On July 2nd, I attended a session given by Glenn Greenwald at the Socialism 2011 conference in Chicago. He began the speech by discussing the fact that even a year ago if he had attempted to give a speech observing that Obama has not only continued but in some cases enhanced the Bush/Cheney attacks on civil liberties he would have had to spend all of his time attempting to convince his audience that this was true.
People just instinctively found it repellent—the idea that this wonderfully, sophisticated, educated, progressive, constitutional lawyer, who ran on a platform of denouncing these policies and vowing to unroot them and reverse them, would actually be continuing and in many cases actually worsening them. It was just something that despite the abundance of evidence proving it was true was something that people intuitively reacted to in a negative way. You had to spend a great deal of time persuading them that it was actually the case by assembling all the evidence to prove it.
He pointed out that at the beginning of Obama's Presidency, the knee jerk initial reaction from the right wing conservatives was Obama is weak on national security and soft on terrorism. But within months it because so abundantly clear that this was not the case and they could no longer make this claim in public because it just became absurd to do so. The dialogue began to shift. He gave a few examples. One was a quote from Jack Goldsmith, a high-ranking lawyer, right wing ideologue in the Bush Justice Department, who approved things like “enhanced interrogation techniques” that the civilized world calls “torture." He wrote the following in 2009 in The New Republic.
This premise that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric.
Another example is General Michael Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2001 who oversaw the implementation of the illegal NSA spying program. Senator Obama in fact even voted against his confirmation as Bush's CIA chief on the grounds that he had broken the law so flagrantly with implementing this domestic eavesdropping program that the rule of law required senators to take a stand against his confirmation. General Hayden made the following statement on CNN in 2010:
There’s been a powerful continuity between the 43rd and the 44th president
And of course there is the most damning praise of all, Dick Cheney himself.
I think he’s, in terms of a lot of the terrorist policies, the early talk of prosecuting people who have been carrying out our policies, all of that has fallen by the wayside.” Said Cheney, “I think he’s learned that we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate so I think he’s learned from experience.”
The first concrete example he discussed was the subject of indefinite detention.
The idea that you can take people, human beings, and put them into a cage for years, indefinitely, without so much as charging them with a crime or giving them any opportunity in a court of law to defend themselves or prove their innocence, to contest the validity of the charges
The most obvious example is Guantanamo, which was a central theme in candidate Obama's run for President and his promise to close this facility was a key obligation he claimed and then did not deliver. Obviously there was much controversy over this subject, with those who are on the side of the President claiming he couldn't keep his promise due to Congress blocking his efforts. While this may true, it is not as simple as that. Greenwald explained:
Congress did pass a series of laws barring the closing of Guantanamo, in effect. But, before that ever happened, the president’s plan for a “closing of Guantanamo” was not really to close Guantanamo at all. It was simply to move it a few thousand miles north to Illinois, where the aspects that made it so controversial—namely imprisoning people for life without due process—was going to be fully preserved and maintained
The right of habeas corpus was discussed, and the Obama administration's solution to the Boumediene decision (giving prisoners in Guatanamo the right to habeus corpus) and how they can work around it has been to insist that habeus corpus doesn't apply anywhere else that the US imprisons people (places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen).
And the Obama Administration has thus far won in court with this argument, meaning it has won the right to circumvent that Supreme Court decision that says that habeas corpus is a right that detainees have if you’re at Guantanamo. You simply don’t bring them to Guantanamo anymore. Instead, you bring them to Bagram or you put them in Iraq and that’s what the administration has been doing. So, thousands of prisoners continue to be detained, increasing numbers all the time without a shred of due process as a result of this circumvention.
The topic of domestic policies became the next focus of the presentation. The "war on whistle blowers" is nothing new, but Greenwald made the observation that this has been one of the areas that the Obama administration has actually enhanced not protected since taking office. The most well known example of this is Wikileaks (something Greenwald has openly supported). The need for transparency and honestly in government is something that candidate Obama was very vocal about while running for President. Much hay was made about the Bush administration and their attempts to circumvent the Constitution in the name of national security. How could it be possible that the very person who was publicly claiming that these things were bad for this country would actually be endorsing and expanding these violations of law?
The way the government has responded to Wikileaks is two fold, One, the obvious attempts to shut down and/or pursue those who are involved in receiving the information and distributing it to the rest of us. The second involves a more insidious form of harassment.
And they’ve even gone so far as to execute a policy of detaining anyone they suspect of being associated with WikiLeaks at airports when they try to reenter the country, American citizens. And they’ve not only detained them but they’ve seized their laptops and other electronic devices like thumb drives and the like, memory drives. And then they just seize them and copy their contents, sometimes don’t return them, sometimes return them after a couple months—All without any form of judicial oversight or search warrant. They literally go through and do it routinely. It’s a form of pure harassment.
The Fourth Amendment is supposed to give us the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated. The Fifth Amendment - no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment - guarantee of equal protection under the law. All of these things are clearly being ignored by the current administration.
What is the affect of these violations?
By having a Democratic president adopt these policies it’s converted these things into bipartisan consensus. The way American political discourse works in establishment media circles is that, if Republicans and Democrats agree on a certain proposition, it no longer gets debated. It’s simply removed from the realm of what’s discussed
The climate of fear.
This was probably the most chilling portion of the speech for me. Greenwald told the story of his initial involvement in the Wikileaks story. He heard of this organization, and didn't really know much about them at first but heard that the Pentagon viewed them as an enemy of the state and was seeking to destroy them was enough for me to believe that they warranted a lot of attention and even support. He wrote a story and added a link to donate to support Wikileaks. And what happened after was many people emailed him and actually approached him at public events telling him that they supported Wikileaks but were afraid to donate to them because they thought they might end up on some government list or even eventually be accused of supporting a terrorist organization.
He also talked about meeting people who worked within the Wikileaks organization, and how their fear of ending up becoming a target of the American justice system was something they lived with every day. Many people have stopped working with Wikileaks because of this (very real) fear. And then he said this:
The fact that we have spent decades lecturing the world on what justice requires and what rule of law means and declaring ourselves the leader of the free world and yet people around the world are most petrified of ending up in the American justice system speaks volumes about what the state of civil liberties has become. And I think what is important to understand is that this is not just an implication. This is the purpose of why these things are being done.
The climate of fear has forever changed the discourse between we the people and our government. We have the examples of Bradley Manning and others (Guantanemo prisoners, renditions, and just regular citizens here afraid to donate to Wikileaks) as perfect examples of how our government has shifted the narrative to defending ourselves against their tyranny vs. being the example of freedom and justice for all throughout the world.
He used another perfect example of promoting the climate of fear (and I agree with this) regarding the killing of Osama bin Laden. I have a bit of a different take on this than most people. Not only do I see the killing of OBL as being an act on our part that was designed to instill fear in those around the world, but I also see it as a very sneaky attempt by the government to assure us they hey, we really are the good guys. We can protect you by killing this really bad man (even though the idea that it took us 10 years to do it sort of negates that message if you want to be honest). It was an attempt to reignite a sense of jingoistic pride amongst the population, which is something we saw from the Bush administration after 9/11 and it is something that is used to break down our defenses when it comes to being alarmed about the egregious violations of Constitutional law.
The final section of the speech was about how all of these things can end up turning on the very people who are actively enforcing these policies against the populace. We have seen all throughout history, and even very recently with the revolutions in MENA, that declining empires cannot sustain themselves. Government will cling to and even step up their attempts to hold onto their power via various methods that take away the civil rights of citizens.
Ironically, the only thing that could stop this kind of growing assault on civil liberties, the militarism that accompanies it, is a weakening of the US to the point where they’re no longer sustainable and the weakening is happening precisely because of these very policies. And oftentimes if you’re in the United States and you talk about a weakening of the United States, it’s considered to be a think that we want to avoid like it’s a very bad thing. But, I think it’s a very good thing.
At the end of the speech there was a question and answer session. The questions from the attendees were edited out of the video posted below (but not his answers), and my favorite question and answer was as follows. A lady stood up and asked Greenwald if he considered himself to be a Socialist (an obvious question to be asked at a Socialism conference). He talked about how he used to consider himself to a be a sophisticated consumer of news, being a lawyer and reading The New York Times and all those things that sophisticated people do. But since he began writing about politics full time five or sex years ago he has shifted his belief system dramatically. He has rejected the idea that you can work within the two party system or change things by electing more progressive Democrats. The factions working against the people in this country have been co-opted by both parties.
The only means of true political change will come from people working outside of that system to undermine and subvert it, and weaken it, and to destroy it and not try to work within it to change it.
Welcome to the party Mr. Greenwald.
This speech is really good and contains a lot of information I could not possibly cover here. It is over an hour long but well worth watching if you are a fan of Glenn Greenwald or interested in this subject at all.