The slogan of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign was “Forward.” As progressives and others celebrate his victory, they need to take a moment to soberly reflect on the reality that his second term will be marked by advancing policies that he helped institutionalize or allowed to become further entrenched—some of which picked up on expanding executive power where President George W. Bush left off in 2008.
The institutionalization of kill lists, the normalization of targeted assassination and the gradual redefinition of due process by killing US citizens suspected of terrorism without judicial process is an unchecked and ghastly power, which Obama asserted during his first term.
The signing of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which included an indefinite detention provision authorizing the military to detain US citizens indefinitely without charge if suspected of terrorism was a disconcerting act. Obama publicly suggested he had not wanted these powers and would not use them and there was no reason to be alarmed. When a group of individuals mounted a lawsuit and a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against the provision and declared it unconstitutional, the Obama administration had its lawyers file an appeal and a judge restored the new power.
The decision was made to not try terror suspects in federal courts. Terror suspects believed to have been involved in the 9/11 attacks and others imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, which Obama failed to close, are now going through a military tribunal process—a second-class justice system where one is not allowed to testify in court about torture experienced at the hands of CIA interrogators because the government claims it controls the thoughts and memories of detainees.
Warrantless surveillance escalated sharply under Obama. The ACLU obtained Justice Department documents that showed federal law enforcement agencies were “increasingly monitoring Americans’ electronic communications, and doing so without warrants, sufficient oversight, or meaningful accountability.” Now, the Supreme Court is deciding whether to hear a challenge against the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which allowed telecommunications companies to be granted retroactive immunity for warrantless wiretapping under Bush. The act also allowed for the expansion of dragnet surveillance. Obama Justice Department lawyers have argued it does not have to tell plaintiffs challenging the law they have been unlawfully monitored and, even if they did violate their privacy, it would not matter because the surveillance state is here to stay.
Obama refused to prosecute war criminals. Not a single person was prosecuted and convicted of torture. Even though he signed an executive order as president that prohibited “enhanced interrogation techniques” used under Bush, torture was effectively decriminalized. The “state secrets” privilege was invoked when torture victims tried to sue government for torture, effectively preventing justice. Moreover, former CIA agent John Kiriakou was prosecuted for allegedly leaking the name of a covert officer, who had been a kidnapper in the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program. It was believed that various individuals in human rights organizations knew this officer’s identity, and it was largely suspected the government was prosecuting Kiriakou because he was one of the first in government to say on television the CIA had an official policy of torture while Bush was president. The prosecution destroyed his life, took a tremendous toll on his wife and his five children so he ended up taking a plea deal.
State secrecy ramped up: the Bush Administration tactic of using overly broad “state secrets” claim to prevent the declassification or exposure of information was embraced. Obama fought court orders to release photos depicting abuse of detainees held in US custody and supported legislation to retroactively exempt the photos from release under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). He threatened to veto legislation to reform congressional notification procedures for covert actions. He refused to declassify information on Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, a section believed to allow for the collection of information not relevant to espionage or terrorism investigations. He increased the rate of documents being classified. He aggressively pursued a war on whistleblowing by prosecuting whistleblowers to a greater degree than any previous president.
The American empire’s more than 1000 bases were sustained. The network was kept up so that they would remain in place and act as “lily pads” for future operations involving drones, Special Forces or US troops. Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti developed into a permanent drone war base that could be used for strikes in Yemen and Somalia.
The Afghanistan War was escalated. Obama did not have the fortitude to challenge military generals. Now, the public is led to believe it will end in 2014. How much can anyone in the Obama administration guarantee that right now? How about the Pentagon? What do they say to those who suggest war will be over and why does it have to last another two years?
The War on Drugs was fought with vigor as he cracked down on medical marijuana dispensaries. Obama said at one point during his first term, “I don’t mind a debate around issues like decriminalization…I personally don’t agree that’s a solution to the problem.” He did not think legalization of drugs was an answer either, even though he said in 2004, “The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws. We need to rethink how we’re operating the drug war.”
Voters in Massachusetts, Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana. They rejected the War on Drugs. They rejected the antipathy the Obama administration showed youth and others interested in marijuana legalization. They decided to begin the end of prohibition of drugs in America so common sense policies can be put in place to deal with drugs as a public health issue instead of a scourge that must be fought with force and suppression.
Amnesty International’s Suzanne Nossel understands much of this. She stated after it was announced that he won, “When it comes to countering terrorism, President Obama has hidden behind national security imperatives to shield administration policy in secrecy and pursue programs such as expanded drone use and thwarted accountability.” She added, “President Obama’s second term will determine whether the post 9/11 stains on the United States’ human rights record are an anomaly or the new normal.” ACLU executive director Anthony Romero stated, “We urge President Obama to dismantle a national security state where warrantless surveillance, extra-judicial killings of American citizens by drones and other attacks on our personal freedoms have been deemed acceptable.” He, too, understands the starkness of Obama’s first term.
If progressives and, more importantly, American citizens accept the status quo over the next four years (which is what Obama’s re-election gave the country), one can expect the Obama administration to move forward with the War on Drugs. It can expect the administration to move forward with the Surveillance State. It can expect the administration to move forward with the perpetual War on Terror (which Obama does not call the War on Terror so he can appear different from Bush). It can expect the administration to move forward with policies of US empire.
Forward, unlike hope and change, was more than just an idealistic slogan for Obama’s re-election campaign. It was a savvy way of presenting a mantra that truly represented the virtue and style of his first term because he was all about not challenging any special interests or adversarial groups. In his first term, he was all about going along with the national security state, letting the imperial presidency grow because, maybe, it just didn’t really bother him when he got to see how it all really worked.
Many of these issues were off the table during the election. Third party presidential candidates Jill Stein of the Green Party, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party tried, through their campaigns, to focus Americans’ attention on key civil liberties and human rights issues. Their campaigns empowered a number of voters, who decided they would no longer let the Democratic Party take them for granted. But, the shift away was not enough to push Obama to say anything bold on the campaign trail.
So, in conclusion, forward—a one-word slogan for business as usual which public relations experts known as campaign advisors and staff employed—should be a understood as warning to us all that Obama has no intention of revisit the institutionalization, entrenchment or continuation of alarming national security policies. They will all continue if we let his popularity or perceived goodness silence and immobilize us, as it did through most of his re-election campaign.