Obama on civil liberties: Saying one thing, doing another

For a former constitutional law lecturer who came to office pledging renewed respect for civil liberties, President Obama, now more than ever, appears at odds with his resume and pre-election promises.

New revelations that Obama’s Justice Department secretly obtained phone records of AP journalists, including home and cell phones, have served to highlight the administration’s aggressive approach to the press – targeting reporters who have benefited from government leaks and the officials suspected of providing them.

“The president feels strongly that we need the press to be able to be unfettered in its pursuit of investigative journalism,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday at his daily briefing. “He is also mindful of the need for secret and classified information to remain secret and classified in order to protect our national security interests.”


Phones. Possibly tapped. Getty Images.

The administration has prosecuted six officials so far, more than all previous administrations. And, although the White House has steered journalists to the Justice Department with specific questions in the AP case, the policy of cracking down on public leaks was born early on in the West Wing.

The AP phone records story broke amid the unfolding scandal involving the Internal Revenue Service, which targeted conservative political organizations for special scrutiny during the application process for tax-exempt status. Obama expressed outrage Monday over the reports, as other Democratic lawmakers did the same.

“If you've got the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and non-partisan way, then that is outrageous, it is contrary to our traditions,” Obama said during a news conference with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron. “And people have to be held accountable.”

For any president, the most cutting political problems emerge when the administration shows signs of faltering in areas where, by reputation or its own account, it is suppose to excel.

Iraq undermined the George W. Bush administration for exposing flaws in its ability to plan and wage war, something it prided itself on after Sept. 11, 2001. For a conservative president, Bush’s deficit spending also alarmed his Republican base, given the supposed frugal fiscal values of the party.

For Obama, competence and values have been two particular areas where he has asked to be measured. This week both have come into question.

They were at the core of his 2008 campaign, shaped in part as a reaction against the ideologically charged Bush years. Obama has invoked them often to describe his view of the nation and the pragmatic way he attempts to govern.

Four months after taking office, Obama used the National Archives, showcase of the Constitution, to make his point that abolishing torture, closing the military brig at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and establishing the rule of law around counter-terrorism policies was in the nation’s national security interest. In doing so, he pointed the finger directly at his predecessor.

“The decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable,” Obama said, calling it a “framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass.”

Obama did ban harsh methods in interrogation – which the International Committee of the Red Cross has called “torture” – immediately after taking office. And he has advocated strongly for gay rights, ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military and coming out in support of gay marriage.

But he has failed to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay in the face of Congressional resistance, even though he recently pledged to try again.

Moreover, Obama has greatly expanded the Bush-era counter-terrorism tactic of drone warfare, becoming the first president to use an unmanned aircraft to kill an American citizen abroad without formal charge or trial. The target, Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American-Yemeni cleric affiliated with al-Qaeda, helped inspire an army major at Fort Hood to fatally shoot 13 people in November 2009.

 Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said "the IRS selective enforcement and the surveillance of reporters shows a willingness to compromise values in the Obama administration." He called it "enormously troubling."

"And the tone is set at the top,' Romero said. "While not directly involved, the president bears responsibility for what his government officials can and should do.”

The IRS case, the subject of an inspector general review, challenges not only Obama's pledge on values but also the competence of his administration. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called Tuesday for a criminal investigation into the allegations.

The IRS is independent of the White House, and Obama is prohibited by post-Watergate legal restrictions from interfering with its activities. But he will be challenged on its operations all the same, and no doubt his legacy as a manager of the federal government will be colored by the facts as they unfold.

“I’m proud of it,” Holder said during a Tuesday news conference, citing the administration’s civil liberties record. “There have been a whole host of things that this administration has done, this Justice Department in particular, that are consistent with what the president campaigned on.”

He continued: “This administration has put a real value on the rule of law and our values. I think the actions we have taken are consistent with both.”

But Romero, the ACLU director, said “the jury is still out on the Obama legacy on civil liberties."

"On issues where there are constituents and voters and powerful lobbying groups, Obama's often done the right thing," Romero said. "But on issues like drones, Guantanamo, and surveillance, where there is not an identifiable constituency, he often ends up on the wrong side of the values debate. At the end of the day, it’s pure politics, counting votes and making decisions."

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Aaron Blake | May 14, 2013