By Glenn Greenwald
In the beginning of the Obama presidency--and even as recently as, say, a year ago--if one were to stand up, as I'm going to do in a second, and make the observation that Obama has continued virtually the entirety of the Bush-Cheney approach to the war on civil liberties and terrorism, one would have to spend most of one's time speaking offering proof to convince people that that was true.
The reason is because not all that long ago, that was a fairly controversial and provocative observation to make. People just instinctively found it repellant--the idea that this wonderfully sophisticated, educated, progressive, constitutional lawyer, who ran on a platform of denouncing these policies and vowing to uproot them and reverse them, would actually be continuing and, in many cases, actually worsening them.
It was just something that, despite the abundance of evidence proving it was true, was something people intuitively reacted to in a negative way. And you'd have to spend a great deal of time persuading them that it was actually the case, by assembling all the evidence to prove it.
That's no longer necessary. It is so obviously the case, so self-evidently true, that what was known two years ago in Democratic circles as "the shredding of the Constitution," but is now called the "Democratic consensus," is so overwhelming and so glaring that even people who want not to see it have none-the-less come to not only recognize it, but openly acknowledge it.
It's now really conventional wisdom that this is the case. It's no longer even slightly provocative or controversial to say it. So I don't need to waste your time or mine systematically proving it to be the case. Suffice it to say that it is acknowledged and recognized across the political spectrum that Barack Obama has continued virtually all of George Bush and Dick Cheney's once-controversial terrorism and civil liberties policies.
What I find really interesting about that acknowledgement is that, as I said, it spans the ideological spectrum--and most interestingly, it is now a consensus among what had been a couple of years ago the Bush-following American right. And the reason I find it interesting that even the right wing is willing to acknowledge that these policies have continued under the Obama presidency is because for decades, Republicans have gained very potently on a political level from accusing Democrats of being weak on national security or soft on terrorism in the age of terror.
Now, "weak on national security" in American political parlance doesn't mean that somebody shies away from acts of strength and courage--and similarly, "strength in national security" doesn't mean that one acts strongly or engages in acts of courage. It means the opposite. What "strength in national security" means is a willingness to send other people's children off to war to risk their lives to kill large numbers of civilians in foreign countries. That's what "strength in national security" means.
And when Republicans have spent all these decades accusing Democrats of being weak on national security, what they mean is that Democrats have been slightly less willing to send other people's children to foreign countries to kill civilians.
This happens not to be true. Democrats are very willing to do that. If you add up body counts and the like, and are as gruesome as you want to be about it, you might even argue that Democrats are more willing.
But this has been a successful political attack on the part of Republicans, so much so that they do it instinctively. The minute there's a Democratic candidate or a Democratic president, Republicans will start accusing them of abandoning strong national security policies--of being weak on national security and soft on terrorism.
At the beginning of the Obama presidency, you saw this attack because it's just reflexive. You just wind up a conservative and this is the stuff that comes out of their mouths. So you saw the spawn of some right-wing figures, like Irving Kristol's son Bill and Dick Cheney's daughter Liz, formed groups like Keep America Safe and the like. They ran around for a few of months saying that Obama was weak on national security, and he's abandoning the policies that keep us safe, and he's endangering us, and he's going to trigger a terrorist attack.
But after a few months, it became so unbelievably obvious, so self-evident, that this was completely false--that, in fact, Obama was continuing all those policies, and in many cases was strengthening them--that even given the extremely permissive standards regarding truth and accuracy in our political discourse, it became no longer sustainable to articulate that attack. It just couldn't be said with a straight face--even on places like Fox News--that Obama was doing this, because it was so obvious that he wasn't.
And so what Republicans began doing instead, including the most right-wing figures is they began openly praising President Obama in the national security context for continuing these policies. They began acknowledging, because they had to, that he was continuing all these policies.
I JUST want to give a couple of examples because I find them so conclusive and so persuasive in terms of the state of civil liberties in the United States under President Obama.
The first example is Jack Goldsmith, who was a high-ranking lawyer and right-wing ideologue in the Bush Justice Department, who approved things like "enhanced interrogation techniques"--what the civilized world would call torture--Bush's eavesdropping and the like. This is a very far-right radical ideologue lawyer who was put there to approve these policies.
He wrote an article in May 2009 in the New Republic, and it was one of the first and earliest acknowledgements on the right that this event was taking place. He was basically criticizing Dick Cheney's daughter and Irving Kristol's son for accusing Obama of abandoning these policies. What he wrote was:
[This] premise that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric.We in this room would look at that observation and find it incredibly depressing and even outrageous, but Jack Goldsmith was celebrating it. He thought this was the greatest thing ever. And the reason he thought that was because he understood the implication of Obama doing this was that what were once controversial policies--what were once viewed as right-wing radical policies--had become the undebatable policy of both political parties. It had become bipartisan consensus, and by doing so, it had actually strengthened the terrorism policies of George Bush and Dick Cheney.
What he wrote was: "[T]he changes he has made, including changes in presentation, are designed to fortify the bulk of the Bush program for the long run." Meaning Obama has entrenched these policies for what will likely be a generation or more, because Democratic partisans no longer pretend to find them objectionable.
Then there are other instances of similarly right-wing and even more right-wing extremists praising President Obama's approach at terrorism and civil liberties. Gen. Michael Hayden for instance, was head of the National Security Agency in 2001 and oversaw the implementation of the illegal spying program.
He then became George Bush's CIA chief for the last three years of his administration. So radical and extremist was General Hayden that Barack Obama, when he was in the Senate, actually voted against his confirmation as CIA chief on the grounds that he had broken the law so flagrantly with implementing this domestic eavesdropping program that the rule of law required senators to take a stand against his confirmation.
So this same general, Michael Hayden, gave an interview at the beginning of this year to CNN, and he gushed about President Obama in the national security context. He said, "There's been a powerful continuity between the 43rd and 44th presidents."
The head of the Heritage Foundation's National Security Program, told the New York Times in October, "I don't think it's even fair to call Obama 'Bush Lite.' It's Bush. It's really, really hard to find a difference that's meaningful and not atmospheric."
And then the face of evil in progressive circles himself, Dick Cheney, gave an interview to NBC News at the beginning of this year. He also praised President Obama and said he had been wrong at the beginning of the administration to accuse Obama of being weak on national security. Instead, Cheney said:
I think in terms of a lot of the terrorist policies, the early talk about prosecuting people who have been carrying out our policies, all of that's fallen by the wayside. I think he's learned that what we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate. So I think he's learned from experience.
That's a pretty impressive array of right-wing extremists acknowledging what they don't want to acknowledge, but they have to--which is that President Obama has continued the heart and soul of George Bush and Dick Cheney's terrorism and civil liberties policies.
Similar acknowledgements are very common now on the left as well--in liberal circles, where this observation was resisted for a long time. A Yale Law professor who is a liberal and one of the most outspoken critics of the Bush administration, Bruce Ackerman, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in March, talking about the war in Libya and Obama's belief that he could wage war without Congressional approval: "Obama is bringing America closer to the imperial presidency than Bush ever did."
Jack Balkin, who is also a liberal Yale law professor, told the New Yorker magazine--in an article that everyone should read if you haven't already--about Obama's war on "whistleblowers": "We are witnessing the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national security state. Obama has systematically adopted policies consistent with the second term of the Bush administration."
And then, my favorite quote, is from the executive director of the ACLU, Anthony Romero, who addressed a progressive conference last year and was going to speak about Obama and civil liberties. He stood up and he said," I'm going to begin my speech with a fairly provocative remark." And he then made good on that promise immediately, by saying, "I am disgusted by this president." That's the executive director of the ACLU.
So given that rather extraordinary and unambiguous consensus across the political spectrum, I don't actually feel a compulsion any longer to prove to very many people that this dynamic has in fact prevailed. It's widely recognized. It's even conventional wisdom. That's quite a sea change. Because those of us who were pointing this out early on in the Obama presidency met with huge amounts of resistance, notwithstanding how abundant the evidence was long ago, that this was going to be the case. But now, it's conventional wisdom because it's so glaring.
SO I want to talk about a few of the most significant instances, in which what was once condemned as right-wing radicalism has become Democratic Party policy under the Obama presidency. As I said I could spend several hours going one by one through all the instances in which these policies are continued, but I just want to highlight a few of them.
And what's interesting here is that the point isn't that these policies were in place when Obama was inaugurated and haven't yet been uprooted. It's not a critique that he's been too slow to reverse them. The critique is the opposite--that he has affirmatively embraced them as his own, and in many cases extended them far beyond where George Bush and Dick Cheney ever dreamed of taking them.
The first area that we find this to be true in is in the area of indefinite detention--the idea that you can take people, human beings, and put them in a cage for years, indefinitely, without so much as charging them with a crime or giving them any opportunity in a court of law to defend themselves or to prove their innocence or contest the validity of the charges.
This was the heart and soul of the controversy over Guantánamo, over Abu Ghraib, over the universal worldwide system of detention that was created under the Republicans in the war on terror--the idea that we can simply, on the president's say so, with the accusation untested and unproven that someone is a terrorist or is consorting with terrorists, put them into a cage for life without a shred of due process.
This controversy is typically talked about in the context of the closing of Guantánamo, where Obama ran for president with not an ancillary promise but a central promise to close Guantánamo, and he hasn't and isn't going to. If you talk to Democratic partisans and apologists of the President, what they'll say is that the reason that he hasn't closed Guantanamo isn't his fault. The reason is because Congress passed a law or a series of laws impeding him from doing so.
That's not exactly untrue. Congress did pass a series of laws barring the closing of Guantánamo in effect, but before that ever happened, the president's plan for "closing Guantánamo" was not really to close Guantánamo at all. It was simply to move it a few thousand miles north to Illinois, where the aspects of it that made it so controversial--namely imprisoning people for life without due process--were going to be fully preserved and retained.
The controversy, at least as I understood it, during the Bush presidency about Guantánamo wasn't: "Isn't it so outrageous that George Bush and Dick Cheney are imprisoning people without due process on an island in the Caribbean rather than doing it in Illinois"? That if you just moved it a few thousand miles north, the controversy would be diffused and the problem solved.
I think, as I understood it at least, the controversy was about the fact that it was profoundly unjust to imprison anybody without due process, let alone the thousands of people who had been imprisoned, especially since it turned out that the vast majority of them were completely innocent. And yet before Congress was going to act at all, the president announced that he had intended to continue that policy, but to bring it onto American soil, which is arguably worse, since it could affect the entire justice system.
Another policy that Obama has continued and even worsened surrounds habeas corpus--the most minimal rights that a prisoner can have, which are guaranteed under the Constitution. It's far less than being charged with a crime, where you get to go into court and the state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you're guilty before it can punish you. Habeas corpus simply allows the prisoner to go in and make the state prove that there is some minimal evidence to justify the accusations against that person.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, in one of the very rare instances where it actually imposed a limit on executive power, said in the Boumediene case that prisoners at Guantánamo have the right to habeas corpus. That's the only right they have. They don't have the right to be charged with a crime, but at least they have the right to habeas corpus--one shot at getting into court and having the state prove that there was credible evidence to justify the allegations against them.
Since that Supreme Court decision was issued in 2008, 82 Guantánamo prisoners have gone into court asserting habeas rights, and 53 of them have won. To win a habeas case, it doesn't mean that the court finds that the preponderance of evidence is in your favor, or that there's some reasonable doubt. The court has to find that there's zero credible evidence to justify your incarceration. Nearly two-thirds of Guantanamo detainees have been successful in their habeas cases since 2008 at the time when even the Obama administration was insisting that the worst of the worst were at Guantánamo.
Now, despite the horrendous record not just of imprisoning people without due process, but imprisoning obviously innocent people without due process, the Obama administration took the position that this right which the Supreme Court recognized applies only to people in Guantánamo--but not anywhere else that the U.S. imprisons people, such as at Bagram in Afghanistan, or in places in Yemen, or any of the other places where the U.S. maintains prisons, such as in Iraq.
And the Obama administration has thus far won in court with this argument, meaning that it has won the right to circumvent that Supreme Court decision that says that habeas corpus is a right that detainees have if you're at Guantánamo. You simply don't bring them to Guantánamo anymore. Instead, you bring them to Bagram or you put them in Iraq--and that's what the administration has been doing. So thousands of prisoners continue to be detained--increasing numbers of them all the time--without a shred of due process as a result of this circumvention.