ACLU: If you liked the Bush/Cheney Unitary Executive, you’ll love the Obama Unitary Executive.

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This week the ACLU released a disturbing report documenting the permanent enshrinement of the Bush/Cheney definition of the Unitary Executive by the Obama administration. With the tacit acceptance of the Democratic Congress, the balance of power continues to shift heavily to the executive branch. While distressing, the report is unsurprising as it became clear in the first few weeks of the new administration that Obama’s campaign rhetoric of rolling back the Bush/Cheney power grab was just that – empty campaign rhetoric.

The ACLU report “Establishing a New Normal” is summarized here, and the full report linked here [PDF]. The report assesses the record of the first 18 months of the Obama administration across several civil rights categories and is well worth the read.

Excerpted here – a few ACLU report highlights lowlights:

“…the administration has fought to keep secret hundreds of records relating to the Bush administration’s rendition, detention, and interrogation policies. To take just a few of many possible examples, it has fought to keep secret a directive in which President Bush authorized the CIA to establish secret prisons overseas; the Combatant Status Review Transcripts in which former CIA prisoners describe the abuse they suffered in the CIA’s secret prisons… the administration has also fought to withhold information about prisoners held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Obama administration has released less information about prisoners held at Bagram Air Base than the Bush administration released about prisoners held at Guantánamo.

The truth is that the Obama administration has gradually become an obstacle to accountability for torture. It is not simply that, as discussed above, the administration has fought to keep secret some of the documents that would allow the public to better understand how the torture program was conceived, developed, and implemented. It has also sought to extinguish lawsuits brought by torture survivors—denying them recognition as victims, compensation for their injuries, and even the opportunity to present their cases.”

“Of far greater significance than the administration’s failure to meet its own one-year deadline is its embrace of the theory underlying the Guantánamo detention regime: that the Executive Branch can detain militarily—without charge or trial—terrorism suspects captured far from a conventional battlefield… we fear that if a precedent is established that terrorism suspects can be held without trial within the United States, this administration and future administrations will be tempted to bypass routinely the constitutional restraints of the criminal justice system in favor of indefinite military detention. This is a danger that far exceeds the disappointment of seeing the Guantánamo prison stay open past the one-year deadline. To be sure, Guantánamo should be closed, but not at the cost of enshrining the principle of indefinite detention in a global war without end.

President Obama has authorized a program that contemplates the killing of suspected terrorists—including U.S. citizens —located far away from zones of actual armed conflict. If accurately described, this program violates international law and, at least insofar as it affects U.S. citizens, it is also unconstitutional… the government has failed to prove the lawfulness of imprisoning individual Guantánamo detainees in some three quarters of the cases cases that have been reviewed by the federal courts thus far, even though the government had years to gather and analyze evidence for those cases and had itself determined that those prisoners were detainable. This experience should lead the administration—and all Americans—to reject out of hand a program that would invest the CIA or the U.S. military with the unchecked authority to impose an extrajudicial death sentence on U.S. citizens and others found far from any actual battlefield.”

“The administration’s embrace of military commission trials at Guantánamo, albeit with procedural improvements, has been a major disappointment. Instead of calling a permanent halt to the failed effort to create an entirely new court system for Guantánamo detainees, President Obama encouraged an effort to redraft the legislation creating the commissions and signed that bill into law… the existence of a second-class system of justice with a poor track record and no international legitimacy undermines the entire enterprise of prosecuting terrorism suspects. So long as the federal government can choose between two systems of justice, one of which (the federal criminal courts) is fair and legitimate, while the other (the military commissions) tips the scales in favor of the prosecution, both systems will be tainted…”

“…over the last eighteen months, President Obama’s administration has defended the FISA Amendments Act in the same way that the last administration did so: by insisting that the statute is effectively immune from judicial review. Individuals can challenge the statute’s statute’s constitutionality, the administration has proposed, only if they can prove that their own communications were monitored under the statute; since the administration refuses to disclose whose communications have been monitored, the statute cannot be challenged at all. In some ways, the administration’s defense of the statute is as troubling as the statute itself. The Obama administration has been reluctant to yield any of the expansive surveillance powers claimed by the last administration. It has pushed for the reauthorization of some of the Patriot Act’s most problematic surveillance provisions.”

“…rather than reform the watch lists the Obama administration has expanded their use and resisted the introduction of minimal due process safeguards to prevent abuse and protect civil liberties. The Obama administration has added thousands of names to the No Fly List, sweeping up many innocent individuals. As a result, U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents have been stranded abroad, unable to return to the United States. Others are unable to visit family on the opposite end of the country or abroad. Individuals on the list are not told why they are on the list and thus have no meaningful opportunity to object or to rebut the government’s allegations. The result is an unconstitutional scheme under which an individual’s right to travel and, in some cases, a citizen’s ability to return to the United States, is under the complete control of entirely unaccountable bureaucrats relying on secret evidence and using secret standards.

“…if the Obama administration does not effect a fundamental break with the Bush administration’s policies on detention, accountability, and other issues, but instead creates a lasting legal architecture in support of those policies, then it will have ratified, rather than rejected, the dangerous notion that America is in a permanent state of emergency and that core liberties must be surrendered forever.”

It is easy to point to the hypocrisy of liberals and Democrats who railed with righteous indignation about the Bush/Cheney expansion of executive power, only to be complicit in the continuing erosion of our liberty now. Their deafening silence, kid-glove criticism, and/or rationalizations of the Obama administration’s continued expansion of executive power and consequent institutionalization of the Bush/Cheney Unitary Executive speaks volumes about their prioritizing partisanship over principles.

To be sure – there are principled voices on the left who have consistently and clearly pointed to this administration failure – notably Glenn Greenwald and Jane Hamsher among others:

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These voices are too few. The first two years of the Obama administration represent a badly squandered opportunity to undo the damage done by the previous administration.

Worse than the routine partisan hypocrisy by administration apologists, is the complete abrogation of constitutional checks, balances, and executive oversight responsibilities by our Senators and Representatives in Congress.

Fro example, what happened to the soaring rhetoric of Senator Patrick Leahy – who campaigned passionately and relentlessly for the restoration of constitutional Habeas Corpus protections in 2006?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: “It grieves me to think that three decades in this body that I stand here in the Senate, knowing that we’re thinking of doing this. It is so wrong. It is unconstitutional. It is un-American. It is designed to ensure the Bush-Cheney administration will never again be embarrassed by a United States Supreme Court decision reviewing its unlawful abuses of power. The Supreme Court said, ‘You abused your power.’ He said, ‘Ha, we’ll fix that. We have a rubber stamp, a rubber stamp, Congress, that will just set that aside and give us power that nobody, no king or anybody else set foot in this land, ever thought of having.” – Senator Patrick Leahy

In 2007 I again supported the Leahy follow-on effort to restore Habeas Corpus:

The gutting of the Great Writ of Habeas Corpus is the most notable outstanding assault on civil liberties. Senators Leahy and Spector have just introduced legislation to restore the right without ambiguity and DWSUWF recommends signing the petition to support their efforts.

If you click on the petition linked in this quote you’ll note the referenced campaign on the Leahy website no longer exits, replaced with a milquetoast request to send a letter to your senator requesting support. I guess it is just not as high a priority for Leahy if a Democrat has “power that nobody, no king or anybody else set foot in this land, ever thought of having.” I expect Democrats will not be as sanguine about the expanded and institutionalized power of the Obama Unitary Executive when and if a Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin steps behind the wheel of this supercharged presidential machine.

The ACLU report focuses on civil liberties, but the accelerating accretion of executive power over our economic liberties has been equally egregious. I won’t belabor the point in this post, but will simply point out the obvious. Regardless of what one thinks of the merits or politics of the legislation, it is beyond argument that Obamacare and Financial Regulation as passed, dramatically increase the power held by the executive branch. With these laws, Congress granted vast power to faceless bureaucrats in the executive branch with unfettered latitude to set industrial policy, create and enforce broad new regulations over the healthcare and financial industries.

Even beyond these laws, even when operating without a firm legal foundation, this administration has repeatedly demonstrated an eager willingness to push the the boundaries of presidential power.

You’d think, even allowing for partisanship, there would be enough institutional loyalty among our legislators to try to maintain some semblance of balance between the supposedly co-equal legislative and executive branches of government. It is simply not happening. In times of Single Party Rule (as we’ve had for eight of the last ten years) it is Party Über Alles, and the constitutional checks and balances envisioned by the founders between the executive and legislative branch just fade away. This was true with Republicans in 2000-2006, and it is true with Democrats now.

At the rate that the Senate and House have ceded power to the executive branch over the last decade, combined with the lap dog deference most legislators offer to an executive of the same party, the legislature might as well vote itself out of existence. Perhaps they could be functionally replaced by a Legolist e-mail listserv.

The only remaining restraint on executive power today is the judiciary. This is why I have supported and will continue to support Obama nominations to the Supreme Court. My fervent hope is that the new justices will help form a SCOTUS majority that will pull hard on the reigns of the executive branch, declare many of the Bush/Obama administration actions (civil and economic) unconstitutional, and restore some semblance of the rule of law.

Regardless of what you may think of the political leanings of ACLU, they are fighting the good fight for our constitutional protections in the courts and they are doing it regardless of the party in power. They deserve our support. Beyond the courts, the only other way to restrain the extraordinary economic overreach and fiscal irresponsibility of this executive branch is to vote Republican in 2010 and divide this government. Congress only seems to remember their executive oversight responsibilities when the president is not of the same party as the majority in Congress.

Cross posted from “Divided We Stand United We Fall