Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Verdict: Obama is Weak on Human Rights and Civil Liberties

I have really been trying to give this administration a break. It is facing unprecedented challenges.  And we are only 5 months along.  But I have been around long enough to see progressive sold down the river by Democrats many times. So, the night of the election, even as I was celebrating and crying, a voice in the back of my head kept whispering, “So, do you think he will last longer than Bill Clinton before selling us out to the corporations and the military industrial complex?”

I want a well-functioning economy with economic justice.  I want a balanced ecology.  I want much. But I voted for Obama as someone who taught Constitutinal Law at the University of Chicago. I voted for “Change I Could Believe In” from the Bush era of shredding the constitution, ignoring international law, denying civil liberties and trashing human rights.  Obama began well:  Appointing good attorneys to the DoJ (the most progressive of which,  Dawn Johnsen, is still being held up by the Senate because she is supposedly a “radical”); ordering the closing of Gitmo (too slowly); cancelling the military commissions; cancelling torture; ended the “black sites”–i.e., secret CIA prisons overseas.

But since then, things have been more muddled.  There is far too much continuity between the Bush era and the Obama era on human rights and civil liberties.

  • The “state secrets” defense is still used by the Obama admin. to try to get lawsuits dismissed.  Obama says this needs to be “modified.” I think Congress needs to modify it BY LAW.
  • While we are no longer doing “extraordinary rendition” (kidnapping) and sending terrorist SUSPECTS to secret prisons in nations which torture, we are still practicing a form of “rendition,” the standards and legality of which are unclear because this is not transparent.
  • While Gitmo is being closed, the Obama administration is using Bush claims about the legality of “indefinite detention without trial” for detainees held at the prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
  • I give high marks to the Obama administration for its continued declassification of the torture paper trail of the Bush era. We need to know just how bad things have been.  But his reversal on disclosure of the latest batch of photos of torture (which will probably leak anyway) is hugely wrongheaded. Now the photos will come out not as a nation trying to do the right thing and break with the policies of the past, but as a leak in a cover up.
  • Obama is restarting the military commissions with some modifcations. That’s really BAD.  The modifications are designed to make the commissions less like star chambers (no evidence derived from torture, restrictions on hearsay evidence, prisoners get to choose their attorneys), but they still fall far short of international standards of justice.  Obama voted against the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and he campaigned on getting rid of them–not modifying them. This is a major flip-flop on a campaign promise.
  • The Obama administration, through its attorney general, continues to be opposed to any trials for torturers or for those who authorized them.
  • Obama still supports the warrantless wiretapping of Americans instituted by the Bushies (and retroactively legalized by Congress) even though tons of new evidence shows that it targetted journalists, peace activists, eavesdropped on the pillow talk between soldiers and their stateside sweeties, etc.–NOT just limited to intercepting calls to and from al Qaeda.
  • Obama has kept Bush’s “faith based” outreach programs and other violations of church-state separation.

The struggle for justice, human rights, and civil liberties will continue.  But we now know that we do not have a reliable ally in Obama–just an untrustworthy on-again/off-again ally.

Here’s hoping and praying that by the end of 4 years, my complaint here looks very premature and overblown–but I’m not holding my breath.


May 16, 2009 - Posted by | civil liberties, human rights.


  1. I said all along that Obama was not as “liberal” as some made him out to be. Having said that, I think that he has found, as most presidents ultimately do, that everything isn’t as easy as pie. I totally agree with him on the photos. To me it says that he is listening to advice, not stubbornly doing his own thing as Bush did. Releasing torture pictures will do nothing but inflame the Arab world. They will use them to whip up opposition.

    As bad as I would like to see Cheney on the stand, that kind of a trial would be terrible for the country right now. Remember Lincoln’s response to those who wanted to punish the South?

    Comment by Ralph | May 16, 2009

  2. TOLD YOU!!!! REPEATEDLY!!! but you dismissed what I was saying. you are slow, Michael, but eventually you come around.


    Comment by Kathy | May 16, 2009

  3. Actually, Kathy, you told me that Obama was a “war monger” and “just as bad as Bush.” I still see no evidence that either is true. What does seem to be true (and pardon me if I like to wait for evidence before condemning someone) is that Obama’s pragmatism makes him more Bill Clintonian than I hoped–more willing to compromise his ideals for political purposes than is good.

    With Bush we knew we were dealing with an enemy: someone opposed to everything we believed about peacemaking, human rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law. With Obama, I was hoping we had a reliable ally. We don’t. We seem to have what I expected we’d get in ’04 if John Kerry had won–someone who is an ally when convenient, can be pushed to being an ally at other times, and a total disappointment at other times. My solution is that the Left has to make it hot for Obama. He’s caving on the right because that’s where the political pressure is. So, we make it hard to ignore us.

    As for impeaching Pelosi–so far, it doesn’t seem like she’s done more than refuse to be courageous. If she turns out to have been actively guilty of aiding and abetting the cover-up of Bush war crimes, I don’t want her just impeached, but imprisoned. But if her story is accurate (and it seems to be backed up by Bob Graham’s meticulous daily notebooks of everything he does)–and she’s calling for full disclosure and the CIA isn’t, so she seems to think the truth will vindicate her–then she didn’t commit any crimes. It is a crime to reveal classified information; there are no whistleblower protections. Now, if they told her they were torturing, she should have risked her job and jail to stop it. She did not show courage. But if they just told her they were thinking about torturing, that’s all she’s guilty of, it’s not pretty, but it is just typical politician. So, I’m open to impeachment and imprisonment, but I don’t want to rush to judgment.

    I THINK the Bushies told “just enough” to key Dems like Pelosi to try to spread the blame around and give themselves cover, but not enough for those Dems to be able to act against them. Pelosi, remember, led the Dems (then in the minority) in the House to vote against the Iraq invasion–at a time when Minority Leader Dick Gephardt wanted to go along. So, I can’t see her ACTIVELY conspiring in torture. (But I’ve been wrong before.) I also think Seymore Hersh’s claim that Cheney had personal assassination squads was very true–and they may well have threatened key Democrats into keeping quiet. Again, not very courageous, but typical.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 16, 2009

  4. Ralph, the problem is that the photos come out anyway. Some already have been published in Australia. Then, it inflames the Muslim world even MORE than if the government officially released them, because the cover-up makes it seem like the practices are still happening.

    The problem isn’t that Obama refuses to listen to advice: It’s that he surrounded himself with the wrong advisers. In economics–it’s people with deep ties to Wall Street instead of to populist economics (so what he tries to do with one hand is undone by the other); in foreign policy, it is too much the generals and the intelligence establishment.

    And I don’t think the comparison to Lincoln and the civil war is apt. The North DID Punish the South and it made reconciliation harder. But we failed to put even one confederate general or politician on trial for sedition–and so many of them slunk off and formed the KKK and worked to undermine reconstruction and set up Jim Crow.

    EVERY time in our history that we have attempted to “move forward without looking back” as Obama keeps attempting to do, it has led to further abuses down the line by other governments. Would public trials for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, (and, yes, if warranted, for Pelosi, Rockefeller and any other Dems) be controversial and divisive? Yes. But they would help set us back on a foundation of law and human rights. We would be stronger going forward.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 16, 2009

  5. Kathy, I never dismissed you. I said that your conclusions were overblown, outran the evidence, and were premature. I would still say that about some of what you said. See, I never expect politicians to be either saints or demons. And if I had known that Obama was going to be more like Clinton (or John Kerry) than he claimed during the campaign, I’d have still voted for him over John McCain. (McCain would have started at least 2 more wars by now. Plus, with Phil Gramm as his Treasury Secretary, our unemployment rate would be quadrupled and we’d look like Iceland right now.)

    But you were right that Obama was going to me more disappointing than I wanted to believe. The struggle for peace and justice and human rights will still get further with him as president than we ever did under Bush. We won’t constantly be on defense. But neither do we have a reliable ally in the White House. We have, instead, a Clintonian who will blow wherever the wind takes him.

    So, it is time to remember one of Jim Wallis’ favorite sayings. Instead of just substituting one politician with his or her finger to the wind for another in the same position, we need to CHANGE THE DIRECTION OF THE WIND.

    People power. Bodies in the streets. Nonviolent community organizing for mass change. That’s the answer.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 16, 2009

  6. I think the only people who haven’t seen the photos are the American public. They are the ones who should see them as they seem to need the encouragement and motivation to demand trials of those who authorised torture. As for not inflaming “the Arab world”, they already have, particularly as they had to be leaked in order to be seen. And so they should inflame “the Arab world” – the American army even without the few castrating body mutilators captured on camera, are not innocent and should not be in “the Arab world”.

    Comment by steph | May 17, 2009

  7. Oh, PLEEASE… The guy takes every bush policy and dresses it up for the suckers—State secrets, preventive detention without trial, military commissions, preemptive predator strikes (killing civilians) escalation in Afghanistan. If a Republican did this you would be calling him a war monger. I get the impression just because he is “progressive” in his domestic policy, guys like you are willing to give he a pass. As I said before, this will turn out to be a disastor for the peace and justice community because even the most rabid neoconservative will be able to say that EVEN OBAMA supports these policies.

    So, go ahead. Take to the streets and watch everyone make a fool out of you. They will say that even Obama is not THAT crazy!

    Comment by Kathy | May 17, 2009

  8. On Pelosi


    It’s worth noting that, by most if not all of her multiple accounts, Nancy Pelosi is as guilty of torture as anybody else. That’s not an airy rhetorical flourish but a statement of law. As National Review’s Andy McCarthy points out, under Section 2340A(c) of the relevant statute, a person who conspires to torture is subject to the same penalties as the actual torturer. Once Speaker Pelosi was informed that waterboarding was part of the plan and that it was actually being used, she was in on the conspiracy, and as up to her neck in it as whoever it was who was actually sticking it to poor old Abu Zubaydah and the other blameless lads.

    Comment by Kathy | May 17, 2009

  9. I for one think Michael’s approach is far more helpful and constructive than just rubbishing Obama…

    Comment by steph | May 17, 2009

  10. I object to Kathy’s charge that I have a different standard for Democrats than for Republicans. I protested Bill Clinton’s bombing of the Balkans. In fact, I wanted him impeached for violating the War Powers Act and lamented that this had no chance because of the STUPIDITY of GOP impeaching him over lying about extramarital sex!

    Nor did I jump on any bandwagons in rushing to call W “a warmonger.” I opposed his policies and tried to respect his office–until it was absolutely clear that he intended to subvert that office entirely for his own purposes. Even then, I didn’t assume that all Republicans were the same.

    I try to focus on policy rather than personality. Kathy finds it more emotionally satisfying to be shrill and pure.
    Best of luck with that. If I took that attitude, I would be so depressed about EVER changing things, that I would either move to a different country or commit suicide.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 18, 2009

  11. Pelosi should be removed at the ballot box next election, but certainly not impeached. Being a sly politician is not a crime.

    She’s just a typical politician who acts like herself and true to her real beliefs when she thinks it’s under cover, then cries foul when it’s exposed that, out of political expediency, she’s been calling her own actions criminal.

    Comment by Chuck | May 18, 2009

  12. Chuck,
    Unless Pelosi is shown to have broken laws or to have actively covered up torture or other war crimes, she won’t be removed at the ballot box. Pelosi’s district in CA is very liberal. She’s not going to be beaten by a Republican. She will only draw a Democratic challenger if she is perceived as having betrayed laws, human rights, and democratic ideals. Nor will she even lose her post as Speaker unless the CIA memos prove her story false and not theirs. So far, her version of things seems better supported.

    But my loyalty to the rule of law and to human rights trumps Party loyalty. Appoint a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute ALL involved in Bush-era torture and let the chips fall where they may. If they net catches Democrats along with Republicans, then that’s what it catches.

    Boehner and Co. fail to understand this. They are focusing on Pelosi in order to get us on the left to back off torture prosecutions. Ain’t gonna happen.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 18, 2009


    Leon Panetta–a long time DEMOCRAT, the current CIA director, wrote a memo last Friday to CIA employees in which he stated that “our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of [Al Qaeda terrorist] Abu Zubaydah, describing ‘the enhanced techniques that had been employed.'”

    Does ANYBODY think she is not lying. DID YOU SEE THE PRESS CONFERENCE?

    She charged that the CIA, deliberately and as a matter of policy, violated the law by lying to Congress.

    Why would Speaker Pelosi LIE ABOUT THIS?
    EASY ANSWER–she was getting pressure from PROGRESSIVES. if it WAS the case that she was fully informed and fully consented WITHOUT COMPLAINT to waterboarding back in 2002, it would take the wind out of the sails of the attempt to prosecute Bush officials for THEIR war crimes.

    So, Michael, stop trying to cover up for Democrats. let’s all work together to keep our integrity, especially since now Obama and his gang in congress are keeping guantanamo open, still keeping state secrets, keeping the wiretapping program and even worse have INCREASED the number of targetted assasinations.

    the peace and justice movement has been sold down the river.
    Why haven’t they been speaking out against OBAMA’s WAR CRIMES!

    Comment by Kathy | May 20, 2009

  14. The Panetta memo also indicated that the CIA’s records might not be reliable. The CIA has as much, if not more, reason to lie than does the Speaker–and a long history of doing so.

    I find it strange that you would take the CIA’s word over Pelosi’s before the evidence is in.

    As for Obama: What war crimes? Name them and give evidence, Kathy, or stop coming here. If he is guilty, I’m all for prosecution, but your accusations without evidence are starting to get on my nerves.

    You never showed up on this blog until after the election. I begin to think you are a rightwing conservative troll, disguising yourself as a member of the peace movement, in order to simply create chaos. I waited for evidence with Bush and Cheney. I’ll do the same for Obama and Pelosi. Innocent until proven guilty, remember?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 20, 2009

  15. diguising herself as a member of the peace movement… she could try not shouting.

    Comment by steph | May 20, 2009

  16. great stuff.. hope he stands up and keep fighting for what he ran for.. it’s gotta be hard with all the years of forming opposition in congress through the bad policies of the past though..

    i say charge the guilty.
    shut gitmo and give the cubans their land back it’s illegal. shut any place alike.
    throw the patriot act and such laws away as they are unconstitutional and clearly violates human rights and further conventions and agreements ratyfied by the US.

    maybe it requires to violate HR and constitution to be president today? i really hope not. i hope it’s just hard not to.


    Comment by erik | June 3, 2009

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