As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hope For A Restored Set Of Civil Liberties

For those in Southern California, I'm actually on a panel tonight about civil liberties and the first 100 days of the Obama Administration, with the Pasadena chapter of the ACLU. The location is:

301 North Orange Grove Blvd. Pasadena, CA 91103

In general, I think the civil liberties changes in the Administration are shaping up as kind of a mixed bag. I appreciate the quality and character and commitment to justice of many of Obama's nominees for top positions, in particular Dawn Johnsen at the Office of Legal Counsel. At the same time I'm troubled by the lack of concern for past crimes and instead this insistence on "moving forward," as if deterrence is not a part of criminal justice. Yesterday, Obama's transition vowed to order the closure of Guantanamo immediately. Today, we hear that the closure could take up to a year:

But experts say it is likely to take many months, perhaps as long as a year, to empty the prison that has drawn international criticism since it received its first prisoners seven years ago this week. One transition official said the new administration expected that it would take several months to transfer some of the remaining 248 prisoners to other countries, decide how to try suspects and deal with the many other legal challenges posed by closing the camp.

People who have discussed the issues with transition officials in recent weeks said it appeared that the broad outlines of plans for the detention camp were taking shape. They said transition officials appeared committed to ordering an immediate suspension of the Bush administration’s military commissions system for trying detainees.

In addition, people who have conferred with transition officials said the incoming administration appeared to have rejected a proposal to seek a new law authorizing indefinite detention inside the United States. The Bush administration has insisted that such a measure is necessary to close the Guantánamo camp and bring some detainees to the United States.

Mr. Obama has repeatedly said he wants to close the camp. But in an interview on Sunday on ABC, he indicated that the process could take time, saying, “It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize.” Closing it within the first 100 days of his administration, he said, would be “a challenge.”

Good and bad here as well. There is the power of the symbolism in breaking with the past and ordering closure, as well as rejecting the extra-legal options of indefinitely detaining people on US soil or continuing the flawed shams that Bush has been using as military commissions. However, trying detainees in federal courts and accepting evidence gained through torture that would otherwise be inadmissable is abhorrent. So we still don't know which way he's going to go. As Anthony Romero says in the article, “Just like we need specifics on an economic recovery package, we need specifics on a ‘justice recovery package.”

There is some good news to report, however. Not only is Obama committed to reversing several executive orders made by the Bush regime, he is going to express his legal opinions in public instead of making more secret laws.

Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) said he’s been informed that President Obama will support his proposed legislation to make public some opinions from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which issued some of the Bush Administration's most sweeping claims of executive power. Obama also has promised to limit President Bush's practice of using "signing statements" to amend legislation.

"Every day we get indications that they're serious about reversing the abuses of the Constitution," Feingold, a harsh Bush critic, told Politico. Feingold said he thinks Obama is likely to issue executive orders rapidly reversing Bush policies, and others have indicate that those will likely cover the interrogation and detention of terror suspects, and keeping the records of past presidents secret.

"I don't know in what order or how fast" Obama’s executive orders could come, he said. "It'll be important that a couple of them be done immediately, and I think they will be, to show there's a strong break from the current policy."

It's going to be hard to get an executive to willingly give up power. But if the means by which he seeks to maintain or expand them is public, then pressure can be far more effective in dialing the worst abuses back.

See Greenwald for more on all of this. And see me, if you can, tonight in Pasadena.

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