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

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Speech Is Not Enough

President Obama made a nice speech today, defending his national security policies and the theory that we should not shrink from our values in a maelstrom of fear. He stood at the National Archives, in front of the founding documents, and acted as a defender of them.

And that's great. Obama made quite a few excellent points, about the closure of Guantanamo, the need for checks and balances and vigorous oversight from the other branches of government, and the failure of the previous Administration to keep faith with our values.

Bully. Wonderful.

I'm pretty much done with talk. On these issues in particular, I will look to the actions of the Administration to make determinations on their success or failure in my eyes. And those actions are likely to fail as much as they succeed. Obama basically acknowledged this. I think this was the key moment in the speech, the moment where Obama tried to position himself as offering some wise middle path and marginalizing "absolutists" on either side of him:

We see that, above all, in how the recent debate has been obscured by two opposite and absolutist ends. On one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and who would almost never put national security over transparency. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: "anything goes." Their arguments suggest that the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means, and that the President should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants - provided that it is a President with whom they agree.

Both sides may be sincere in their views, but neither side is right. The American people are not absolutist, and they don't elect us to impose a rigid ideology on our problems. They know that we need not sacrifice our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security, so long as we approach difficult questions with honesty, and care, and a dose of common sense. That, after all, is the unique genius of America. That is the challenge laid down by our Constitution. That has been the source of our strength through the ages. That is what makes the United States of America different as a nation.

When he talks here about absolutists, I can only assume he's talking about those of us who believe that no prisoner should be held indefinitely without charges, who believe that there need not be a military courts process outside the one used on our own soldiers, with all of the agreed-upon safeguards and rules for acquiring justice over 200-plus years, who believe that people described vaguely as "supporters" of criminal activities are not as culpable as the criminals themselves and cannot be held without legitimate charges, who believe that the government should not be able to assert state secrets as a means solely to shut down accountability by the judicial branch. If that makes me an extremist, cue the Barry Goldwater line about extremism in the defense of liberty being no vice. I'm simply articulating Constitutional principles, much like the human rights groups who met with Obama yesterday have articulated for many years. And I come out of this speech with a similar reaction to one of the participants in that discussion.

Asked whether the president had pacified some of the concerns she brought to the White House on Wednesday, (Human Rights First CEO Elisa) Massimino said that she was pleased with the opportunity for engagement. Beyond that, she still registered concerns.

"I think that many of us were disappointed by the announcement about the military commissions and wondered what the reasoning was behind that. And to be honest, I am still wondering having been in this meeting today. I don't think that this fits the overall framework that the president had articulated about using our values to reinforce a counter terrorism strategy against al Qaeda."

Obama seems committed to providing a durable framework for future Presidents to deal with these issues, and seems committed to a robust process of oversight to allow for a full examination of whether the policies are consistent with Constitutional principles. And then he throws out something like the military commissions revival or hints about preventive detention (literally, the pre-crime process from Minority Report) and you wonder if this is the same person. The actions have not matched the rhetoric, at least not always.

Now, as a token of some sort, the US government will prosecute Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who was allegedly involved in the bombing of US Embassies in Africa in 1998, in a New York City courtroom. That's consistent with our criminal justice system and the proper method of dealing with terrorist activity. It lends credibility to the process and shows that the United States is serious about joining the community of law-abiding nations again. But one token is not enough. And I will continue to fight for civil liberties as long as I see them being abused.

Now, Dick Cheney crawled out of the primordial ooze and I'm supposed to be watching his speech today as well. Here's my only response to that.

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