Sep 06 2012

Four Years Makes a Difference: The Democratic Party on Civil Liberties

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A high ranking Kuwaiti official is currently in the US urging for the release of two Guantanamo Bay detainees. The two detainees, of Kuwaiti nationality, have been imprisoned in Guantanamo for more than a decade without trial. A senior US official told the press, “We are aware that they want them back. Because of legal restrictions and our own view of these people, this will be a protracted and difficult process.” Fayez Al Kandari, 37, was charged in 2008 with conspiring with Al Qaeda and providing material support for terrorism. The charges were never referred for trial and were dismissed in June without explanation. Fawzi Al Odah, 34, has so far not been charged in any court with wrongdoing.

In 2008, newly elected President Obama pledged to shut down the US prison at Guantanamo Bay. However, four years later, the facility remains open. In fact, the difference in the Democratic Party’s position on Guantanamo is apparent in the party’s platforms in 2008 and 2012. Writing for Mother Jones, earlier this week Adam Serwer analyzes the liberal party’s position on civil liberties in general. Serwer found, that while President Obama pledged in 2008 to fight for civil liberties both at home and abroad, over the past four years, Obama and the Democrats have instead, continued and expanded the national security policies of the George W. Bush Administration. In addition to keeping Guantanamo open, these policies include: expanding the parameters of indefinite detention to US citizens, continuing warrantless surveillance and racial profiling, extending the Patriot Act, and preserving and defending torture networks internationally.

The DNC’s 2008 platform spelled out: “We will close the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, the location of so many of the worst constitutional abuses in recent years.” But this year’s platform simply pledges to “substantially reducing the population at Guantánamo Bay without adding to it,” while adding, “we remain committed to working with all branches of government to close the prison altogether.”

GUEST: Shahid Buttar, Executive Director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

Visit www.bordc.org for more information.

Rough Transcript

Kolhatkar: First, how do you explain this difference in the positions on civil liberties from 2008 to 2012? Is it just that now that George W. Bush isn’t the boogeyman it’s easier for the Democrats to be closer to Republicans on these issues?

Buttar: Certainly one way to look at it. I think it’s fair to say that the Obama Administration now having born the yoke of governance beyond merely campaigning for the Presidency has substantially, I would say moderated only that word doesn’t quite fit, I would say it slid to the authoritarian right. One of the really disappointing elements of the theater masquerading as politics right now with the conventions is that whether in Jan. 2013 we are welcoming a second Obama Administration or whether it’s a Romney Administration, in either case Dick Cheney’s legacy will essentially rule the White House. And the warrantless wiretapping scheme by the NSA that continues, the regime of torture with impunity, massive and unchecked profiling, all of these things will continue regardless of who is in office. And I do think the real danger there, and this is the most disturbing point of all is that America is becoming at least for purposes for national security and civil rights, a one party state with all of the terrifying things that that implies.

Kolhatkar: Well the issue of civil liberties was so important in 2008 and really during the Bush years of course because of the assault on civil liberties that the Patriot act and many other actions and practices thereafter represented particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. And it’s interesting to see the Democrats attempt to distinguish themselves on the issue of indefinite detention. In 2008 their platform said “to build a freer and safer world, we will lead in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people. We will not ship away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, or detain without trial or charge prisoners who can and should be brought to justice for their crimes, or maintain a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law. We will respect the time-honored principle of habeas corpus, the seven century-old right of individuals to challenge the terms of their own detention that was recently reaffirmed by our Supreme Court.” As far as I could tell I couldn’t find any mention of habeas corpus in the 2012 plank of civil liberties but have the Democrats and President Obama kept any of these promises from 2008?

Buttar: Really no they have not. In fact, one reason they might have taken each of those issues out of the platform is that they all got worse. Instead of military detention at Guantanmo Bay we now have a statute signed by President Obama that authorizes military detention for anyone within the US, including journalists, activists, potentially any ethnic or religious minority. So the detention regime has gotten worse. The 2012 platform to its credit makes the point about how because of supposed respect for civil liberties that’s why the Obama administration stops torture. Except that it doesn’t explain that the Obama Admininstrations position on torture may actually be worse than the Bush Administrations. Because at least when you’re torturing people there’s a hope that someone might later hold them accountable. It’s the Obama Administration that said that torture is okay. Basically that even if were going to stop it no one is going to bare the consequences and that ensures that it will happen again eventually whether that’s under a Romney Administration or whomever next comes into the White House after President Obama. I find really striking the omission of discussion about dragnet surveillance. In the 2008 platform it was explicit. It talked about national security letters, reading here verbatim, “we reject the tracking of citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war…” Well guess what? Occupy activists in Cleveland and Chicago under the Obama Administration have been charged with terror offenses, several in fact were convicted just yesterday. There are peace and justice activists around the country including of Los Angeles, speaking of Carlos Montes. These are peace and justice activists raided and investigated by the FBI for no reason other than protesting a misguided war. The walking back the plank on surveillance I find particularly disturbing if you zoom back from the election cycle and think about the 2012 race in a broader sweep of history what we are basically witnessing is the loss of the cold war to ourselves 20 years after we thought we won it. Right? Freedom won as the soviet bloc crumbled, except that now many of the same principles and the same powers that were used there that President Regan criticized we have now adopted here in the US and the terrifying thing is that there is no candidate in the Presidential race from either of the two major parties who is willing to actually espouse an American line. For all this nonsense about the Presidents birth certificate I would say that neither he nor Romney have a particular claim to being American because they are both pushing Chinese Soviet inspired policies.

Kolhatkar: What about Guantanamo lets talk about that. This was something that President Obama very explicitly pledged right at the beginning of his tenure. Of course the party platform in 2008 said very clearly, “we will close the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, the location of so many of the worst constitutional abuses in recent years.” Can the Democrats justify the continued opening of, the remaining opening of Guantanamo simply by blaming Republicans and the Congressional gridlock over that issue?

Buttar: I would say that it’s the one issue where I think the Whitehouse I wouldn’t say deserves a free-pass but at least deserves some modicum of credit because it was the one issue that it led on and subsequently got beaten back. I would not blame entirely congressional Republicans though because Congressional Democrats bare equal blame. It was shortly after the president came into office in 2009 and he made the pledge to close Guantanamo in the first day in office the first vote he lost in Congress was on this issue where Congressional Democrats basically got scared. As republicans raised the concerns about detainees being resettled within the US, Democrats who were scared of looking weak on national security issues ran from the mandate of the 2008 election which obviously President Obama won, with a substantial margin, on a largely civil liberties platform. If you talk to the Independents or the Republicans who were voting for Obama, a lot of them were motivated by his civil liberties commitments. And in the wake of that Congressional Democrats got weak kneed. And basically ran the other way and ever since then, the White House having internalized this message that civil liberties can’t sell on the Hill has been running for the right wing hills.

Kolhatkar: Even though it is an issue that a majority of Americans feel extremely strongly about. In fact it is often an issue that unites the right and the left.

Buttar: Absolutely, which I find the greatest irony in this. Is that precisely the issue on which the right and the left agree is the one issue that is most conspicuously absent from the debate. Not because there is a consensus on the position that most Americans support but rather that there’s an agreement to denigrate that shared interest. It reminds me a little bit of the issue of money in politics. Which is similar, you know, you see bipartisan at the grassroots support for more legitimate electorate processes and campaign finance but then in the institutional layer when you get here to Washington there’s an equally bipartisan establishment that rejects those interests. I think there’s a real crisis of legitimacy in American democracy and the transition from 2008 to 2012 Democratic Party Platform I think illustrates that very neatly. And the last thing I have to say is that these are really issues that are put in play not only in Tampa and Charlotte and the Presidential election but they also emerge in local and state politics. It has been the Obama Administration that has escalated the war on immigrants. There’s a bill in California, The Trust Act that would address that. Similarly state and local police have been involved in the surveillance arena there’s a campaign in Los Angeles to stop LAPD spying coalition StopLAPDspying.org that is trying to address those issues. So whether it is in the context of the national politics, state policy, or local policy there are lot of arenas for people who do share these concerns and want to see America remain a land of the free to raise our voices and get engaged.

Kolhatkar: And if listeners want to here our coverage of the Trust Act and the Stop LAPD spying just check uprisingradio.org and use the search function. What about torture? In 2008 the Dem. Party Platform said explicitly “we reject torture” and President Obama did indeed sign an executive order banning torture. Is that one issue on which they remain consistent?

Buttar: I don’t think so. The ban on torture is flimsy. Precisely because just like the President’s signing statement on the Defense Authorization Act, that’s the domestic military detention authority, those promises only last as long as President Obama is in the White House. That’s the difference between policy and law. And if we actually were committed to a rule of law as he claimed when running in 2008, we would not merely stop torturing people we would hold accountable the people who were responsible for that torture. As we are obligated to do under international laws, international laws that we fought a world war to establish. Right? These were not insubstantial commitments; these were very deep commitments that we pursued at enormous costs. And they’ve been resigned. I think the Obama Administration has done more to destroy international law than any Administration, except for the Bush Administration, in recent history. Which is why again I say that the Cheney legacy will live on regardless of the outcome of the 2012 Presidential race. To me that makes all of this pomp and circumstance in Charlotte and Tampa seem like just a bunch of theater.

Kolhatkar: Finally, what about the Patriot Act in 2008 the Democrats said, “we will revisit the Patriot Act and overturn unconstitutional executive decisions issued during the past eight years.” What happened?

Buttar: That to me is the area where the Obama Administration has failed most dramatically. Because not only has it failed to end the Patriot Act but it’s extended it — no fewer than three times. According to Senator Wyden from Oregon it’s continuing to actually interpret parts of that law in secret to authorize surveillance even beyond what Congress authorized. And since then, since the Patriot Act came online there have been other laws passed including with President Obama’s support that extend the surveillance regime even broader. In fact, this fall the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is going to be coming up before congress for reauthorization. That’s the program that lets the National Security Agency (a secret branch of the Defense Department) read everyone’s emails and monitor everyone’s phone calls without suspicion of any kind. And the striking thing here is that whereas in 2008 the platform acknowledged the need for better checks and balances on executive power. Today, there’s really been none of that there is lip service to it in the platform but you look at the Obama’s Administration’s performance in office, they are prosecuting more NSA whistleblowers than every administration in American history put together. They’re aggrandizing executive power just as did the Bush Administration. Declaring that executive branch officials are above the law, and can commit human rights abuses and still retain their positions in government like Judge J. Bybee on the 9th Circuit. It’s claimed that the executive branch has the authority to disregard constitutional rights from the fourth amendment to the first amendment, to the fifth and eighth. Whether it is due process, the right to privacy whether it’s the right to speech and assembly. All of these rights have been systematically eroded by the Obama Administration and the contrast between the 08 and the 2012 platform I think could not be sharper particularly with respect to that issue that you raise, surveillance and executive power have unfortunately extended under the Obama Administration even beyond the previous high-water mark set by Bush and Cheney and I think the reason we see the change in this platform is quite frankly the Democratic Party knows that it can’t claim the same rhetoric as in 2008 presumably because President Obama has governed for the last four years in a remarkably Cheney inspired fashion.

Kolhatkar: Well Shahid Buttar – give out a website for your organization, Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

Buttar: Absolutely people can visit us online at bordc.org

Kolhatkar: And we’ll link that from uprisingradio.org. Shahid it’s always great to have you on, thank you so much for joining us today.

Buttar: Thanks Sonali – keep up the great work.

Kolhatkar: Shahid Buttar is Executive Director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee again online at bordc.org

Special thanks to Michael Shirtzer for transcribing this interview.

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