March 13, 2011

Obama Embraces His Inner George W. Bush

Last week was an important milestone in the ongoing, decade-long betrayal of the rule of law in the United States of America. Together, President Barack Obama and the United States Congress legitimized the largest officially-sanctioned human rights sinkhole of George W. Bush's administration by effectively giving bipartisan approval to the continued operation of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.  We are now officially a country that is not only willing to hold people against their will without genuine legal recourse and without the  real possibility of release, but one that has cravenly accepted the increased likelihood for future civil liberties abuses, as well as the damage this wreaks on our national character and our reputation abroad.

On Monday, the president signed an executive order that both keeps the national blight that is Guantanamo Bay operational, and re-affirms the kangaroo court system of military commissions, the sole purpose of which is to bypass the higher standards of evidence required for prosecution in civilian court, and to side-step fruit of the poison tree arguments about confessions, testimony and evidence gathered through the torture of foreign nationals by American personnel.*

And before anyone tries to defend Mr. Obama's executive order by comparing it to the policies of the Bush White House, stop.

Just... stop.

The supposed legal protections included in the order are a joke, and using George W. Bush as the standard for anything doesn't raise the bar high enough to see daylight between it and the ground.  This is nothing but a continuation - an enshrinement, in fact - of Bush Administration policies, as infallibly indicated by the gleeful approval of that most wretched bastion of hardcore neoconservatism, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal:
No one has done more to revive the reputation of Bush-era antiterror policies than the Obama Administration. In its latest policy reversal, yesterday Mr. Obama said the U.S. would resume the military tribunals for Guantanamo terrorists that he unilaterally suspended two years ago, and he may even begin referring new charges to military commissions within days or weeks.
On a conference call yesterday, senior Administration officials tried to sell their military commissions process as more "credible" than Mr. Bush's, but their policy changes are de minimis
The White House yesterday also stressed its commitment to civilian terror prosecutions going forward, but that also doesn't mean much. Last year the Democratic Congress barred funding for transferring enemy combatants from Gitmo to the U.S., and that won't change with a Republican House.

The real news here is the final repudiation of Attorney General Eric Holder's attempt to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other 9/11 plotters as criminal defendants on U.S. soil. The killers at Guantanamo will now be brought to justice via a process that the President once depicted as akin to the Ministry of Love in "1984." On the campaign trail in 2008, Mr. Obama claimed that Mr. Bush "runs prisons which lock people away without ever telling them why they're there or what they're charged with."

In an August 2007 speech that his advisers touted at the time, Mr. Obama promised to repeal this "legal framework that does not work." He even claimed that Bush policies undermined "our Constitution and our freedom" and that the Bush Administration had pressed a "false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand," a line he recycled in his Inaugural Address. He went out of his way to vote against the Military Commissions Act.

So much for all that. Yesterday the senior Administration officials even praised the "bipartisan effort" that produced that law...
There is enormous peril associated with rolling back the rule of law so that the president - any president - has the authority to imprison indefinitely.  Once one chief executive is permitted to do so, the cat is out of the bag, and it is immeasurably harder to reclaim the territory of acceptable behavior from his successors than it would have been to defend it from initial attack. President Obama's executive order on indefinite detention represents not a temporary measure taken to address extraordinary circumstance, but a fundamental redefinition of American justice to allow for imprisonment by decree.

If that sounds like an overstatement, it is most assuredly not.  In fact, we are seeing the ripple effect of this fundamental change with regard to U.S. citizens at this very moment. Private Bradley Manning, the young man accused of delivering an enormous trove of classified documents to WikiLeaks - and who now faces additional charges that carry the death penalty or life imprisonment with conviction -  has been held under unusually harsh conditions for months, since being detained in the matter.  Things have gotten bad enough, in fact, that Amnesty International has written to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to protest the conditions of his detention. 

Private Manning is currently awaiting a pre-trial hearing - in other words, he has not been convicted of anything - and should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.  With the assent of the Obama Administration, however, he is in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement; prohibited from exercising in his cell; under suicide watch restrictions imposed over multiple recommendations from brig psychiatrists; and subject to prolonged, forced nudity intended to humiliate and degrade.  Representative Dennis Kucinich, a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, requested that he be able to visit Private Manning, but has been stonewalled by the Department of Defense.  In the congressman's opinion, "It appears they're trying to break him.  This is not defensible. There is no way, stretch of the imagination that this could be allowed, or that this should be happening in America."

In point of fact, this has happened before in America - and recently - with the case of Jose Padilla (about whom I wrote extensively), a man accused of involvement in a terrorist "dirty bomb" plot who was held without judicial review for years by the Bush Administration.  The torture and extremely harsh conditions Mr. Padilla endured essentially left him a shell of a man, and while he was convicted of some hastily-introduced, last-minute charges that landed him in prison, he was never put on trial for any of the reasons he was originally arrested.

This DOES happen in America, and we, the people are entirely complicit in allowing it to happen by accepting it.  It doesn't matter whether the person doing it is "our guy," or if he is, overall, a significant improvement over his predecessor; if he is black or if he's white; Republican or Democrat.  What we see with the continued operation of the legal abyss that is the Guantanamo Bay prison camp - and cases like Bradley Manning's, which are informed by the indefinite detention policies at work there - is simply, flatly, starkly wrong.  Barack Obama has done some good things since he won the Oval Office, but embracing and codifying the thoroughly un-American approach to human rights and civil liberties that characterized the administration of George W. Bush isn't one of them.

* I'm not going to re-hash the reasons why the argument waterboarding isn't torture is irredeemibly false, or once again refute the claim that somehow the Constitution doesn't apply to foreign nationals, or restate the irrefutable reasons why the Geneva Conventions are, in fact, U.S. law. I have done so extensively in numerous posts, and bluntly, those contentions are complete and utter nonsense,  no more than spineless attempts to provide cover for actions that are both morally and legally bankrupt. If, however, you'd like a recent and very concise example of the hypocrisy involved in supporting things like waterboarding, please be sure to see Glenn Greenwald's succint and unerring exposure of the New York Times' preposterous cowardice with regard to the use of the word "torture".

Jon Stewart makes some cutting observations about the implications that policies of indefinite detention have with regard to the importance of such pillars of judicial review as evidence.

Dylan Ratigan points out that, while progressive activists are making noise about the treatment of Bradley Manning, so-called establishment liberals like Harry Reid and Nancy Pilosi have remained painfully silent.


lokywoky said...

I keep telling myself "McCain would have been worse" but I am beginning to wonder.

Obama comes out with something good - like not defending DOMA. And then follows up with this monstrous crap.

Then the speech about enforcing the gun law background checks. And the deafening silence on Manning's treatment.

I am planning on voting for a third-party candidate in 2012. I cannot in good conscience vote for this again.

PBI said...

McCain would have been much worse, but you’re right that it sucks that that is our yardstick. I would love to see a primary challenge to Obama, but at the end of the day, I don’t think voting third party will do anything but give a leg up to Palin, Huckabee, Romney, Gingrich, Daniels, or whatever other troll gets trotted out. I want to cast a protest vote, but I don’t think the country can risk letting those clowns into office, and the performance of the newly-GOP House is, if nothing else, a cautionary tale