Sobering poll on Democratic support for previously-opposed Bush terrorism policies

There’s a lot of discussion going on now in liberal circles about a new Washington Post poll which shows that not just Democrats, but liberal Democrats support for President Obama’s policy of using drones to assassinate American citizens without warrant or judicial oversight, as well as support for his continued use of Guantanamo Bay. Greg Sargent has more on it.

Not surprisingly, Glenn Greenwald has strong opinions about what this means. But I think the thing that’s most relevant is this:

I’ve often made the case that one of the most consequential aspects of the Obama legacy is that he has transformed what was once known as “right-wing shredding of the Constitution” into bipartisan consensus, and this is exactly what I mean. When one of the two major parties supports a certain policy and the other party pretends to oppose it — as happened with these radical War on Terror policies during the Bush years — then public opinion is divisive on the question, sharply split. But once the policy becomes the hallmark of both political parties, then public opinion becomes robust in support of it. That’s because people assume that if both political parties support a certain policy that it must be wise, and because policies that enjoy the status of bipartisan consensus are removed from the realm of mainstream challenge. That’s what Barack Obama has done to these Bush/Cheney policies: he has, as Jack Goldsmith predicted he would back in 2009, shielded and entrenched them as standard U.S. policy for at least a generation, and (by leading his supporters to embrace these policies as their own) has done so with far more success than any GOP President ever could have dreamed of achieving.

This is a problem that is quite literally Constitution destroying. Political consensus across parties on what was once considered a controversial issue means that the public has no opportunity to see contrast on the issue because there is none. This leveling-down of the differences between the two parties on a fundamental constitutional issue means that other than a handful of critics like Greenwald or the rare ideologically committed politicians, like Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul, there is essentially no dissent against these policies. Worse, what little dissent there is has been pushed outside the mainstream, making it something that the public has little opportunity to consider.

The poll numbers certainly look bad, but they are most likely a reflection of the combined absence of political leaders showing opposition to these policies and the presence of a Democratic President who both supports and has expanded on his Republican predecessor’s policies.

Leaks versus secrecy

Glenn Greenwald has a post on the ACLU suing the Obama administration to find out what legal arguments and doctrines were used to justify the assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was never charged with a crime. Greenwald notes throughout that the administration has used anonymity granted by a compliant press corps to repeatedly leak what happened and how it has been happened, as well as boasted of by the President on late night talk shows, but only when the justifications are challenged in court does it become Obama administration policy that these things cannot ever see the light of day:

Everyone knows that the U.S. Government is doing these things. They are discussed openly all over the world. The damage they do and the victims they leave behind make it impossible to conceal them. Often, they are the subject of judicial proceedings in other countries. Typically, U.S. officials will speak about them and justify and even glorify them to American media outlets anonymously.

There’s only one place in the world where these programs cannot be discussed: in American courts. That’s because, when it comes time to have real disclosure and adversarial checks — rather than one-sided, selective, unverifiable disclosure — and when it comes time to determine if government officials are breaking the law, the administration ludicrously claims that it is too dangerous even to confirm if such a program exists (and disgracefully deferential federal courts in the post-9/11 era typically acquiesce to those claims). So here we have the nauseating spectacle of the Obama administration secretly targeting its own citizens for assassination, boasting in public about it in order to show how Tough and Strong the President is, but then hiding behind broad secrecy claims to shield their conduct from meaningful transparency, public debate, and legal review, all while pretending that they are motivated by lofty National Security Concerns when wielding these secrecy weapons. The only thing worse than the U.S. Government’s conduct of most affairs behind a wall of secrecy is how cynical, manipulative and self-protective is its invocation of these secrecy powers. [Emphasis original.

It’s also worth noting that when government officials leak information in unauthorized ways about the powers seized by the executive branch relating to terrorism and surveillance, these leakers are prosecuted with extreme prejudice by the Obama administration. Leaks are a tool to be used to bolster themselves when they want to look and act tough, but when someone uses leaks to shine sunlight onto the behaviors of the administration, then they are treated as the gravest of offenses. The hypocrisy is truly sickening.

Killing Iranian Scientists Is Terrorism

Like Atrios, I have no idea who is assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. Odds are that it’s the US or Israel or both. But this is unquestionably terrorism.

Advocating for the murder of civilians, as Glenn Reynolds did in the Bush years and Rick Santorum is doing now is clearly sick. But actually perpetrating these attacks is criminal, whether it’s being done by the US, Israel, or some non-state agent.

I’m not so naive as to think extra-judicial means of affecting foreign policy is new to the US or any other government. We’ve been assassinating people we don’t like for years. As bad as doing this in the context of de-stabilizing leftist governments in Central and South America during the Cold War, doing it in an era where terrorism is routinely declared as the Greatest Evil Facing Americans is worse. We are trapped in our dishonest rhetoric, staring into a mirror but seeing nothing. Rank hypocrisy is a dangerous thing when it comes to war and peace. In the same way that we must oppose the torture of prisoners not only because it is wrong, but because it removes such protections for Americans when they are prisoners of war, we should not be assassinating civilians because it is both wrong and it would be much better if this wasn’t represented as an appropriate policy choice for other governments of the world when it comes to Americans!

I’ll make recourse to one more America-privileging argument before I close. One of the biggest challenges from progressives against the Bush administration was that policies like lying us into war in Iraq, killing countless civilians in Afghanistan, or kidnapping, torturing and detaining innocent people without due process were policies which make America and Americans less safe. The Bush administration’s persecution of a War on Terrorism made America less popular in the Muslim world, created terrorists with every misplaced bomb, and alienated us from our allies around the globe. In the same way, a policy of assassinating civilians in another country inherently makes America less safe, as it could make American civilians and government officials similar targets to assassination. Why would anyone support policies which, separate from any moral assessment, make us less safe?

Killing civilians is wrong. Always. This really isn’t hard, people.

Torture doesn’t work & other lessons

There has been a really strong push on the left since Sunday to make clear that Osama bin Laden was found and killed because of traditional interrogation and intelligence methods, essentially the police work version of counter-terrorism. Marcy Wheeler has done great work clarifying this here, here, and here; in these posts, Wheeler looks at the timeline of known torture of key Al Qaeda terrorists and what information was produced. The administration, too, is making clear that torture was not instrumental in getting to Bin Laden. A National Security Council spokesman made this clear to the NY Times:

“The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council. “It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there.”

This is right and it’s good on some level that the death of Bin Laden is proving as a nail in the coffin to the idea that torture works. Glenn Greenwald makes the point even more clearly:

But even if it were the case that valuable information were obtained during or after the use of torture, what would it prove? Nobody has ever argued that brutality will never produce truthful answers. It is sometimes the case that if you torture someone long and mercilessly enough, they will tell you something you want to know. Nobody has ever denied that. In terms of the tactical aspect of the torture debate, the point has always been — as a consensus of interrogations professionals has repeatedly said — that there are far more effective ways to extract the truth from someone than by torturing it out of them. The fact that one can point to an instance where torture produced the desired answer proves nothing about whether there were more effective ways of obtaining it.

Greenwald’s piece is worthwhile in that it brings us away from the question of how information was and was not obtained and towards the question of what actions or behaviors or policies we as a country should approve in the face of the threat of terrorism.

So while there is a robust debate taking place about torture, where is the debate on whether we were right as a country to suspend habeas corpus? Where is the debate about whether we should close Guantanamo Bay? Where is the debate about whether terrorism suspects should be brought to the United States to face trial before federal civilian judges? For all the ways in which this moment is being used to dismiss arguments for torture, we should remember that the Bush administration’s torture policies were largely wound down during the Bush administration. In essence, this is a debate that while important due to the response from Republican leaders who sought to use torture of suspects in interrogations, is somewhat less important than the debate about other policies which are actively being continued today. In the absence of strong and forceful rebuttals now from the left, I am deeply worried that the lesson political leaders, military leaders, the intelligence community and all the people who work for them that help shape the course of US policy will be that suspending habeas corpus is acceptable, that Gitmo is a good place to house terrorism suspects, and that not only do we not really need civilian trials, but military tribunals are unnecessary too.

The adjudication of who wins the War on Terrorism is going to be determined not by whether or not the US ceases to exist or becomes subsumed in an Islamic caliphate. Rather it will be determined by whether or not we fundamentally change who we are as a country in response to the threat of terrorism. We have undoubtedly changed who we are over the last ten years, surrendering some of our freedoms and some of our adherence to the rule of law in the titular name of national security. But these changes need not be permanent. Now is the time to roll back the security state, restore the rule of law, and make the Constitution paramount once again. The onus is on the President and congressional leaders to make this happen.

Bin Laden Killed

Bin Laden is gone, but the threat of terrorist attacks remains, as do the policy responses following the 9/11 attacks. The surrender of our liberties for security continues. Guantanamo remains open. US troops are still fighting wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, as well as Libya and Pakistan. While some leaders are calling for an exit from Afghanistan following Bin Laden’s death, I doubt this will be a major piece of the next two years of the Obama administration. While the story of how this happened continues to emerge, it should be clear that the process of manual intelligence gathering, following leads, interviewing captured terrorists, and making a targeted incursion (versus, say, starting a war against Pakistan) were what lead to his apprehension and death. Hopefully the lessons of this man-hunt carry forward with US decision makers whenever pursuing the next individual who sought to destroy our country.

Eduardo Galeano wrote this vignette in his 1998 book, Upside Down:

A Star Is Born?

In mid-1998, the White House put another villain up on the global marquee. He uses the stage name Osama bin Laden; he’s an Islamic fundamentalist, sports a beard, wears a turban, and caresses the rifle in his lap. Will this new star’s career take off? Will he be a box-office hit? Will he manage to undermine the foundations of Western civilization or will he only play a supporting role? In horror movies, you never know.

Thirteen years later, it’s clear that Bin Laden’s actions, specifically, the 9/11 attack, prompted the US government to make choices which fundamentally undermined who we are as a country. The escalation of a security state, wiretapping Americans without warrant, holding Americans without charge, ignoring habeas corpus rights, using torture as a means of making people talk, at times outsourcing that torture to countries that are more comfortable with it, outsourcing key military security tasks to private corporations, creating black hole prisons around the world, and the list goes on. Bin Laden was the reason, the justification for so many of these changes to who we are as a country. In the end, he and his band of fanatics have never posed an existential threat to America. But the threat they did pose, both realized and potential, has been used as a justification for our government to take actions which fundamentally challenge the values we have held dear as a country.

The death of Bin Laden should prompt us to end the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Libya. It should prompt us to close Guantanamo Bay and bring every remaining prisoner there to trial in front of federal, civilian judges. It should cause legislation to be written giving privacy rights back to Americans, including a repeal of the FISA Reauthorization bill, which gives retroactive immunity to people and companies who illegally helped the Bush administration wiretap Americans, and the Patriot Act. The invasive security measures at airports through TSA body scanners and full-body pat downs should be dropped. In short, it’s time to make America look like we did before Bin Laden launched the 9/11 attacks and a set of changes were enacted that fundamentally challenged who we are as a country. At the same time, the diminished resources being dedicated to fight wars in the Muslim world should be redirected in part to improving our human intelligence infrastructure and the rest going to help balance our budget. If and when these things start to happen, the real meaning of the death of Bin Laden will have become clear. But if his death changes nothing about how we look at the world, then the only logical assumption in answer to Galeano’s thirteen year old question is that Bin Laden played merely a supporting role in the changes American leadership sought to make in our country. Personally, I hope that President Obama and congressional leadership of both parties step forward and seize the opportunity to take our country back from the gripping fear of Al Qaeda which has driven so many policy decisions for the last ten years. To do so would require real leadership and real courage, characteristics which I truly hope will be on display in coming days.

Derived from the far right

The Los Angeles Times:

Most wind up concluding that Loughner suffered from mental problems. But experts said that several oft-repeated phrases and concepts — his fixation on grammar conspiracies, currency and the “second United States Constitution” — seem derived from concepts explored with regularity among elements of the far right.

“What you can see across the board in his writings is the idea that you can’t trust the government — that the government engages in mind control against its citizens,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has long monitored the radical right.

Loughner’s assertion that he would not “pay debt with a currency that’s not backed by gold and silver” is a running theme among right-wing opponents of the Federal Reserve system.