Almost unnoticed on New Year’s Eve, President Barack Obama dropped his vow to veto a law authorizing indefinite detention of American citizens on suspicion of being al-Qaeda sympathizers or supporting terrorism.
Not since the McCarthy era of the early 1950s when dubious fears of Communist sympathizers – ‘a Red under every bed’ – lurking in the United States produced a similarly draconian assault on Constitutional rights has a president been faced with the choice of signing or vetoing such a law.
“No considerations of expediency can justify the enactment of such a bill as this, a bill which would so greatly weaken our liberties and give aid and comfort to those who would destroy us,” said then President Harry Truman, who then vetoed it.
Mr. Obama often excoriated his predecessor George W. Bush for infringement on rights and, in particular, setting up the notorious offshore prison camp for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo.
“We need not sacrifice our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security,” Mr. Obama said, sounding rather like Mr. Truman, soon after taking office.
Mr. Obama, initially vowed to follow Mr. Truman’s example and veto the bill allowing for indefinite detention, not just of foreigners captured overseas but also of Americans picked up inside the United States.
But the odious provisions were tucked into a defence spending bill and Mr. Obama signed while on holiday in Hawaii.
In a so-called “signing statement” he admitted to “serious reservations” and promised “my administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens,” adding “that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a Nation.”
Except, as stunned and outraged right groups acidly pointed out, the president, who pocketed a Nobel Peace Prize shortly after taking office, signed the law allowing just that.
“President Obama’s action … is a blight on his legacy because he will forever be known as the president who signed indefinite detention without charge or trial into law,” said Anthony Romero, American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director. Mr. Romero, like other leading rights activists had, on occasion, tried to defend Mr. Obama’s failures to deliver on promises to restore civil liberties and close Guantanamo, suggesting the president was genuine in his desires but thwarted by his opponents.
But the indefinite detention of citizens seems to have been a step too far for many who took seriously Mr. Obama’s professions of fidelity to constitutional freedoms.
“It is a sad moment when a president who has prided himself on his knowledge of and belief in constitutional principles succumbs to the politics of the moment to sign a bill that poses so great a threat to basic constitutional rights,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
Mr. Obama, who also offended rights groups when he ordered the targeted assassination of a U.S. citizen, the al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by a missile-firing drone last September, may have correctly sensed the American mood. The war-weary nation is pre-occupied by the lingering economic malaise and there has been no outcry over the, so-far, hypothetical detention of Americans without charge.
The president’s defenders scoff at the criticism, saying if the feared detentions simply happen, that U.S. citizens won’t be hauled off to military prisons and left to rot. They may be right, although it might take a Supreme Court ruling – just as it did to force the Bush administration to accept that even detainees dragged off Afghan battlefields had some legal rights.
Political expediency rather than any principled position seems to have swayed Mr. Obama to drop his original vow to veto.
In a scathing editorial, the New York Times called it “a complete political cave-in, one that reinforces the impression of a fumbling presidency.”
The president’s use of a ‘signing statement’ to try and distance himself from the odious bits of the bill also left supporters squirming. For it was candidate Obama, flaunting his credentials as a constitutional professor who lambasted Mr. Bush for doing the same thing.
“What George Bush has been trying to do in part of his effort to accumulate more power in the Presidency, is, he’s been saying, ‘Well, I can basically change what Congress passed by attaching a letter that says ‘I don’t agree with this part’ or ‘I don’t agree with that part.’’
In fairness to Mr. Obama, a veto might not have worked. It didn’t for Mr. Truman. In 1950, the rabidly anti-communist Congress over-rode the president’s veto and some of the more objectionable provisions of the Internal Security Act lingered until 1971.