With the 2012 presidential election before us, the country is again caught up in debating national security issues, our ongoing wars and the threat of terrorism. There is one related subject, however, that is rarely mentioned: civil liberties.
Protecting individual rights and liberties — apart from the right to be tax-free — seems barely relevant to candidates or voters. One man is primarily responsible for the disappearance of civil liberties from the national debate, and he is Barack Obama. While many are reluctant to admit it, Obama has proved a disaster not just for specific civil liberties but the civil liberties cause in the United States.
Civil libertarians have long had a dysfunctional relationship with the Democratic Party, which treats them as a captive voting bloc with nowhere else to turn in elections. Not even this history, however, prepared civil libertarians for Obama. After the George W. Bush years, they were ready to fight to regain ground lost after Sept. 11. Historically, this country has tended to correct periods of heightened police powers with a pendulum swing back toward greater individual rights. Many were questioning the extreme measures taken by the Bush administration, especially after the disclosure of abuses and illegalities. Candidate Obama capitalized on this swing and portrayed himself as the champion of civil liberties.
However, President Obama not only retained the controversial Bush policies, he expanded on them. The earliest, and most startling, move came quickly. Soon after his election, various military and political figures reported that Obama reportedly promised Bush officials in private that no one would be investigated or prosecuted for torture. In his first year, Obama made good on that promise, announcing that no CIA employee would be prosecuted for torture. Later, his administration refused to prosecute any of the Bush officials responsible for ordering or justifying the program and embraced the “just following orders” defense for other officials, the very defense rejected by the United States at the Nuremberg trials after World War II.
Obama failed to close Guantanamo Bay as promised. He continued warrantless surveillance and military tribunals that denied defendants basic rights. He asserted the right to kill U.S. citizens he views as terrorists. His administration has fought to block dozens of public-interest lawsuits challenging privacy violations and presidential abuses.
But perhaps the biggest blow to civil liberties is what he has done to the movement itself. It has quieted to a whisper, muted by the power of Obama’s personality and his symbolic importance as the first black president as well as the liberal who replaced Bush. Indeed, only a few days after he took office, the Nobel committee awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize without his having a single accomplishment to his credit beyond being elected. Many Democrats were, and remain, enraptured.
It’s almost a classic case of the Stockholm syndrome, in which a hostage bonds with his captor despite the obvious threat to his existence. Even though many Democrats admit in private that they are shocked by Obama’s position on civil liberties, they are incapable of opposing him. Some insist that they are simply motivated by realism: A Republican would be worse. However, realism alone cannot explain the utter absence of a push for an alternative Democratic candidate or organized opposition to Obama’s policies on civil liberties in Congress during his term. It looks more like a cult of personality. Obama’s policies have become secondary to his persona.
Ironically, had Obama been defeated in 2008, it is likely that an alliance for civil liberties might have coalesced and effectively fought the government’s burgeoning police powers. A Gallup poll released this week shows 49% of Americans, a record since the poll began asking this question in 2003, believe that “the federal government poses an immediate threat to individuals’ rights and freedoms.” Yet the Obama administration long ago made a cynical calculation that it already had such voters in the bag and tacked to the right on this issue to show Obama was not “soft” on terror. He assumed that, yet again, civil libertarians might grumble and gripe but, come election day, they would not dare stay home.
This calculation may be wrong. Obama may have flown by the fail-safe line, especially when it comes to waterboarding. For many civil libertarians, it will be virtually impossible to vote for someone who has flagrantly ignored the Convention Against Torture or its underlying Nuremberg Principles. As Obama and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. have admitted, waterboarding is clearly torture and has been long defined as such by both international and U.S. courts. It is not only a crime but a war crime. By blocking the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for torture, Obama violated international law and reinforced other countries in refusing investigation of their own alleged war crimes. The administration magnified the damage by blocking efforts of other countries like Spain from investigating our alleged war crimes. In this process, his administration shredded principles on the accountability of government officials and lawyers facilitating war crimes and further destroyed the credibility of the U.S. in objecting to civil liberties abuses abroad.
In time, the election of Barack Obama may stand as one of the single most devastating events in our history for civil liberties. Now the president has begun campaigning for a second term. He will again be selling himself more than his policies, but he is likely to find many civil libertarians who simply are not buying.
Jonathan Turley is a professor of law at George Washington University.