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Obama's Troubling Civil Liberties Record

July 1, 2009

by Charlie Sprague
Obama's Troubling Civil Liberties Record

The Obama administration wisely made a rhetorical shift when it replaced the phrase “War on Terror” with “overseas contingency operations”.  Not only does a “war on” anything sound like a trite government campaign, but it vastly overstated the importance of American counter-terrorism policy.  Terrorist cells are simply one among many threats to American national security and it made no sense for the Bush administration to use counter-terrorism as the grand organizing principle behind American foreign policy.  Obama also deserves credit for following through with his campaign pledge to close Guantanomo Bay.  Shutting down a powerful symbol of the U.S. government’s disgraceful torture practices will help America regain moral leadership in foreign affairs. Despite these welcomed changes, the Obama administration is disturbingly continuing many of the Bush administration’s other counter-terrorism policies.  In Mohamed et al v Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc. the Obama administration invoked the state secrets privilege to defend the practice of extraordinary rendition.  Sometimes referred to as “outsourcing torture”, extraordinary rendition is the practice of flying suspected terrorists to other countries and secret CIA camps in order to torture them.  By defending this policy in court, the Obama administration has clearly indicated that it will continue this morally bankrupt practice. The Obama’s administration use of the state secrets privilege in the Jeppensen lawsuit is particularly troubling because Obama criticized the Bush administration for its abuse of the state secrets privilege when he was running for President.  As this excellent article explains, the state secrets privilege is not inherently invalid.  The Bush administration, however, abused it by compelling dismissal of entire lawsuits in advance based on the claim that any judicial adjudication of illegal secret government programs would harm national security.  The privilege was originally intended to argue that specific pieces of evidence should not be allowed in court, but now both Bush and Obama have transformed it into a doctrine that can be used to keep government programs beyond the reach of the law. Even as Obama focuses on shutting down Guantanomo Bay, his administration is expanding Bagram Air Force base. This base in Afghanistan is used as a prison camp and has a human rights record to match Gitmo.  This prison, which was the focus of Alex Gibney’s award-winning documentary on torture Taxi to the Dark Side, received notoriety when two detainees were tortured and killed there in December 2002.   The $60 million expansion of Bagram will cause it to double in size and is making human rights advocates fear that Bagram will become Obama’s Guantanomo.  Clive Stafford Smith, the head of a legal charity called Reprieve, estimates that the U.S. government still holds 18,000 people in legal black holes when U.S. prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti, the prison ships in Diego Garcia, and U.S. proxies in Egypt, Jordan, etc. all are included. The Bush administration received widespread condemnation from civil libertarians for its disrespect of Constitutional limits on executive power and its flagrant violations of international law in the context of the War on Terror.  It’s time to hold Obama’s feet to the fire as well.

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