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President Obama will tonight address the delegates of the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. The details of his speech aren't yet available, but it's safe to assume that he will hold up the killing of Osama bin Laden as a major foreign policy victory for his administration.
On the other hand, he likely won't mention that he authorized the extrajudicial assassinations of US citizens absent due process — or discuss the only-secret-in-court drone wars his administration is pursuing in at least three countries — Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Obama's assertion of that most authoritarian of powers — to kill a citizen far from a declared battlefield, ignoring habeas corpus — probably doesn't play very well to his base.
In keeping with his party's 2012 platform, which is perfectly silent on the First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution, the Constitutional law scholar in Chief is also unlikely to address his administration's very disappointing civil liberties record when it comes to protecting free speech, association and religious freedom rights.
By extending the Patriot Act, pushing for a reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act, shielding from the public the full extent of NSA warrantless spying, and targeting whistleblowers instead of addressing the civil liberties violations they expose, the Obama administration Department of Justice has continued the Bush administration's assault on core rights, most notably the right to privacy from unwarranted government interference granted to all US persons by the Fourth Amendment.
As Glenn Greenwald and others have observed, once policies achieve bipartisan consensus among the powerful, they cease to be subjects of debate at the highest levels. So don't hold your breath if you expect to hear talk of any of these issues tonight; you likely won't.
But rewind to eight years ago and you'll find a different Barack Obama, one who addressed many of these issues eloquently and passionately on the national stage. Those of us outside of Illinois were introduced to the then junior Senator in 2004 when he delivered the keynote address at the DNC in Boston. I listened to that speech again today in preparation for his remarks tonight, and I've pulled out the civil liberties related statements.
The statements he made that night, halfway through the Bush administration's tenure, don't match up with his record on the same issues nearly four years into his first term as President of the United States. In some cases, the contrast is glaring.
Obama in 2004: "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that is the true genius of America…That we can write what we think, say what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door."
Obama in 2012: The Holder Department of Justice oversees an FBI that too often harasses and "knocks on the doors" of political activists who have been accused of no crime. The DOJ under Obama has also pursued a number of questionable prosecutions directed at Muslims who wrote and said things the government did not like. One of the most stunning cases occurred here in Massachusetts, where federal prosecutors put community activist Tarek Mehanna behind bars for nearly 20 years (he has now been in solitary confinement for three), alleging that his writings constituted "material support for terrorism." But Tarek and his supporters say he was targeted because he refused to collaborate with the FBI when agents asked him to inform on his community.
Obama in 2004: "That we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution."
Obama in 2012: Activists labeled "anarchists" or environmental rights "extremists" would likely chafe at the suggestion that the government doesn't deploy its power to intimidate them away from engagement with the political process. Under the Obama administration the FBI has continued its long tradition of spying on and intimidating political activists. The Holder DOJ has failed to investigate or hold accountable the NYPD for blatant intimidation and harassment of Muslims in and beyond NYC, as well as blatant attacks on the speech and association rights of activists associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Obama in 2004: "If there's an Arab American family being rounded-up, without benefit of an attorney, or due process, that threatens my civil liberties."
Obama in 2012: President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012, allowing the US government to indefinitely detain US citizens without charge or trial. His administration's lawyers have told a court that they "can't rule out" using the power to lock people up and throw away the key for simply saying things the government doesn't like.
Obama in 2004: "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states."
Obama in 2012: President Obama in 2011 signed a Patriot Act reauthorization bill that allowed federal agents to continue secretly poking around not simply in our library records, but also in any other conceivable place where records about us are held — whether at our bank, our credit company, or our internet service provider.
In 2004, then-Senator Obama asked the nation: "Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?" I look forward to hearing his answer to that question in 2012. The facts don't look so good.