Privacy SOS

Terror Tuesday: Jimmy Carter’s lament

Three and a half years ago former president Jimmy Carter was upbeat about the country and prospects for human rights after the years in which the Bush Administration viewed the Geneva Conventions as a “quaint anachronism” and moved with impunity beyond the rule of law.

As he wrote in a December 2008 CNN op ed, “It has been heartening to witness the outpouring  of worldwide enthusiasm over the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the US, a transformational moment for our country….A high priority will be the restoration of human rights, which have been badly eroded in reason years.”

Flash forward to his widely circulated June 24 New York Times op ed in which he asserts, “The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.”

This is the opening salvo of a piece that traces how the post 9/11 violation of human rights “has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public.”

Rather than strengthening the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt did so much to promote, “our government’s counterterrorism policies are now clearly violating at least 10 of the declaration’s 30 articles.”

Carter specifies two of the 10: article 19 guaranteeing freedom of expression and article 5 stating that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Articles 1-3 guaranteeing equal rights to dignity, life, liberty and security, and the due process protections of articles 6 – 12 also seem to fit the bill.

As president, Jimmy Carter had signed into law the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, setting up the secret FISA court that approved surveillance warrants for use against foreign intelligence agents and international terrorism suspects within the United States. In the aftermath of the Church Committee hearings, the FISA Act represented Congress’ attempt to find a third way between the “probable cause” warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment and the spy-on-all-dissidents approach of COINTELPRO.

However, in the bipartisan counterterrorism consensus that has emerged since 9/11, FISA’s “restraints” have been cancelled by recent laws that “allow unprecedented violations of our rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of our electronic communications.”

Carter never mentions the current president (and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner) by name. But the powers Obama has accrued to target American citizens and other terrorism suspects for indefinite detention or assassination by drone  – no matter what the costs to civilians, his failure to close Guantanamo or to hold anyone accountable for torture, and the fact that many of those stranded (maybe forever) at Guantanamo have either been cleared for release or can never be cleared or tried because of the torture to which they were subjected all contribute to an abnegation of moral authority that “abets our enemies and alienates our friends.” 

Another thing that Carter does not mention is that he himself could – in theory at any rate – be targeted by current counterterrorism policies.  Given the range of activity he has engaged in through his 30-year-old Carter Center, he could be considered a prime beneficiary of the preliminary injunction imposed by US District Judge Katherine Forest against the indefinite detention section of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. 

A web search reveals the depth of the vitriol directed against the former president, who is widely accused of being a “traitor,” “terrorist sympathizer,” or of “legitimizing terrorism” by meeting with Hamas leaders and urging that the US recognize the results of the democratic election monitored by the Carter Center that brought Hamas to power in the Gaza Strip.

Indeed, the work of the Carter Center could be imperiled by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project that criminalized as material support for terrorism First Amendment activity that was “coordinated” with a group on the State Department’s terrorism list – even if that activity consisted of training in non violent advocacy. 

“The vague language of the law,” Carter  told the Christian Science Monitor, “leaves us wondering if we will be prosecuted for our work to promote peace and freedom.” 

Of course, where “terrorism” and geopolitical interests collide, nothing is straightforward. Peace and justice activists face FBI raids and are served grand jury subpoenas while Washington lobbyists and former officials including Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, Michael Mukasey and Lee Hamilton are paid tens of thousands of dollars for brief speeches setting out the reasons why the Mujahedin e Khalq (MEK) should be taken off the State Department terrorism list. 

In the words of Owen Bennett-Jones, “Once off the list it will be free to make use of its support on Capitol Hill in order to become America’s most favoured, and no doubt best funded, Iranian opposition group.”

Just over 30 years ago, President Jimmy Carter learned how “terrorism” could be manipulated to doom an Administration. After his failure to resolve the Iran hostage crisis was made the litmus test of his presidency, the hostages were released within minutes of President Reagan’s being sworn into office.

Now, as then, counterterrorism policies serve political agendas, and the very definition of “terrorism” can shift with the political winds. And now, as during the Bush Administration, impunity is the name of the game.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.