Witte: Obama no better than Bush concerning civil liberties

Jacob Witte

When it comes to national security issues and the way in which the president conducts issues of civil liberties, is the Obama administration any better than the Bush administration? We all know about the various ways in which the Bush administration signed into law certain provisions that are scathingly unconstitutional: extraordinary rendition, warrant-less wiretaps, secret surveillance, suspending habeas corpus — the list goes on and on.

But certainly the Obama administration can’t be worse, right? Candidate Barack Obama told the American people that his administration would end the controversial search and seizure aspects of the Patriot Act, that he would restore habeas corpus and that Guantanamo Bay would be closed. He even signed an executive order on the second day of his presidency ordering that “Gitmo” be closed. He was off to a great start.

As time has passed, however, it is abundantly clear that the Obama administration is merely a continuation and worsening of the Bush administration when it comes to civil liberties and the security state. Not only has Guantanamo Bay not been closed down, but there are at least 170 men still imprisoned there — 89 of whom have been cleared for release, and 46 whom the Justice Department has admitted they lack evidence to convict.

Obama signed a four year extension of the Patriot Act in May of last year, which means four more years of seizure of records without consent or knowledge, secret surveillance without warrants and other dubious acts. Wiretaps are at an all-time high, with a 34 percent jump in 2010 compared to 2009.

In July 2010, a special report by the Washington Post titled “Top Secret America” revealed that the security state in America is only growing. The Post reported that each and every day, the National Security Agency intercepts and stores more than 1.7 billion emails, telephone calls and other types of communication. Thousands of new local government organizations that are supposed to be counter-terrorism units in nature help with this onslaught of violations of privacy.

Whistle-blowers, who publicize their knowledge of abuses of power or illegal activities, are no longer protected as well as they used to be. The Obama administration has prosecuted five whistle-blowers with the Espionage Act, more than all other administrations in history. In one such case, the federal judge actually chastised the Department of Justice lawyers for pursuing the issue, and the whistle-blower pled to a misdemeanor and walked.

The most recent assault on our civil liberties by President Obama and Congress, and by far the most dangerous, is the National Defense Appropriations Act of 2012. The NDAA is usually signed every year because it allocates funding for the Department of Defense.

However, the writers of the 2012 version slipped in a clause that allows for the indefinite detention of any person “who was part of or substantially supported al-Qaida, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners,” and anyone who commits a “belligerent act” against the U.S. or its allies. The clause states that the person can be held “without trial, until the end of the hostilities.”

End of hostilities? This war was not even declared officially by Congress (no war has been since World War II). “Terror” has no nationality, has no personification. This war has, by order of the president, been waged in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. Terrorism can never be fully uprooted or destroyed; this war will never end, giving all future presidents the ability to detain indefinitely anyone they can apply the vague qualifications of “enemy combatant” to.

Why is this even necessary? The war on terror is more than a decade old already, and we have managed to survive as a country without this particular stipulation; do we really need this now?

And in perhaps the strangest part of the NDAA saga, the FBI, the CIA, the director of national intelligence, the Pentagon and even Attorney General Eric Holder do not support this part of NDAA. Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI, claimed that the bill would actually impede the FBI’s ability to investigate terrorism because it would be more difficult to win cooperation from suspects held by the military.

The NDAA is one of the most egregious assaults on civil liberties this country has ever seen. And it was signed into law by a president who, as a candidate, called to end the civil liberty violations of the previous administration. It is a stark and scary reminder that the security state in this country is ever-looming.

We are fighting an enemy who we were told a decade ago wanted to erode our freedoms and take away our liberties. After a decade of the Patriot Act, of suspension of habeas corpus and now the NDAA, maybe we should become aware that it has been Congress and the president who are taking away our rights, not al-Qaida or the Taliban.