‘Obama: A disaster for civil liberties’… Really?

On my way back to the office from Rotary today, I heard this guy Jonathan Turley on NPR going on and on about how Barack Obama is — gasp — “worse than Bush” on civil liberties (or words to that effect; I wasn’t taking notes while driving).

Conveniently, he wrote out his thoughts on this in an op-ed piece in The Los Angeles Times recently. An excerpt:

Civil libertarians have long had a dysfunctional relationship with the Democratic Party, which treats them as a captive voting bloc with nowhere else to turn in elections. Not even this history, however, prepared civil libertarians for Obama. After the George W. Bush years, they were ready to fight to regain ground lost after Sept. 11. Historically, this country has tended to correct periods of heightened police powers with a pendulum swing back toward greater individual rights. Many were questioning the extreme measures taken by the Bush administration, especially after the disclosure of abuses and illegalities. Candidate Obama capitalized on this swing and portrayed himself as the champion of civil liberties.

However, President Obama not only retained the controversial Bush policies, he expanded on them. The earliest, and most startling, move came quickly. Soon after his election, various military and political figures reported that Obama reportedly promised Bush officials in private that no one would be investigated or prosecuted for torture. In his first year, Obama made good on that promise, announcing that no CIA employee would be prosecuted for torture. Later, his administration refused to prosecute any of the Bush officials responsible for ordering or justifying the program and embraced the “just following orders” defense for other officials, the very defense rejected by the United States at the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

Obama failed to close Guantanamo Bay as promised. He continued warrantless surveillance and military tribunals that denied defendants basic rights. He asserted the right to kill U.S. citizens he views as terrorists. His administration has fought to block dozens of public-interest lawsuits challenging privacy violations and presidential abuses.

But perhaps the biggest blow to civil liberties is what he has done to the movement itself. It has quieted to a whisper, muted by the power of Obama’s personality and his symbolic importance as the first black president as well as the liberal who replaced Bush. Indeed, only a few days after he took office, the Nobel committee awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize without his having a single accomplishment to his credit beyond being elected. Many Democrats were, and remain, enraptured…

As you know, I have commented upon the same phenomenon myself, only not as a bad thing. From my endorsement of his tough talk about Pakistan in 2007 to my praise of his national security continuity right after the election, through my noting the end of the “Kent State Syndrome,” I’ve been pretty laudatory.

What’s really amazing about Obama is that he managed to persuade people before the election, and many after, that he’s this antiwar guy who was going to undo all the supposedly wicked deeds of the Bush administration. I wasn’t hearing that.

But even I was unprepared for how much further Obama would take things than Bush. I guess he’s able to do it because he has the political permission within his own party. Sort of like it took Nixon to go to China, Obama is allowed the latitude to more aggressively pursue the (I’m going to use the term that his base avoids) global War on Terror. As you recall, I made the analogy earlier that Bush was like Sonny Corleone (the blusterer who had trouble getting the job done), and Obama is Michael (who speaks softly and convinces everyone he’s the peaceful don, but wipes out his enemies efficiently without a word of warning). Of course, I don’t see them as heading a criminal enterprise. Others disagree.

It really does put Democrats in a weird place. Some of my most reasonable Democratic friends used to make these extravagant claims about how George W. Bush had trashed the Constitution. They really seemed to believe it. They are quieter now.

28 thoughts on “‘Obama: A disaster for civil liberties’… Really?

  1. Brad

    Let me add, to my civil libertarian friends — I get it. I get that it’s actually a legitimate constitutional issue to discuss whether the president indeed should have the power to authorize operations such as that that took out Awlaki.

    I’m a rule-of-law guy, believe it or not.

    But where they lose me, where they push me in the opposite direction, is when they overstate the case in order to try to get people to care.

    Turley said repeatedly on the radio that the president has now assumed the power to have any American killed by simply “writing his name on a list” (again, I’m writing this from memory, but I think that’s the way he put it).

    This makes suggestions that are ridiculous. Apparently, Joe Blow is supposed to be frightened that he could be standing in line at Food Lion waiting to pay for a 12-pack of Bud Light, having never in any way tried to commit acts of terror upon anyone or even contemplated it, and suddenly there’s a smoking hole where he and Register 4 used to be, just because Barack the Merciless scribbled something on a piece of paper that looked like “Joe Blow.”

    ANY American, we are given to believe. Just minding his own business. The horrors.

    Here’s the thing: This Awlaki guy tried really, really hard to get his name on that list. He did it very publicly. He posted many, many videos of his sermons preaching jihad — specifically, trying to persuade Americans to kill as many Americans as possible. He successfully persuaded the Fort Hood massacre lunatic and the less-successful Times Square lunatic to do what they did.

    There is no real debate over whether this guy was an enemy of the people. He was, no question.

    So, let’s acknowledge that it takes a practically superhuman effort to get on this “list.”

    And then discuss, calmly, whether this is the correct way to go about dealing with this bad guy.

    I’m an opponent of capital punishment, in part because I don’t believe that the state has the right to kill someone who is safely in custody (as opposed to a cop shooting a guy who’s in the midst of a murderous rampage, for instance).

    At the same time, I don’t doubt the right of the state to wage war on behalf of the society as a whole.

    The question is where this situation lies on that continuum, and what the correct procedure is for making those decisions.

    That’s where the debate should be, not in the dishonest realm of pretending that suddenly all Americans became vulnerable, to a deadly degree, to an overreaching executive.

  2. Doug Ross

    Would the U.S. government have been correct to shoot Timothy McVeigh in the head before the Oklahoma City bombings if they were aware of his intentions?

    Why didn’t we use the same approach against Saddamm Hussein? A known threat.. one with a huge cache of WMD’s (oops! maybe not)… Dan Rather sat across from him just a couple months before the Iraq War… and even after he was captured, we didn’t have the nerve to kill him ourselves. We outsourced that job. Keep the blood off our hands…

    Killing terrorist is like Whack-a-Mole. There will always be more to pop up to take the dead one’s place.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    @Steven–Cute, but do you ever actually listen to NPR? You may be surprised at how balanced it is. Certainly more points of view are featured there than many other outlets….Faux News, I’m looking at you!

  4. Steven Davis

    I’ve listened to Car Talk on Saturday mornings if I’m on the road. But the commercials for the seriously constipated jazz woman irritates me enough to change the station at 11:00.

    Fox News is up against MSNBC and CNN as well as the 3 major stations.

  5. Steven Davis

    Speaking of Car Talk, is there a man alive in the New England states who has the ability to change a tire or jump start their Volvo station wagon without having to call AAA?

  6. bud

    I’m far more worried about Obama’s ongoing and inexplicable attempt to shut down the marijuana shops in California. Now that’s a real threat to civil liberties.

  7. Kathryn Fenner

    Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, right after Car Talk, is the funniest thing this side of The Onion….

    Generally I found New Englanders far more likely to roll up their sleeves and get it done than Southerners….

  8. Greg Jones

    You’ve got the greatest blog ever. Where else can we get “Civil Liberties Smashing” Obama and Car Talk on the same post?

  9. Brad

    Thanks, Greg. That’s just the way I want things to be here…

    And Steven… I assure you that Click and Clack can change a tire.

  10. Steven Davis

    Kathryn – I tried to listen to it a couple times, it’s on the same humor as Hee Haw.

    I find New Englanders far more likely to roll up the starched blue oxford shirts they wear on weekends and call someone who can actually do the work. Don’t you watch This Old House? The clients are the biggest bunch of weinees in the country. That’s probably spelled wrong.

    Click and Clack can change a tire, because they’re both mechanics. It’s the callers who have trouble when the battery in their door lock fob dies and they can’t get into their car with that funny looking metal thing on their keyring.

  11. bud

    The clients are the biggest bunch of weinees in the country. That’s probably spelled wrong.

    Maybe those New England guys can’t change a tire but at least they can use a dictionary.

  12. Kathryn Fenner

    Seriously–Wait Wait? Not Whaddya Know…

    Hardly HeeHaw (not a bad show, but more Car Talk than Wait Wait)…

    This Old House homeowners are hardly reflective of the New Englander I know. Connecticut is not Maine, NH, VT….rich folks own old houses. The ones down here (in my hood, for ex.) don’t swing a lot of hammers or even wield paintbrushes often

  13. Greg Jones

    Wouldn’t all radio (and indeed ALL media) be better if more shows were like Car Talk: a show where a 55 year old man and his 12 year old son can both listen and enjoy. And anybody that has ever listened to Car Talk has probably gotten at least one A-HA moment per episode, possibly saving a few dollars because of it.

  14. bud

    Back to the original point of this post I find myself more and more frustrated with Obama on a host of issues. He is starting to finally making the economy a genuine political issue, something he should have done as soon as it was clear the GOP was not going to cooperate. So that’s for the good.

    On the other hand, this whole civil liberties issue is of great concern. And even though the wars in the middle east are not as hot as they once were they are still far from resolved. Obama needs to re-think that whole area of the world. We’ll never succeed in nation building there and shouldn’t try.

    But at least Obama is a likeable sort who seems to generally be intelligent and well versed on the issues, something his predecessor could hardly claim. And the current crop of GOP contenders may even be more unlikeable and mostly just plain stupid.

  15. Steven Davis

    @bud – or care enough about the audience to use one.

    @Kathryn – How’s that reading comprehension program working out?

  16. Jesse S.

    @Kathryn, Really? I guess it depends on the show.

    Unintentionally or not, The Takeaway trolls the right pretty hard. Yesterday morning there was someone from Berkley commenting that Columbus Day was Ingenious People’s Day, a day to take note of the atrocities committed against native peoples. Hearing that I’m the decedent of pure evil, probably prototypes for the Nazis, is never a fun thing at 9AM.

    The news on the other hand I really have no problem with.

  17. Kathryn Fenner

    “Indigenous”? “descendant”? My comprehension is doing rather well,under the circumstances…

    The Takeaway (not my favorite show, but) does not necessarily endorse the points of view of its guests, of course…and if you didn’t do the atrocity, don’t take umbrage. The fact is that we, the American people, did not treat the natives well at all. I personally have benefited from the privilege the early Americans stole from the aboriginal people, but I didn’t actively take part in it. Maybe if we stopped deifying our ancestors and saw them for the flawed human beings they were, creatures of their age, as are we all….

    Celebrating Columbus is a bit like flying the Confederate flag. The Confederates were doing the best they could under their given circumstances–just maybe we shouldn’t celebrate them….

  18. martin

    I feel sure the indigenous people were ingenious in many ways.

    And, I feel the way about Columbus that Kathryn feels about ancestors, he was a product of his time and had no idea about what he was actually doing, in more ways than one. I can’t hold a grudge against an explorer coming out of the late Middle Ages. I don’t expect a 15th century man to be PC in the 21st century.

    I love Click and Clack. I tried to call them once because I heard one of them had a ’92 Plymouth Colt Vista and I needed to commiserate. I was on hold forever and just gave up. Used to love Michael Feldman, but about 6 months ago, I got so sick of him I couldn’t stand it. I love the one with Peter Sagal where you guess which story the guests make up is real.
    I also enjoy that Sat. PM “essay” show. Some real intersting things turn up there.

    I heard Jonathan Turley yesterday and wanted to slap him. I thought he was politically naive. I think Obama would like to do what he knows is right, but cannot act on many things because of the poisonous political atmosphere which would incite a frenzy at a time when we cannot afford to get any more distracted than we already are.

  19. Brad

    Indeed. It’s foolish to get mad at Columbus. If he hadn’t been the one, it would have been the next doofus who thought the world was that much smaller than it was (or perhaps, some Portuguese captain who got blown off course on the way down the coast of Africa, which, if you’re out far enough to start with, can easily carry you to the coast of Brazil)…

    Somebody was going to make the voyage that changed the world more profoundly than any other voyage in the history of the world. The one that started the continuous travel between Europe and America, as opposed to the Vikings and St. Brendan and the like. It just happened to be Columbus, because he was so stubborn about his wrong idea, and managed to persuade Isabela to part with some dough.

    And that is the momentous event that we rightly remember on Columbus Day. Which, by the way, is tomorrow. Not Monday.

  20. bud

    It’s foolish to get mad at Columbus. If he hadn’t been the one, it would have been the next doofus who thought the world was that much smaller than it was …

    That’s about like saying it’s ok for an adult to purchase beer for a teenager since they’d find a way to get it anyway. Not sure Columbus deserves a federal holiday. He wasn’t even American!

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