United States

May 21, 2012

Barack Obama’s remorseless assault on basic rights

Barack Obama's record of violating basic rights is far worse than George W. Bush's.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

Two moments in the past week have confirmed what has been clear for two years or more: the administration of Barack Obama is the greatest threat to personal liberties the United States has seen for decades, and possibly ever. You have to go back to the late 18th and 19th centuries -- Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, Jackson's forced removal of Native Americans and censorship and the Alien and Sedition acts under John Adams -- for similarly draconian assaults on basic liberties. On Wednesday last week, Obama issued an executive order that would seize the assets of anyone who "directly or indirectly threaten[s] the peace, security, or stability of Yemen". This refers to the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the former vice-president who replaced long-time dictator and US ally Ali Abdullah Saleh in February. Hadi is nominally committed to a transition to democracy after a bizarre one-candidate election, but Saleh’s family and key supporters remain in control of crucial sectors of the régime like the security forces. US policy has primarily aimed at ramping up its full-scale war inside Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, which Hadi has enthusiastically supported. Now, any critics of Hadi potentially face a crippling financial blockade -- not very different to the one imposed by Visa and Mastercard on WikiLeaks at the behest of the administration. Much of the war in Yemen has been conducted through via drones, the use of which the Obama Administration has dramatically ramped up in secret. Obama refused to even admit that the US was engaged in drone strikes in Pakistan until January this year, by which time, according to one estimate, between 1800 and 2800 people had been killed, nearly all of them since 2008. It was less than a month ago that the administration even acknowledged its regular use of drones to assassinate alleged terrorists. The admission had no detail about the extent of the use of drones or the number of innocent people estimated to have been killed in the course of drone strikes. One estimate by the Brookings Institution suggests 10 civilians are killed for every militant killed via drone strike. But even on lowball estimates, hundreds of civilians have been killed by Obama’s drone program with no disclosure or public debate. A lawyer representing Pakistani victims of drone strikes has been denied entry to the United States. Among those killed, significantly, have been Americans. Fundamentalist cleric and US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was assassinated in a drone strike in Yemen in October that also killed another American citizen (admitted by US officials to have been "collateral"); three weeks later his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, born in Denver, was slaughtered in another strike. The boy was, an unnamed US official admitted, "in the wrong place at the wrong time". The extra-judicial killing of Americans by their own government led to the revelation of a secret panel that determines drone targets. US government agencies are now opening up US domestic airspace so that bigger drones can be used to spy on Americans, bringing the land of the free another step closer to a permanent surveillance state. Also last week, a lawyer for Obama’s Justice Department advanced a chilling new argument in hearings over the Administration’s attempt to force New York Times journalist James Risen to give evidence against a former CIA agent charged with leaking classified material. The DoJ argued that the journalist had no privilege in relation to the leak because it was a criminal offence. If adopted, such an approach would exercise a chilling effect on all but officially sourced "leaks" by removing any legal protection for journalists. This prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling, for revealing details of a bungled operation against Iran’s nuclear program, is part of the Administration’s war on whistleblowers, in which it has prosecuted twice as many whistleblowers for espionage as all previous administrations in US history, as well as harassing others such as Thomas Drake, the NSA employee who revealed the astonishing billion-dollar stuff-up involving SAIC. And the trial of alleged WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning only started in late 2011 after Manning had been subjected to a series of abusive detention practices by the US military. The Obama Administration has ridden roughshod over free speech in several instances, including the case of Tarek Mehanna, an American Muslim fundamentalist who was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison for a variety of terrorism-related offences in April. But among the offences for which he was convicted was that of "providing material support to terrorists" by translating a Saudi book on jihad and sharing jihadi videos. There is also the Administration’s ongoing war on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, encompassing not merely an international financial blockade but a secret grand jury process aimed at the "high-tech terrorist" Assange, who by the Administration’s own admission had embarrassed but caused no material damage to US interests. Obama also signed into law the remarkable NDAA, which purports to enable the US military to indefinitely detain anyone, either within or outside the US, who provides "substantial support" for terrorists or those associated with terrorists, without defining what substantial support equates to. Several prominent journalists have complained of having to curtail their reporting for fear of breaching the NDAA. Last week a Federal Court judge ruled that section of the NDAA unconstitutional. All this is in addition to Obama's continuation of warrantless surveillance, its novel interpretation of key parts of the renewed Patriot Act and the National Security Agency’s interception and storage of every piece of internet and telecommunications data produced by US citizens. In each case, the Obama Administration has gone beyond, and often well beyond, the Bush Administration, which was vilified by progressives for using the War on Terror to dramatically increase government powers, hold people indefinitely and impose warrantless surveillance. Obama, however, has been able to get away with upping the tempo of US government attacks on basic rights from the level under Bush with minimal mainstream criticism, even from Republicans otherwise content to attack Obama as a socialist hell-bent on imposing government control over every aspect of American lives. Only Ron Paul among the Republican presidential field stood up in opposition to an otherwise bipartisan agenda of eroding basic rights. This points to a key failure, and double standard, on the part of US progressives who have failed to speak up about Obama's agenda of surveillance and censorship.

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17 thoughts on “Barack Obama’s remorseless assault on basic rights

  1. Michael James

    Obama’s presidency will be remembered as one of the less succcessful ones in the last century.

    Which is a remarkable shame as he was elected on the hopes of many Americans, black, white, asian and hispanic, to draw a line under past racial injustices and prove that America could elect a President irrespective of their race.

    Unfortunately the ineptness of the Obama presidency, through the financial devestation wrought, the attacks on basic civil liberties, on political accountability and on the rule of law, both at home and internationally, will taint his legacy.

    This hasn’t been helped by the willingness of some extremist sections of the Obama support camp to label anyone with an objection to some aspect of the Obama presidency a racist, regardless of the merits of their argument.

    It’s like some 21st century version of Godwin’s Law, but all it does is cheapen the debate and make it less rather than more likely, that America will elect another minority President in the next few elections.

    Perhaps the greatest failure of Obama, the one that will be his legacy, is that he made the world less safe that it was under Bush.

  2. Some Dude

    You said ramping up in one paragraph, and in the following paragraph you said ramped up. Rookie mistake Bernard.

  3. Robert Barwick

    Obama has been the biggest con of all time, starting with bailing out Wall Street, continuing Gitmo, and spinning as “universal” a health reform that amouns to health care rationing and forcing Americans to buy private health insurance from vicious HMOs.

  4. Kevin Herbert

    The most prominent, long-term critic of the rapid loss of personal liberty under ther US constutition is Congressman Ron Paul, who has bitterly opposed these draconian measures.

    Paul will have a lot to say about this issue at the GOP’s September 2102 convention.

    Robert Barwick: agree re Obama…..he’s just another MIC/neocon/AIPAC stooge…just like Bush, and every other President (save for Jimmy Carter) since JFK was murdered by “persons unknown”.

  5. cmagree

    It’s great that this state of affairs is being reported in the Australian media, but I’m always leary about making generalisations about lax progressive responses to the retrograde actions of supposedly liberal administrations, for the simple reason that those responses often don’t get reported in the MSM. (Bernard, you’re on Twitter – where’s your excuse? 🙂 )

    Naomi Wolf contends that the USA is turning into a dictatorship. She’s identified a set of actions that precede such an event – a kind of ‘how to’ guide for creating a dictatorship – and has shown how recent US actions correspond with those steps. She’s conducting an international awareness campaign about this, tweeting, blogging, giving talks across the country, and writing articles for the Guardian. She has said she fears for her own freedom from incarceration.

  6. lindsayb

    A timely reminder in an increasingly authoritarian world.
    In the USA, the Libertarian party seems to be the only party who oppose this.
    In Australia, the LibLabs seem to be hell-bent on following the same course, with only the Greens opposed.
    Perhaps Greens and Libertarians are our last hope of saving democracy.

  7. j.oneill


    You provide only a sample of horrors that Obama has inflicted upon the civil liberties landscape. I highly recommend Glenn Greenwald’s blog on Salon.com for a daily upodate on what this administratgion is up to.

    One looks in vain for a reasoned critique of US policy from our mainstream media. Unfortunately they are as supine on this issue as they are on other crimes supported or perpetrated by Obama.

    There are genuine grounds to fear for our future in Australia so much are we in lock step withe the Americans and so compliant with their phony war on terror.

  8. Modus Ponens

    Ah – how come guantanamo bay didn’t make it into that list?

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