Op-Ed: Obama 'Devastating' For Civil Liberties

Jonathan Turley argues in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that "the election of Barack Obama may stand as one of the single most devastating events in our history for civil liberties." He says President Obama has continued many of the most controversial Bush administration programs.

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JOHN DONVAN, host: And now, the Opinion Page. After eight years under President Bush, many civil libertarians were thrilled when Barack Obama won the 2008 election. What a difference a few years make. Law Professor Jonathan Turley argues in a recent op-ed that, quote, "the election of Barack Obama may stand as one of the single most devastating events in our history for civil liberties." Now, if you supported President Obama in the last election, we want to know: How important is this issue of civil liberties to you? Will it make or break your support for the president going forward? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website and find a link to the Turley op-ed. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

So Jonathan Turley, he's a law professor at George Washington University. His piece, "Obama: A Disaster for Civil Liberties," ran last month in the Los Angeles Times, and he joins us now in Studio 3A. So you say of President Obama that his election may be one of the single most devastating events in our history for civil liberties? That is very, very strong language, Jonathan.

JONATHAN TURLEY: It is a strong language, but I think civil libertarians are coming to grips with what is really a building disaster for our movement, and it's been a rather difficult process. You know, I have a large civil liberties blog, and there's a lot of soul-searching among civil libertarians about what exactly happened. But we are engaging in a sense of collective denial when we deal with President Obama.

DONVAN: You mean you're not talking about it publicly.

TURLEY: Yeah. And I think that's part of the purpose of this column, is to address the fact that President Obama is a perfect nightmare when it comes to civil liberties. He not only adopted most of President Bush's policies in the civil liberties areas when it comes to terrorism, but he actually expanded on them. He outdid George Bush.

And they range. His position on torture and refusing to have people investigated or prosecuted for torture, on privacy lawsuits. He pushed aggressively for the dismissal of dozens of lawsuits brought by private interest organizations. He's for immunity for people who engaged in warrantless surveillance. He has fought standing for people even to be able to get courts to review his programs, much like George Bush. He kept military tribunals and the authority to make the discretionary choice of sending some people to a real court, some people to a military tribunal. He has asserted the right to kill U.S. citizens based solely on his own discretion, that he believes them to be a threat to the country.

His administration has, once again, as with the Bush administration, cited secret law, that - and including a case of assassinating citizens - a law that we're not allowed to see, but we have to trust them.

DONVAN: All right. Let me stop you there, Jonathan, because I, again, want to invite callers to weigh in on this subject, particularly if you were among those who supported the president in the last election. Is this issue a make-or-break issue for your? Our number is 800-989-8255. And, Jonathan, the way that you're talking about this as a supporter of civil liberties - which I know that you are from your track record - almost as an act of betrayal, that this was going to be your civil libertarian president. Is that the idea?

TURLEY: Well, certainly. I supported Barack Obama. I wasn't very quiet about my support. I thought he was going to be a refreshing change to George Bush. But what has happened is that we have an election that's become a single-issue election, and that issue is Barack Obama. And he's an icon to both sides. But what's happened to the civil liberties movement is that we generally have a pendulum swing back in favor of civil liberties, which we were building towards after the Bush administration.

Polls were showing that citizens were opposed to many of the abuses, that they wanted to see more protections, and Barack Obama really rowed that way. He portrayed himself as a civil libertarian. And then when he proved to adopt many of Bush's positions and adopt even worse positions in some regards, it split the base of the civil liberties movement. There are many people that frankly cannot get themselves to oppose Barack Obama. They make a lot of excuse for him.

DONVAN: You mean emotionally they can't do it?

TURLEY: They can't emotionally, politically, personally. They just have a very difficult time opposing a man who's an icon and has made history - the first black president, but also the guy that replaced George Bush. And the result is something akin to the Stockholm syndrome, where you've got this identification with your captor. I mean, the Democratic Party is split, civil libertarians are split, and the Democratic Party itself is now viewed by most of libertarians as very hostile toward civil liberties.

Senators and members of the House, it turns out, were aware of many of these abuses and never informed people.

DONVAN: Well, it's interesting one of the things you're saying is, in a sense, granting your point provisionally - that you're saying that he's getting away with it because it's just not enough of a hot issue toward the public at large. Or, if it is, people don't want to talk about it. I want to test that with some of our listeners and go to Aileen(ph) in Andover, Michigan. Aileen, you're on the air. And would you like to speak with Jonathan Turley?

AILEEN: Yes. Hi. It's Ann Arbor, Michigan (unintelligible). Yes, I want to say, first of all, that I respect Professor Turley very much. I enjoy watching him on Rachel Maddow and other shows. And as much as I respect his view - and I'm saying that he's wrong in and of itself, based on the facts. But I think that we, sometimes on the left, we can be very naive because obviously after he stopped being a campaigner and became the president and was privy to information that we do not see, he changed his mind on a number of issues, because his primary responsibility is to protect us.

DONVAN: Let me bring that to Jonathan. It's a very interesting point, Ailene. Jonathan, Ailene, making the point that the president was sincere when he took those stands during the election campaign. But once elected to office, he found stuff out. He was better informed at what was going on behind the scenes and, as she put it, he changed his mind.

TURLEY: Well, that's an example of how hard many people are working to excuse something that is inexcusable. Let me give you an example in terms of torture. President Obama, as soon as he came into office, assured CIA employees that they would not be investigated or prosecuted for torture even though he admitted that waterboarding was, in fact, torture. We have treaties and laws that require us to investigate and prosecute people who commit torture. Whether or not they're guilty of it, we have an obligation to investigate.

All countries say that it's an inconvenient moment, that we don't want to divide the country. We want to come together. That's always what leaders say to avoid these investigations. The United States put - was put in the same category by Barack Obama as countries like Serbia in fighting investigations of torture. That was a political decision. It wasn't something that he had learned. It was because it would be politically costly for him to order investigation that he knew was likely to result in a prosecution of high-ranking Bush official.

DONVAN: But if you say that as a nation we tend to correct swings of the pendulum away from civil liberties, why would he not enjoy the pendulum swing ride back in the direction in which he was riding it during the election? Why stop once he was elected to office?

TURLEY: Well, unfortunately, for civil libertarians, we're very familiar with this phenomenon. We tend to be the bridesmaid and never the bride at Democratic weddings. You know, they come and they offer us their fealty and we vote for them and then they abandon us once they get into power. And the reason is that Barack Obama clearly made the decision attack to the right to say that he was tough on terror, and that was rather overtly done. And many of these things, in terms of - he just knows things he doesn't, you know, he didn't know before - really doesn't fit with many of the policies that he had advanced, things like the assassination of U.S. citizens.

Barack Obama is now claiming the right to kill any U.S. citizen by writing his name on a list if he satisfy that he's a threat. They spent two years looking for Awlaki, who - few people in the passing of. But the point is that you don't have an outcry among Democratic citizens of the implications of what happens when a president can designate U.S. citizen - George Bush killed a U.S. citizen who is a collateral in an assassination of a drone. Barack Obama did him one better and actually intentionally killed a U.S. citizen and killed a second U.S. citizen in the process. But Democrats are completely silent because it's Barack Obama. And to me, that smacks a lot like occulted personality.

DONVAN: I want to go Desnay(ph) in Aiken, South Carolina. Desnay, can you hear us all right?

DESNAY: Yeah, I'm here.

DONVAN: Yeah, join us.

DESNAY: I am here. Not only did I vote for him, I held parties for him and I am extremely disturbed by the fact that he signed that executive order. And I have read Jonathan Turley's writing on the issue. I agree with him 100 percent. I can't wrap my head around supporting him.

DONVAN: So for you, this actually is a make-or-break issue?

DESNAY: Yeah. All of what he's done - extending all of Bush's - The Patriot Act. Everything that he's done - I find it extremely disturbing that a constitutional lawyer doesn't know the Constitution. I don't care what color he is. I'm black too.

DONVAN: Jonathan Turley, given that kind of attitude but at the same time pushing back with your argument that people aren't talking about this very much, do you think, going forward, that this is actually going to hurt the president's political prospects?

TURLEY: Well, I think it will. I think that the president flew past the fail safe point, on torture particularly. His administration didn't just promise not to prosecute people for torture, but it actually tore up founding principles from Nuremburg. You know, they argue, for example, that CIA employees can never be prosecuted for torture because they were following orders, that they were just doing what they were told to do. That's the exact argument the United States fought against in Nuremberg and said you cannot say that people are just following orders if they commit a war crime.

They also relieved responsibility of lawyers. They became circulated. They said, these people were following the advice of lawyers and then when we called for the discipline of lawyers, they said, well, they were just giving liquid advice. And this perfect circle was designed to avoid accountability for torture. And torture is one of those foundational principles that not just shocks the conscience, but it is very hard for any civil libertarian or for many civil libertarians to vote for someone who's in violation of the convention on torture.

DONVAN: We're talking about President Obama's record on civil liberties since being in office. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We're talking with Jonathan Turley, who's written this quite sharp op-ed piece in The Los Angeles Times, suggesting that - not suggesting, accusing President Obama of having a worst record on civil liberties than his predecessor President Bush.

And, Jonathan, you're making the argument that he's doing this for political reasons, to tact to the right in order to - I suppose your argument is to try to govern. Say he's elected to a second term and he doesn't have the re-election pressure again, what would your expectation be for the president?

TURLEY: Well, he has succeeded lowering my expectations, so I can only be pleasantly surprised. But the problem is that the Democratic Party itself is now heavily invested in these policies. One of the most shocking things that come out of the Bush administration was the knowledge that Democratic leaders were aware of the torture program. They were aware of the warrantless surveillance program. They never told voters when they were running of it. But they allowed those programs to continue without opposition. And he - so he has many of his own party that are very invested. The other problem with this is that we have basically come down to this that I guess the problem with the Bush administration was Bush, and the position seems to be, you can trust us. And when civil libertarians objected to President Obama saying he could kill any American citizen that he believes is a danger to the United States...

DONVAN: (Unintelligible) trust us.

TURLEY: ...that he can put him on a list to be hit, what came out were a bunch of civil libertarians that now work for the administration who said, well, don't worry, we were in the room. Trust us.

DONVAN: Yeah. Yeah. Sam Knight(ph) sends us an email. He says: Yes, our civil liberties have become diminished - the cause is terrorism. Terrorists are not represented by a government. They do not wear uniforms. The person standing next to me at the grocery store can be a terrorist. Unfortunately, says Sam Knight, to protect us from the terrorists, some civil liberties will be lost or diminished. In other words, he's saying it's the price we have to pay.

TURLEY: Well, I think he makes the argument from civil liberties' standpoint. You're right. You'd be standing next to someone who's accused to be a terrorist. How do you know? That's the point. We have a country that's formed on principles, of checks and balances that we don't trust people to make these decisions. We have an entire legal system that has become virtually superfluous. It's almost Fellini-esque. We got a system that works hard to get the question of guilt right.

It takes years to execute someone to get it right, but the president can simply take that offline by writing a name on a piece of paper and say, I am confident. So it becomes a presidential prerogative to take the whole system offline. And he has done that also with military tribunals. We mocked Bush for saying that he could sit there Caesar-like and send one person to a military tribunal and one to a real court. Barack Obama endorsed the same policy. He claims the same power.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Myer from Houston. Myer, you're on the air.

MYER: Well, I think it's a mixed bag. I think you're looking at a one situation issue. It's like rebutting for Ralph Nader. I don't think any Republican starting with Nixon who had a hit list, so to speak, would be any better on civil liberties. In fact, I think they would be worst no matter what your argument is. I think it's a very mixed bag. And I think that you are off base because you would allow us to elect someone who would probably do more harm than less harm. Thank you.

DONVAN: You want to take that, Jonathan?

TURLEY: Well, first of all, it is very hard to imagine these policies getting worse because the president has endorsed absolute power, the same as Bush has, and now Democrats are invested in it. So if that's a Republican president, Democrats will be complete hypocrites if they object to the next president using these powers just as Barack Obama did. And it is very easy to say he is better than the next guy. Civil libertarians tend not to think that way. We owe a base responsibility to things like the Geneva Convention. And we are taught that civil liberties are things that don't become political playthings.

And what is left is that we look ridiculous. We came out today - they came out to say with a report that our Afghan allies are now torturing people in prison and that U.S. officials, NATO officials are looking into it. Imagine how ridiculous that meeting would be for an American official to say, you better investigate to people committing torture because we can't go forward. We've adopted a position that is the exact opposite, so we have this legal system that can be pointed to as a cathedral for hypocrisies(ph), much like, you know, "Macbeth" that's full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, if the president, on his prerogative, can take it all offline.

DONVAN: Jonathan, last thing I want to ask you: As long as it's not our mail that's being opened and hour phones that are being tapped, and we have the perception that it's bad guys and terrorists and for our white people, is this something that just isn't going to settle down on the horizon of most Americans?

TURLEY: Well, unfortunately, most Americans are greeting this news with a yawn. The fact that they could be on the list is something that seems remote. And we have this collective national yawn that is quite disturbing.

DONVAN: Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University. Again, a link to his piece: Obama: A Disaster for Civil Liberties can be found in our website npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks for joining us today. This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington.

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