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February 12, 2013

The Perpetual War on Terrorism Ensures Presidents Will Be Increasingly Worse on Civil Liberties

Posted in: Drones,Guantanamo,War on Terrorism

Creative Commons-licensed photo on Flickr from The White House

A poll by the The Hill has found that a majority of “likely voters” think President Barack Obama has been the same or worse than Bush when it comes to “balancing national security with protecting civil liberties.”

The results from 1,000 “likely voters” showed 37% considered Obama to have been worse. Fifteen percent said he had been “about the same” while 44% said he had been better.

The same poll also asked “voters” about their opinions on Obama’s targeted killing program or his use of drones. Sixty-five percent said they support “the use of unmanned drones to target and kill people in foreign countries whom the US government says are terrorists and present an imminent threat.” Forty-four percent said it should be “legal” for “the US government to kill American citizens whom it believes are terrorists and present an imminent threat.” And 53% said it should be legal for the “US government to kill non-US citizens whom it believes are terrorists and present an imminent threat.”

According to The Hill, “More than one in five self-identified Democrats, 21 percent, assert that the Obama administration has not improved upon Bush’s record. So do 23 percent of liberals.”

First, there is a disconnect among a portion of the “voters” polled, which the Obama administration and news media that have reported details on the administration’s targeted killing program are responsible for creating. The poll shows there are actual voters who support assassinating individuals away from hot battlefields with lethal force when they have not been charged or convicted of a crime and yet also conclude that Obama is worse or the same as Bush. For these few, he is not worse because he is targeting and executing people with drones but because of other issues that cannot be determined from the poll results. This is partly striking because the use of targeted killings is a key issue that has led people to conclude he is worse than Bush.

In any case, if voters and/or Democrats/liberals perceive Obama to be worse than Bush, it is partly because he does not talk about or refuses to address these issues.

It was October 8, 2012, when Obama said while running for re-election,  “We haven’t talked about what’s at stake with respect to civil liberties.” He seemed to suggest this was GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s fault. But the reality is that neither he nor his campaign wanted to discuss any of the many civil liberties issues of which he had taken stands in 2008 before he was elected. The reason was that his record was one where it appeared he had not been better or any different than President Bush.

During tonight’s State of the Union, there will likely be little mention of any civil liberties issues. Same-sex rights, women being able to fight on the front lines of combat and a path to citizenship for immigrants might be mentioned, however, there is unlikely to be any questioning or introspective reflection on the chief cause of the loss of civil liberties: the global war on terrorism.

As president, Obama has further codified and institutionalized policies that Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney probably never thought would be maintained by Obama.

Guantanamo Bay prison is still open and he is now noncommittal when it comes to shutting the facility down. Military tribunals, not federal courts, are being used to try terror suspects held at Guantanamo. The PATRIOT Act was re-authorized under his watch. The FISA Amendments Act, which allows for warrantless surveillance, has been renewed. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) increased security and used body scanners. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) continue to assert the right to conduct suspicionless searches of individuals at the border and believe they can seize anyone’s devices arbitrarily.

The “No Fly” list continues to grow and those listed have no way to challenge being put on the list. Restrictions on communications between prisoners and their attorneys have been maintained by the Justice Department. A record number of immigrants continue to be deported each year. Inhumane immigration detention facilities have flourished. The administration has defended a provision of a 2012 NDAA bill in court that gives the military the power to indefinitely detain Americans suspected of “substantially supporting” terrorism. And the administration has protected state secrecy and waged a war on “leakers” or whistleblowers that the Bush administration never could have gotten away with carrying out when they were in power. [For more, see this report from the ACLU on civil liberties issues Obama should address in his second term.]

Much of these policies are permanent fixtures in national security policy. Americans have either willfully accepted this is what the government will do to keep the country “safe” or they have learned to cope with living in a society where their civil liberties will be violated.

The few that have challenged the policies have challenged them because they themselves have become victims of the policies or because they recognize the problem of giving government the power to take away civil liberties just to wage war.

The permanence of the war on terrorism has been made possible by the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which Bush signed three days after the September 11th attacks.

That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

The AUMF has been used as justification for countless acts of executive power. It is the prime justification for the claimed authority to target and assassinate individuals abroad. And the national security state seems intent to use it in perpetuity because it has become conventional wisdom in Washington that it permits any operation.

But, as MSNBC host Chris Hayes said last week when discussing Obama’s targeted killing program, “How long are we in the war on terror and is this legal architecture going to guide American foreign policy in perpetuity?” Somewhere in the world, he added, there will always be someone “plotting to do something terrible to the United States.” Though it has become the “new normal,” it does not have to be. Nations like England and Spain, both attacked by al Qaeda, are not in “permanent” states of war.

Who in al Qaeda or these affiliate groups fighting America actually had any connection to the attacks on 9/11? Or, who among al Qaeda or these affiliate groups now fight America because America is still fighting them—in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc? Who is al Qaeda and who are simply rebels or militants fighting their own government who may also be outraged that US forces are meddling in their country?

As long as the War on Terrorism is being fought with its current policies in tact, Americans can count on presidents who differ little from their predecessor on civil liberties. They will never defend due process, free speech, press freedom, privacy or rights to liberty and justice and risk constraining the ability of government to fight enemies abroad. Each president will be the same or worse than the previous president. They may be able to end policies that have become exposed and indefensible (i.e. the torture program), but, ultimately, whether they personally support the policies or not, this is how the national security state conducts business and no president will ever let their commitment to change disrupt business as usual.

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