Civil Liberties Erosion in President Obama’s Second Term Will Continue Unless Citizens Mobilize

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Posted Dec. 12, 2012

Interview with Glenn Greenwald, author and Guardian (UK) newspaper columnist, conducted by Scott Harris. Transcript compiled by Evan Bieder.


As a U.S. senator running for president in 2007 and 2008, Barack Obama pledged to end indefinite detention and the rendition of terrorism suspects to other countries, where they often were tortured. The former constitutional law professor also promised to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As he campaigned four years ago, Obama vowed to govern the country differently than George W. Bush, respecting the separation of powers and not acting unilaterally to extend the power of the executive branch.

But once in the Oval Office, President Obama quickly set aside his campaign rhetoric and proceeded to continue many of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 war on terror policies. The Obama White House supported and extended government warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens, decided not to prosecute Bush administration officials who ordered torture, and exponentially increased the number of drone attacks launched abroad targeting militants and in at least two cases, killed U.S. citizens without due process. More recently, Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act which permits the government to indefinitely detain American citizens. Thus far, the Obama administration has failed to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo.

One of the nation’s boldest and most consistent critics of the erosion of civil liberties that has occurred under both the Bush and Obama administrations is author and Guardian newspaper columnist Glenn Greenwald. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Greenwald, who was attending an early December conference on ending indefinite detention at Central Connecticut State University. Here, he talks about his concern that in Obama’s second term, civil liberties will continue to erode.

GLENN GREENWALD: As far as the second term is concerned, I know one way to look at it is that if you believe that President Obama has been pursuing policies in the first four years that he didn’t really want to pursue, that he doesn’t actually believe in, that he was only pursuing because he had to for political necessity, I suppose you could be optimistic that now that the election is behind him, he’ll abandon those policies and do things in a better way. But I don’t believe that about him. I don’t think that these policies are ones that he is opposed to secretly in his heart. I think he’s been very clear and vigorous in his defense of them. There was no political compulsion for him to do these things; he chose to do them on his own. He was elected on a platform of reversing many of these policies. Clearly, he had people behind him who would have supported him if he had; he chose not to. I think that’s because he wants to preserve his own power, to expand his own power. If anything, I believe the second term means that he no longer needs the core base of his party and can be even more unrestrained in pursuing these policies than he’s been in the past. I think the opposite outcome is more likely.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Just after the election, there were reports that the Obama administration had tried to codify their "kill list" for the unmanned, aerial drone program. You’ve written your concern that this, of course, now institutionalizes this act of the president having the sole power. We don’t know the inner workings of the White House, but it seems that he’s got personal and complete control over this assassination list which I think is unprecedented in our history, at least in such an open way because it’s common knowledge that’s what’s going on. What are any checks and balances on that incredible grab for power in making these assassination lists that are quite out in the open now?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, there are zero checks and balances and this is the core of the problem, that there’s nobody that can exercise any oversight in terms of who the president decides who should die, the reasons that he decides that, who it is that is putting together the list of potential candidates and what criteria are used to determine who will be targeted. Not only is there no oversight mechanism or checks and balances of any kind, there’s also no due process involved, so the person who was targeted has no opportunity to contest the allegations made against them, to deny the evidence that’s being used to suggest they’ve done something wrong. Worse still, there’s no transparency to it, so we don’t even know who the president is targeting for assassination, let alone what his reasons are.

Not only is there no check or oversight mechanism, which is the crux of the American republic (that people who exercise power without checks will inevitably abuse it, that was the whole premise of the founding), but there’s not even any transparency for us to know how many people are being targeted, who they are, what the criteria are. It’s really the most extreme power a government can exercise, which is the power to have their president execute whomever he wants and it’s done in the most tyrannical way, which is in total secrecy and without due process and it includes not just foreign nationals, but U.S. citizens as well. The fact that this power has been so systematically entrenched now means that there really is no conceivable end to it. If Barack Obama has the power and authority to exercise this power then it means the next president, whether a Republican or a Democrat, will have that authority as well and that’s what makes it so dangerous to acquiesce to it.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you think that these imperial presidential powers that Obama has now taken for himself can be challenged in the Supreme Court? I say that recognizing there’s a very conservative bent to this current Supreme Court which may reduce the odds of anything happening there, but what are your thoughts on the most effective ways to challenge what Obama’s institutionalizing as an imperial presidency?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, unfortunately, the Supreme Court is really intended to be the ultimate institution to check these abuses. The reason I say that is because the concern that the founders had most was that these abuses would be directed towards the marginalized groups, the powerless groups as a way of institutionalizing them, and typically institutions that are democratically accountable like the Congress are afraid to side with marginalized groups by virtue of the fact that they’re marginalized. The judiciary was really supposed to be the institution that would have no fear of doing that. That’s why they’re not elected, they’re appointed and especially why they have life tenure to immunize them of these politically-driven fears of protecting the rights of people who are marginalized.

Yet, the history of the Supreme Court in the wake of 9/11 is probably the most shameful and disgraceful of any of the institutions that have failed in their duties, because almost invariably the federal judiciary has sided with the U.S. government especially, over the rights of Muslims. Whenever the word "terrorism" is invoked, the Constitution has basically been disregarded. Even establishment sources like Andy Rosenthal, whose the editorial page editor of the New York Times, has written that we’ve created this separate system of justice for Muslim Americans in the United States in the wake of 9/11.

The federal judiciary really has been completely complicit in that. They’ve imposed a few very mild restraints on presidential power, but by and large, they’ve acquiesced almost completely to executive power. The real, ultimate, last check on abusive power is supposed to lie with the citizenry. You did see a lot of pushback in the Bush era when these policies were quite controversial. You had very divisive debates over them. You had all kinds of political movements that were devoted to condemning, denouncing, and fighting against assertions of executive transgressions by the Bush administration. You see much, much, much less of that under the Obama administration because Democrats were behind most of those protests and the vast bulk of Democrats are now willing to endorse what they were once just a few years ago condemning because it’s a Democratic president doing it. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the citizenry to push back against these kinds of abuses. The problem has been that partisan allegiance has trumped any sort of commitment to principle and has made these protests really marginalized.

Former constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald is the author of four books, including “With Liberty and Justice for Some.” See Glenn Greenwald's Guardian column here.

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