I was wrong.
Last fall, I decided to vote for President Obama’s re-election. I did so even though I had deep concerns about his administration’s record on civil liberties issues important to me: the assassination of American citizens abroad, his apparent squeamishness on defending the First Amendment in the face of riots overseas, his willingness to defend companies accused of illegally participating in the government’s “warrantless wiretapping” program of a decade ago. Yes, Obama was “imperfect,” I wrote for Scripps Howard News. But Romney, I said, would be worse.
It seems more likely that a President Romney would appoint Supreme Court justices who would undermine the rights and freedoms of women to control their own reproductive health, or who would turn a cold shoulder to the rights and freedoms of gay and lesbian Americans to make their own families.
It seems more likely that a President Romney — a man so vocal in private about his disdain for the poorest 47 percent of the population — would undermine and dismantle safety net programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the name of reducing the deficit, all while cutting taxes for his rich friends.
That rationale? Not entirely incorrect. I’m just no longer convinced it’s sufficient.
Because one thing seems certain: If you keep voting for presidents who will infringe on your rights to liberty, privacy and due process, you’ll keep getting presidents who infringe on your rights to liberty, privacy and due process. Nothing will change. And President Obama—who famously campaigned for “change”—stands exposed. His words are nice; his actions matter. Here’s what we’ve found out recently about those actions:
• His administration is collecting your phone records: The Guardian reported this Wednesday night, that the NSA had been granted a warrant to collect data on every single phone call made in the Verizon system; it seems likely that similar orders exist for other phone companies. “From a civil liberties perspective, the program could hardly be any more alarming. It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents,” said Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director.
• They’re collecting everything you put on the Internet, too: On Thursday, after I had initially finished this column, the Washington Post reported this: “The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.” The companies? “Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.” “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” a source said.
• Drone warfare, which we were promised “surgically” targets terrorists, kills indiscriminately:
The CIA did not always know who it was targeting and killing in drone strikes in Pakistan over a 14-month period, an NBC News review of classified intelligence reports shows.-
About one of every four of those killed by drones in Pakistan between Sept. 3, 2010, and Oct. 30, 2011, were classified as “other militants,” the documents detail. The “other militants” label was used when the CIA could not determine the affiliation of those killed, prompting questions about how the agency could conclude they were a threat to U.S. national security.
That was reported earlier this week by NBC. This may not seem to have much to do with civil liberties, but it reflects a dangerous attitude on the part of the Obma Administration that extends into the civil liberties realm—a blithe lack of concern about actual guilt or innocence so long as the targets seem to be, well, terroristy. It’s the kind of attitude that finds it all too easy to disregard individual liberties.
• Don’t forget the plan to bug the Internet. I wrote about this last month, but it still galls, and it gets—again—at the underlying reason I find it impossible to trust or support this president anymore: Simply put: The administration’s “underlying presumption (is) that you only get to have the secrets that government allows you to keep.”
• We won’t even talk about the unprecedented prosecution of whisteblowers: Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed the Pentagon Papers way back when, made an interesting observation to the Washington Post this week: “There’s no question that President Obama is conducting an unprecedented campaign against unauthorized disclosure. The government had used the Espionage Act against leaks only three times before his administration. He’s used it six times. He’s doing his best to assure that sources in the government will have reason to fear heavy prison sentences for informing the American public in ways he doesn’t want.”
So what’s next?
Not to be dramatic or anything, but we sure seem to be at a crossroads. Either Americans will accept all of this as the cost of security … or we won’t. And if we don’t, the next few months—and perhaps years—are going to be painful, involving at a minimum a massive re-ordering of our politics. The Surveillance State has bipartisan support in Washington D.C. Is that the case across the rest of the nation, as well?
We’re about to find out.
Which leaves me with a question: What if (like me) you’re a left-leaning civil libertarian? The kind of voter who has a strong aversion to torture, mass wiretapping, the drug war, restrictions on reproductive rights, the militarization of police, pre-emptive war, and so on—but retains a fondness for safety net programs like Social Security, Medicare, unemployment benefits, and food stamps? At this point, there is no home among either Democrats or Republicans.
Maybe it means getting out of voting entirely. Maybe it means instead throwing my energies and support to groups like the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation and Center for Constitutional Rights that are working tirelessly to challenge the violations and repair the damage done by our government. Maybe it’s time to work outside the system in order to save it.
It’s important to note: We are not a totalitarian state, not even now. We citizens still retain substantial power to change the direction of our government. But if change is to happen it will have to start with us. It certainly won’t start with our leaders. It certainly won’t start with President Obama.