President Obama began his reign as the hope of the civil liberties movement, but he ends a four-year term with a worse record than the President Bush he followed. Obama’s remorseless assault on basic rights in America, Bernard Keane says, sets the tone for continuing loss of liberties and freedoms in Australia and globally as drone kills, loss of free speech and mass surveillance become ‘normalised’.
Obama makes remorseless assault on basic rights
Baracking for drone kills, speech chills, surveillance
ills…in what used to be the Land of the Free
By Bernard Keane*
Two moments in mid-2012 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.
In May 2012, 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 regime 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 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 2012, by which time, according to one estimate, between 1800 and 2800 people had been killed, nearly all 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.
Drones kill Americans
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 in May, 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.
Riding roughshod over free speech
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 2012. 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. In May 2012 a Federal Court judge ruled that section of the NDAA which allows indefinite military detention was unconstitutional.
All this is in addition to Obama’s continuation of warrantless surveillance, the Administration’s 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.
* Bernard Keane is Canberra political editor for Crikey, the online news magazine, where this article first appeared: http://www.crikey.com.au/?p=291918