The issue of Ukraine and Crimea and Russia has dominated the news in the last week, with much of the US media portrayal consisting of repeating US government assertions that this is an example of Russia throwing its weight around and interfering in the internal affairs of another nations, as if the US never does such things. The reality is that the US is constantly interfering in the internal affairs of other countries either overtly by sending in troops or covertly by supporting destabilizing efforts against governments it does not like.
These actions are not taken only against those countries that are publicly criticized as antagonistic to the US, like Venezuela or Cuba. They are also aimed at ostensible allies if they should dare to step out of line. Veteran Australian journalist John Pilger describes how the US effectively engineered a coup against Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam in 1975 because he had the temerity to try and stop CIA meddling in his country’s affairs through its collaboration with the Defense Signals Directorate, their equivalent of the NSA. That organization has been in the news recently over its spying of government officials in Indonesia and its US lawyers and sharing that information with the US as part of the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance..
On March 6, 2014, with almost no media attention, president Obama signed an executive order that can be interpreted as saying that anyone who disagrees with US policy on Ukraine can have their assets forfeited without any warning or due process. The order makes the extraordinary claim that what happens in Ukraine, a country that is far away and most Americans would be hard pressed to find on the map, poses an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, find that the actions and policies of persons — including persons who have asserted governmental authority in the Crimean region without the authorization of the Government of Ukraine — that undermine democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine; threaten its peace, security, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; and contribute to the misappropriation of its assets, constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.
The order allows the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to commandeer “All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person (including any foreign branch)” if that person is found to have, among other things, been “responsible for or complicit in, or to have engaged in, directly or indirectly [in] actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine.”
So, for example, if you happen to write that you think that the withdrawal of Crimea from Ukraine and joining up Russia is acceptable, the US government can say that you undermined the “democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine” and summarily seize all your assets without prior notice or any kind of due process.
These kinds of executive orders that punish disagreement with US foreign policy are unfortunately not new. In July 2007, then president George W. Bush signed similar executive orders pertaining to Iraq and Lebanon that contained very similar language and would “allow the US Treasury Department to seize the property of any person perceived to, directly or indirectly, pose a threat to US operations in the Middle East.”
Vaguely written and dangerously open to broad interpretation, this unconstitutional order allows for the arbitrary targeting of any American for dispossession of all belongings and demands ostracism from society. Bruce Fein, a constitutional lawyer and former Justice Department official in the Reagan administration says of the order, “This is so sweeping it’s staggering. I have never seen anything so broad. It expands beyond terrorism, beyond seeking to use violence or the threat of violence to cower or intimidate a population.”
n an editorial for the Washington Times, Fein states, “The person subject to an asset freeze is reduced to a leper. The secretary’s financial death sentences are imposed without notice or an opportunity to respond, the core of due process. They hit like a bolt of lightning. Any person whose assets are frozen immediately confronts a comprehensive quarantine. He may not receive and benefactors may not provide funds, goods, or services of any sort. A lawyer cannot provide legal services to challenge the secretary’s blocking order. A doctor cannot provide medical services in response to a cardiac arrest.”
The Obama executive order contains similar language that is so vague (What constitutes ‘indirect’ undermining of democratic institutions? What constitutes ‘material support’?) that it can be used to seize the property of anyone who simply opposes foreign policy objectives of the US government.
In his State of the Union speech, president Obama announced that he would use executive orders whenever he could to bypass Congress since they seemed determined to block his agenda. The Republican party howled that Obama was acting unconstitutionally and acting autocratically. And they have opposed some acts such as raising the minimum wage for federal contract employeesor on the issue of paying overtime for certain classes of employees who had formerly been exempt from them.
But they have been conspicuously silent on this executive order, showing once again that it is not only the issues that create the noisiest controversies in Washington that one should pay attention to, but also the ones that the two parties agree upon.