Obama is in a similar political dilemma in attempting to fulfill his pledge to expand civil liberties at home and in national security policy, an expected strength of his administration.
Four months after taking office, Obama used the National Archives showcase of the Constitution to argue his point that abolishing torture, closing the military brig at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and establishing the rule of law around counterterrorism policies was in the country’s national security interest.
In doing so, he pointed the finger 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 interrogation methods – 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 supporting same-sex marriage.
But he has not closed 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 counterterrorism 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-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Muslim cleric of Yemeni descent affiliated with al-Qaeda, helped inspire an Army major at Fort Hood, Tex., to allegedly shoot 13 people to death in 2009.
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. on Tuesday called for a criminal investigation of 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 Tuesday at a news conference, referring to 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.”
But Romero, the ACLU executive director, said, “The jury is still out on the Obama legacy on civil liberties.”
He added: “On issues where there are constituents and voters and powerful lobbying groups, Obama has often done the right thing. 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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