There was a brief moment when civil libertarians were stunned to see President Barack Obama actually take a stand in favor of civil liberties after years to rolling back on basic rights of citizens and moving beyond the Bush Administration in building up the security state. Obama said that he would veto the defense bill that contained a horrific provision for the indefinite detention of American citizens. While many predicted it, Obama has now again betrayed the civil liberties community and lifted the threat of the veto. Americans will now be subject to indefinite detention without trial in federal courts in a measure supported by both Democrats and Republicans. It is a curious way to celebrate the 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.
This leave Ron Paul as the only candidate in the presidential campaign fighting the bill and generally advocating civil liberties as a rallying point for his campaign. Paul offered another strong argument against the Patriot Act and other expansions of police powers in his last debate. He also noted that the Patriot Act provisions were long advocated before 9-11, which was used as an opportunity to expand police powers. As discussed in a prior column, Obama has destroyed the civil liberties movement in the United States and has convinced many liberals to fight for an Administration that blocked torture prosecutions, expanded warrantless surveillance, continued military tribunals, killed Americans on the sole authority of the President, and other core violations of civil liberties.
The White House is saying that changes to the law made it unnecessary to veto the legislation. That spin is facially ridiculous. The changes were the inclusion of some meaningless rhetoric after key amendments protecting citizens were defeated. The provision merely states that nothing in the provisions could be construed to alter Americans' legal rights. Since the Senate clearly views citizens are not just subject to indefinite detention but even execution without a trial, the change offers nothing but rhetoric to hide the harsh reality. The Administration and Democratic members are in full spin — using language designed to obscure the authority given to the military. The exemption for American citizens from the mandatory detention requirement (section 1032) is the screening language for the next section, 1031, which offers no exemption for American citizens from the authorization to use the military to indefinitely detain people without charge or trial.
At least Senator Lindsey Graham was honest when he said on the Senate floor that “1031, the statement of authority to detain, does apply to American citizens and it designates the world as the battlefield, including the homeland.”
I am not sure which is worse: the loss of core civil liberties or the almost mocking post hoc rationalization for abandoning principle. The Congress and the President have now completed a law that would have horrified the Framers. Indefinite detention of citizens is something that the Framers were intimately familiar with and expressly sought to bar in the Bill of Rights. While the Framers would have likely expected citizens in the streets defending their freedoms, this measure was greeted with a shrug and a yawn by most citizens and reporters. Instead, we are captivated by whether a $10,000 bet by Romney was real or pretend in the last debate.
Even more distressing is the statement from sponsor Senator Levin, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee that “The language which precluded the application of Section 1031 to American citizens was in the bill that we originally approved … and the administration asked us to remove the language which says that U.S. citizens and lawful residents would not be subject to this section.”