George Bush was denounced around the world for allowing his intelligence agencies to install wiretaps without warrants from the courts.
But Barack Obama authorises the killing of citizens without any semblance of due process and there’s scarcely a whimper of protest.
Protesting against the wiretaps four years ago, Al Gore asked: “Can it be true that any president really has such powers under our constitution? If the answer is yes, then under the theory by which these acts are committed, are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited?
“If the president has the inherent authority to eavesdrop on American citizens without a warrant, imprison American citizens on his own declaration, kidnap and torture, then what can't he do?”
We now have an answer: he can order executions without recourse to a court. Confirmation that Obama has arrogated the power of life and death over citizens to himself came in evidence to a Congressional hearing from Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair earlier this month.
He explained that the criteria to be met before giving the go-ahead for citizen-assassination included “whether that American is involved in a group that is trying to attack us, whether that American is a threat to other Americans. Those are the factors involved.”
There was no mention of outside checks of any kind, or of what weight was to be attached, and by whom, to the factors referred to. The right embedded in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution — that no one should be deprived of life without due process — appears to have been entirely abandoned by Obama.
The previous administration may have paid as little regard to the right to life as to other rights enshrined in the constitution. But Bush’s people weren’t as brazen about it. Obama trades on a reputation for ethical decency to escape censure for initiatives which would have had Bush howled down wherever he appeared in the world.
Some of Obama’s most high-flung rhetoric on the 2008 election trail came in denunciations of Bush (left) for damage inflicted on America’s image abroad by the trashing of human rights in the imprisonment without trial and ill-treatment of foreigners at Guantanamo and at CIA ‘black sites’.
But if it is a constitutional outrage to imprison foreigners without legal process, how can it be acceptable to issue executive orders for the killing of Americans?
The jackboot is now on the other foot. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on February 4, Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich observed: “When US citizens are unilaterally deemed a threat to our national security, their right to present a defence is summarily and anonymously stripped from them. The government becomes policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner all in one. This suspension of basic constitutional protections for US citizens puts in jeopardy our Constitution and the rule of law.”
Non-US citizens fare even worse under Obama. In the same letter, Kucinich asks what the legal justification is for the contracting-out of assassinations in Pakistan to private security firms, including Blackwater — the company associated with former vice-president Dick Cheney which is still the subject of investigations into mass murder in Iraq.
“Instead of being debarred from federal contracts, the Pentagon and the CIA have now seen fit to give Blackwater operatives the power over life and death,” complains Kucinich.
Blackwater founder Erik Prince has confirmed to Vanity Fair magazine that the company remains in good standing with the administration and participates directly in assassination programmes run by the CIA and the Joint Special Operational Command.
There are many, of course, some close to home, who will shrug off concerns about assassinations, whether of US citizens or others, on the ground that, well, drastic measures are needed to deal with the terrorist threat. That is to say, with people accused by the US government of being terrorists.
We might recall in this regard that many Guantanamo detainees identified by Bush as among “the worst of the worst” of world terrorists turned out not to be terrorists at all.
At least a majority of these have lived to tell the tale. No such luck for some under Obama.
The extent of Obama’s corruption of idealism is measured in the response of Afghan officials to the revelation of an assassination hit-list of 50 alleged drug-traffickers drawn up by US military chiefs in Kabul.
The Washington Post reported that, “Gen[eral] Mohammad Daud Daud, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister for counter-narcotics efforts . . . said he worried that foreign troops would now act on their own to kill suspected drug lords, based on secret evidence, instead of handing them over for trial. ‘They should respect our law, our constitution and our legal codes. We have a commitment to arrest these people on our own’. “
Said former interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali: “There is a constitutional problem here. A person is innocent unless proven guilty. If you go off to kill or capture them, how do you prove that they are really guilty in terms of legal process?”
As far as I can recall, Afghan officials never presumed, or felt it necessary, to lecture the US under Bush on matters of constitutional propriety and the rule of law.
No question. Obama has made a difference.