Thursday, December 23, 2010

Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise

Giving himself the ability to declare someone an "enemy combatant" (and leave them without access to American courts or the protections of the Geneva Conventions) was, after his approval of torture, the most chilling of Executive abuses seen during GWBush's presidency. It was the sort of unchecked power that we were taught as children to recognize as a hallmark of tyranny. Literally, the president could now make anyone he wanted to disappear forever, and that person had no recourse at all.

I strongly objected to that power when it was created, but found that my objections often fell on deaf ears. I also found a surprising number of people say they didn't think it would be abused...that essentially only the "bad guys" had to worry about it. This despite the fact that the enemy combatants had no access to their lawyer.

Then came Obama, with his promises to close Guantanamo, close CIA black sites around the world, make CIA interrogators abide by the Army Field Manual, define waterboarding as torture and ban it, suspend trials for terrorists by military commission, and eliminate the label of enemy combatants. As it turns out, the first one was obviously harder than he thought and that last one was merely a cosmetic shift in rhetoric.

Much is being made in the news about the Obama administration's proposed revision of how the Guantanamo detainee's are being handled:
The proposal would replace the “annual review boards” that the Bush administration had used to revisit its decision to hold each prisoner. Under that system, which the Obama administration shut down, a panel of military officers periodically reviewed the accusations against and talked to each prisoner who wanted to participate. The prisoners were not represented by lawyers. Officers then decided whether a prisoner was still a threat or should be released.

The Obama proposal, by contrast, would establish a “periodic review board” drawn from many agencies, not just the military, and modeled on a parole board, one official said. Detainees would be represented by lawyers and would have greater access to some of the evidence against them.
This is certainly a step in the right direction. But it should not be seen to overshadow what the proposal is NOT doing: addressing the President's unchecked power to designate someone as, what? not an enemy combatant perhaps, but still "a perpetual detainee" in the future:
Civil liberties and human rights groups — many of whom dislike any policy that involves holding prisoners without trial — reacted with ambivalence to the report that the Obama team has been working on an executive order to establish formal reviews.

Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said such an order could provide additional safeguards for those prisoners who are already being held in as wartime detainees, but worried that it could be used to entrench the idea of detention without trial.

“My sense and my hope is that it would be limited to the detainees whom Obama inherited from the Bush administration, rather than serving as a permanent regime for the detention of anyone the government may decide is dangerous in the future,” he said.
Indeed, my biggest objection to this power was always how it might be abused, not by Bush (who I found terribly misguided and dangerously arrogant but not really hard-core evil by any stretch), but by his successors. Left unchecked, a power becomes absolute. And an absolute power, as we know, will corrupt absolutely.

Big deal, Ed, I've heard in response to such warnings. Only those "terrorists" are being hauled off under this plan, and we hate them anyway...they don't deserve the same considerations decent people do. Even if that argument wasn't an abject rejection of the concept of universal human rights, the thing for me is to remember that one person's "freedom fighter" is another person's "terrorist," and so it all depends on who's the person making the designations.

Take for example Wikileaks leader Julian Assange:

Speaking on Meet the Press, Kentucky U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell said Wikileaks founder Julian Assange should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, terming him a “high-tech terrorist.”
As I've noted before, the Justice Department is scouring the law books for some way to prosecute Assange, despite the fact that many experts insist he has broken no laws. Flash forward though. What if Assange decides to leak documents that might not only embarrass the White House, but cost it the next election. Could this person, already declared a "terrorist" by one of the most powerful lawmakers in the country, be made a perpetual detainee under this existing executive power?

I know, I know...don't be silly, Ed. The Obama administration isn't going to whisk Assange away to Guantanamo, never to be heard from again.

The thing is, it's not really the Obama administration I'm personally worried about here. Not that I trust him blindly, but stay with me on this...

Say Obama loses the 2012 election and we have a new President. Say this new president gets wind that Wikileaks is going to leak documents that will cost them the 2014 mid-term elections. Say this new president is someone who's
on the record as saying Assange should be "pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders." Are you so sure Sarah Palin wouldn't make Assange disappear if her interests were at stake?

To my mind, that's how you have to view this issue: Do you really want Sarah Palin, who has already been reprimanded over "abuse of power" as the governor of Alaska, to have access to this power?

If not, you shouldn't want Obama to have it either.

Labels: politics


Blogger max said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Ed. I have these same conversations about the erosion of laws meant to protect us from unreasonable search and seizure, and receive the same "What, me worry?" response. I not only weep for the future, I tremble.

12/23/2010 09:25:00 AM  
Anonymous Stephen Truax said...

12/23/2010 02:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Ken Hagler said...

It's actually even worse than that, as Obama has expanded on what Bush did by giving himself the power to arbitrarily order the murder of anyone at any time.

12/23/2010 09:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

You have identified the essential premise of minarchism, the principle behind small-government conservatism that is not fully appreciated even by the majority of self-described small-government conservatives. Every power of the state represents a loss of liberty, and every power of the state seeks to increase itself. The massive expansion of state power under a cryptofascist like Cheney is dismaying but not surprising - the surprise comes when Obama succeeds his administration and even as president finds it nigh impossible to close Guantanamo or give up the power of perpetual detainment without trial. To take another example, after 9/11, people were screaming to federalize airport security. Ten years later, the federalized security entity now has the legal authority to molest your children in front of you.

"The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground," observed Thomas Jefferson. Fighting this is like fighting gravity - it can be done, but relaxation of effort results in a downward plunge.

12/24/2010 10:30:00 AM  

So true Ed.

12/24/2010 11:58:00 AM  
Blogger Christine DeCamp said...

What scares me even more than this is that the American people are like a bunch of sheep being led to slaughter......when no one is willing to STAND UP, we eventually end up with another Hitler. Yikes!

12/25/2010 10:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

PLEASE no comparisons to Hitler! I don't care if it's G.W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadzic, Stalin, whatever. Hitler was one of a kind and may we never have anyone near his madness ever again, but it is egregious to compare ANYONE to Hitler.

Maybe you mean it as some ironic joke, because some Tea Partiers apparently do make the comparison, but Come On!

12/26/2010 04:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bet you never thought Obama would validate George Bush--but that's exactly what has happened. Wonder when the 'art community' will self-flagilate.

1/05/2011 06:01:00 PM  

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