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

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Disappointment On Civil Liberties

I think I was too soon in my tempered praise for Obama's decision on Bagram Air Force Base. Yes, prisoners there will have an opportunity to challenge their detention, but basically using the same process found unconstitutional when tried at Guantanamo. This still denies prisoners basic habeas rights in a court of law and allows the government to abduct anyone and send them to Bagram indefinitely, where they cannot challenge their detention properly. In fact, since the action was in response to a court order to allow non-Afghan prisoners a right to plead their case, the detainees will probably have no opportunity to act on this until years of litigation over whether this system can pass Constitutional muster. As one of the representatives for Gitmo detainees said yesterday, "It’s another stall. And one I would have expected from the Bush administration but not the Obama administration."

Boy, how many times have we heard that? In addition to turning Bagram into Guantanamo East and seemingly stocking prisoners there outside any review process, this Administration wants to create a legal process for preventive detention, enabling them to hold anyone without charges indefinitely, which Russ Feingold has called "a hallmark of abusive systems that we have historically criticized around the world." Obama's CIA continue to use the state secrets privilege to get out of a host of different accountability measures. And just yesterday, the Administration announced that they support renewing all sections of the Patriot Act.

The Obama administration has for the first time set out its views on the controversial USA Patriot Act, telling lawmakers this week that legal approval of government surveillance methods scheduled to expire in December should be renewed, but leaving room to tweak the law to protect Americans' privacy.

In a letter from Justice Department officials to key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the administration recommended that Congress move swiftly with legislation that would protect the government's ability to collect a variety of business and credit card records and to monitor terrorism suspects with roving wiretaps.

But Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich also told Democrats that the administration is "willing to consider" additional privacy safeguards advocated by lawmakers, so long as the provisions do not "undermine the effectiveness of these important authorities."

The three provisions set to expire Dec. 31 allow investigators to monitor through roving wiretaps suspects who may be trying to escape detection by switching cellphone numbers, obtain business records of national security targets, and track "lone wolves" who may be acting alone on behalf of foreign powers or terrorist groups. The government has not employed the lone wolf provision, but department officials want to ensure they can do so in the future.

Well, that's nice, they're "willing to consider" privacy safeguards. It's not like we've had multiple reports of the FBI violating privacy through unauthorized national security letters or wiretaps that capture the information of individual Americans. With Russ Feingold and Dick Durbin working on a bill including these safeguards, some advocacy groups are optimistic, but given the Administration record on civil liberties to this point, I'm not sure why.

The President, a Constitutional scholar, is doing what executives in the executive branch typically do - aggrandize their power in the manner of the previous occupant of the office. The courts and Congress need to do what's necessary to stop them. But when the previous President so flagrantly abused the privacy protections and civil rights of American citizens and violated the country's laws, you'd think that the new man on campus would trim his sails a little bit.

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