these people was Anwar Alwaki, a U.S.-born American citizen in Yemen who the U.S. government hates because he speaks effectively to the Muslim world about the violence that the United States commits regionally, and the responsibility of Muslims to stand up to that violence. The CIA has shot cruise missiles and used drones on at least two occasions last year to try and kill this U.S. citizen without due process – not on a battlefield, but in his own home.

The second of Obama’s innovations is his war on whistle-blowers. Whistle-blowing is one of the very few avenues left to learn about what the government does, and the Obama administration is trying to criminalize it. In Alexandria, Va., an aggressive grand jury is meeting to determine if what WikiLeaks does – like make leaked government documents available to the world – is a crime. This challenges the very core of investigative journalism.

The administration has gone so far as detaining people it suspects of being associated with WikiLeaks at airports when they try to re-enter the country. They have not only been detained by the FBI, but some have had laptops and other electronic devices seized, all without any form of judicial oversight or warrant.

A permanent climate of fear?

Having a Democratic president adopt these national security policies – which put people into cages without due process, which try to kill people without letting them defend themselves in a court of law, which collectively discard many civil liberties Americans take for granted – has converted them from controversy into bipartisan consensus.

The way American political discourse works in establishment media circles is that the things Republicans and Democrats agree on simply do not get debated. To this day, journalists respond to questions of their diligence in the run-up to the Iraq War by saying that there were no Democrats calling them up and complaining. It is disagreement between the two parties that defines what journalists believe is worthy of conversation.

A climate of fear arises whenever a government systematically proves that it is both willing and able to transgress the legal limits it is supposed to be subject to. That fear is not just the outcome, but the purpose: Fear is always the primary tool used to justify assaults on civil liberties. If a climate of fear is potent enough, it changes the relationship between the populace and the government such that it is no longer necessary to take away rights formally. Instead, citizens willingly relinquish them. What eventually happens is the character of the citizenry begins to change and the nation’s character fundamentally transforms.

One of the most vivid instances of this transformation occurred in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 1. The CIA’s assassination inspired celebratory chest-beating, epitomized by the crowd that spontaneously gathered outside the White House that Sunday evening. This was highlighted most effectively by what President Obama said when he announced the killing: The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history.”

What now gives Americans nationalistic purpose – what reminds us that we can do whatever we set our mind to” – is our ability to hunt someone down and riddle their skull with bullets and dump their corpse into the ocean. This attitude reflects the degradation of the national character of a country that suffers systematic assaults on its civil liberties.

But happily enough, these policies actually contain within them the seeds of their own destruction. Empires cannot sustain themselves. A population inculcated with fear is paralyzed and incapable of sustaining national prosperity. As the United States declines in strength and influence, government will hold onto these policies tightly. Declining empires always cling to militarism more tightly at the end than they do anything else.

Al-Qaeda hoped a single attack on U.S. soil, very minimal in scope compared to the level of deaths that the United States has been bringing to the world for decades – from Vietnam to illegal wars in Central America – would trigger bankruptcy-inducing policies. Ironically, the only thing that can truly strengthen America’s national security is a weakening of America.

This article is adapted, with permission of the author, from a talk given at the Socialism 2011 conference held in Chicago in July.

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Glenn Greenwald, a contributing writer for Salon, is the author of the forthcoming With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protest the Powerful. Formerly a constitutional law and civil rights litigator, he is also author of the New York Times bestselling books How Would a Patriot Act? and A Tragic Legacy, which examines George W. Bush’s legacy.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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