President Obama, a former constitutional law lecturer who came to office pledging renewed respect for civil liberties, is today running an administration at odds with his résuméand preelection promises.
The Justice Department’s collection of journalists’ phone records and the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups have challenged Obama’s credibility as a champion of civil liberties — and as a president who would heal the country from damage done by his predecessor.
For any president, the most cutting political problems emerge when the administration shows signs of faltering in areas where it is supposed to excel. Obama asked to be measured by competence and his commitment to what he called foundational American values — two areas where rights advocates say he has not met the standards he set.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “The IRS selective enforcement and the surveillance of reporters show a willingness to compromise values in the Obama administration.” He called the practices “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.”
Revelations that Obama’s Justice Department secretly obtained phone records of Associated Press journalists, including home lines and cellphones, have highlighted the administration’s aggressive approach to the media: targeting reporters who have benefited from government leaks and the officials suspected of providing them.
The administration has prosecuted six officials, more than all previous administrations. And although the White House has steered journalists to the Justice Department with specific questions about the AP case, the decision to crack down on public leaks was made early in the West Wing.
“The president feels strongly that we need the press to be able to be unfettered in its pursuit of investigative journalism,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said, citing Obama’s support as a U.S. senator for legislation that would have protected journalists from government surveillance and demands. “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.”
The story about the AP phone records broke amid the unfolding scandal involving the IRS, which targeted conservative political organizations for special scrutiny during the application process for tax-exempt status. Obama expressed outrage Monday about the reports, invoking again the values he promised to make central to his government.
“If you’ve got the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and nonpartisan way, then that is outrageous, it is contrary to our traditions,” he said at a news conference with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron. “And people have to be held accountable.”
White House officials say that Obama is committed to improving his record on civil liberties, and that he will speak soon about how he intends to make his counterterrorism policy more transparent and consistent with the rule of law.
His failure to do so has disappointed the left wing of his party, in particular, which expected more after a 2008 campaign that was framed in part as a response to the ideologically charged years of the George W. Bush administration.
The Iraq invasion and violent aftermath undermined the Bush administration for exposing flaws in its ability to plan and wage war, something it prided itself on after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
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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