President Barack Obama talks about national security, Thursday, May 23, 2013, at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington. Declaring America at a "crossroads" in the fight against terrorism, the president Barack revealed clearer guidelines for the use of deadly drone strikes, including more control by the U.S. military, while leaving key details of the controversial program secret.(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Would you trust yourself with power? Most people, I suspect, would answer yes. People who actively seek great power would answer yes emphatically. So we should not be surprised when U.S. presidents trust themselves with awesome, unaccountable powers and bridle at checks and balances.

That many civil libertarians, like me, were unpleasantly surprised by Barack Obama’s autocratic tendencies is a measure of our own naiveté. If we could not have precisely predicted his war on whistleblowers and reporters and his targeted assassination program, among other abuses, we should have been prepared for them.

I don’t think I’ll be fooled again. I don’t take at face value Obama’s latest call to close Guantanamo and embark on more rational, less repressive anti-terror policies. I’m not reassured by the prospect of what would likely be a rubber stamp drone court. And if this proposed policy shift is better late than never, it is awfully late and perhaps not much better.

Whoever we elect may end up as much a captive as commander of the post 9/11 national security/surveillance state.

One lesson of the Obama presidency is the inevitability of presidential power grabs, especially in a high tech age of terror. For the foreseeable future, the men or women we elect will also offer the usual rhetorical tributes to the idea of freedom, while denying it in practice, buoyed by a belief in their own essential goodness, the rightness of their judgments and the necessity of exercising them in secret.

Twenty-first century presidents, imbued with unprecedented technological capabilities, are likely to trust themselves to monitor our freedoms more than they trust us to use them responsibly. From this paternalistic perspective, monitoring freedom is a way of protecting it. So, Obama can profess support for free speech, with a semblance of sincerity, even as he presides over the criminalization of political reporting.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would understand: “Freedom is about authority,” he famously and unself-consciously remarked. “Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.”

Well, no one ever accused Giuliani of respect for civil liberty. But even presidents who lack equally strong authoritarian instincts may find themselves agreeing with this perverse definition of freedom, or co-opted by the endless war on terror. Whoever we elect may end up as much a captive as commander of the post 9/11 national security/surveillance state.

Who governs us today? The people we elect or the shadowy, virtually indeterminate number of military, quasi-military, and national security personnel, employed by private contractors as well as the government? A 2010 Washington Post series tried heroically to answer this question.

It found that “Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States … The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.”

This is not an excuse for the Obama Administration’s abuses. The president retains power to release some Guantanamo detainees, stop the drone program (which he now proposes limiting) and fire Attorney General Eric Holder. (There are a few neglected presidential powers he should exercise.)

Bi-partisanship has dramatically eroded our fundamental liberties. Trans-partisanship is required to restore them.

But recognizing the vast, unaccountable power of the post 9/11 shadow government is a reminder that, for the time being, no president is likely to challenge gratuitously repressive security measures and invite being labeled soft on terror. When Obama pushed back slightly with a nod to liberty in his May 23 speech, he was instantly attacked for handing “terrorists … a victory.” No first term president who seeks re-election is likely to risk seeing that charge stick. No president is likely to control, much less attempt to dismantle the apparatus of the surveillance state, which both empowers and ensnares him.

This is, I know, a rather bleak vision of the near future. How can we most effectively confront it? By recognizing the profound assaults on liberty we’ve helped enable with our fears; by taking a long view and committing to a long slog against repression; by organizing locally, as well as nationally, across partisan lines, forging alliances between civil libertarians on the left and free market libertarians on the right. Under the Bush and Obama Administrations, Democrats and Republicans alike have supported humongous government in the form of the security state. Bi-partisanship has dramatically eroded our fundamental liberties. Trans-partisanship is required to restore them.


Tags: Barack Obama, Law, Security

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Frank

    “The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.” Henry Kissinger

    “Military men are dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns of foreign policy.” Henry Kissinger

  • SteveTheTeacher

    What right did President Obama have to severally wound 1 year old Shakira and kill the the two other infants with her through one of his drone bombing raids in Pakistan?

    Why is President Obama free to kill and wound what is estimated to be several hundred innocent men, women, and children without being held accountable for these crimes against humanity?

    Armed drones are weapons of mass destruction. Guantanamo is a gulag. President Obama is a war criminal.

    Through his actions against journalists, his targeting of whistle blowers, and his use of the FBI to target social justice activists; President Obama has demonstrated that he has no tolerance for dissent. For my part, I’d rather be sent to Guantanamo, forced into a stress position, and waterboarded than remain silent regarding the crimes against humanity that he, President Bush, and other government officials have done in their war on/of terrorism.

    The imperial presidency will end when those citizens, who still believe
    in social justice, organize to bring to trial Presidents Bush and Obama, and all
    those US government officials who took leadership roles in crimes
    against humanity in the US war on/of terrorism.

    • Futo Buddy

      so its never going to end?

      • SteveTheTeacher

        “To live without hope is to cease to live.” – Dostoevsky

  • Harvey A. Silverglate

    Wendy Kaminer, as usual, has it just about right. She can see through the veneers and detect the unreviewed and uncontained powers lurking beneath the surface. The only point she failed to make is that there is a mid-level permanent national security bureaucracy that is there when a new president arrives, and that remains in place when that president leaves office. Presidents, like hotel guests, come, and they go, but the staff of the Grand Hotel is there forever. Until we get a president with the sheer nerve to examine the apparatus, liberty will remain in much danger.

  • Futo Buddy

    this is the most serious issue of our times and that by which we will be judged by history and yet it gets so little press

  • Bob in Boston

    I have to think we’re near a tipping point. If we don’t get someone into the white house who will protect our rights soon, we’ll quickly be beyond the point where even a president can fix what’s wrong.

    There are only a small handful of political candidates who have said, and even more importantly shown through their voting records, that they’re up to the task of shrinking the big-government monster, but they ARE out there. You just have to look through the propaganda arrayed against them by the mainstream media and the other politicians, who stand to lose what they’ve worked so hard to create if these true patriots get into office.

    I’m talking about people like Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz and Justin Amash, all of whom have shown that they would at least move the ball in the right direction. It’s a shame the GOP cheated so badly in the nomination process in 2011/2012, because the person with the longest history of fighting big government, Ron Paul, had a 30+ year history of voting according to the constitution 100% of the time. Unfortunately the supporters of RINO Romney managed to cheat enough to get Romney the nomination, so we’ll never know if the elder Dr. Paul could have fixed things. Hopefully his son will get the chance now!

  • Don s

    they have DRONES targeting people here in America remember that WACO explosion ? done by a DRONE,of course they will coverup

  • LeftShooter

    I have been a member of the ACLU longer than I’ve been an
    NRA member (and NRA firearms instructor) and I am continually bemused that the
    ACLU and many of those that would identify as liberals count to ten (as in the
    Bill of Rights) by skipping the number 2. If you believe as I do that one of
    the important reasons for the 2nd Amendment is to keep the government from
    trampling over the rights enumerated in the other Amendments, then we should be
    more kindred in times like this. Please
    try to see us as allies in the maintenance of civil rights. We are.

    • Futo Buddy

      there is an interesting speech from a chinese american gun owner who states that on paper the chinese citizens have all the same rights as us with one exception. he was at tienimen square in 1989 and claimed it would have been different if the people there had a right to bear arms

  • tbarbour

    “Upon this country more than any other there has, in the providence of God, been cast the special guardianship of the great principle of adherence to written constitutions. If it fail here, all hope in regard to it will be extinguished. That this was intended to be a government of limited and specific, and not general powers must be admitted by all, and it is our duty to preserve for it the character intended by its framers.”
    — Andrew Jackson, First Annual Message to Congress, Dec. 8, 1829