One of the frustrating things that I have experienced during the Obama presidency is how so many Democratic party supporters of my acquaintance were willing to ignore his excessive use of executive power and secrecy, such as the drone assassination program, the NSA’s violations of people’s privacy, the use of military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees and the refusal to neither bring some of them to trial nor release them, and the harsh prosecution of whistleblowers who release information for the benefit of the public while condoning leakers who did it out of self-interest. They shrugged off all these things because they felt that Obama was a ‘good guy’ who would use the powers granted to him wisely.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director and head of the ACLU’s Center for Democracy, has fought many legal battles with the administration on just these issues. He is leaving after a decade with the ACLU to run the new Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. In an interview with NPR, he discussed his experiences with challenging the Obama administration in court. He also explained the danger of allowing this unchecked power.
You know, there are respects in which the needle has moved in the right direction. When President Obama came to office, he, you know, famously disavowed torture and closed the CIA’s black sites, promised to close Guantanamo Bay and has made some progress in that direction. And I think that those were all the right decisions, and I’m glad that this administration has put energy into fulfilling those promises.
But at the same time, I mean if you step back and you look at some of the other decisions that this administration has made on national security and civil liberties issues, I think that the record is at best mixed. There was a dramatic expansion of the use of drones to carry out targeted killings, including in places far removed from actual battlefields. And there was a more or less wholehearted – well, a wholehearted defense of the National Security Agency’s dragnet surveillance practices. There was a series of prosecutions of government whistleblowers, more prosecutions of whistleblowers than any other previous administration had been responsible for.
So you know, those are all very troubling things, and I think that a lot of Americans were willing to put these kinds of powers in the hands of the presidency because it was President Obama who is in charge. And you know, whatever you think of President Obama, these powers are now going to be in the hands of some new president and another president after that.
And I wonder whether the Obama administration’s lawyers – I wonder how they will look back on some of the arguments they made, some of the arguments that allowed them to claim broad powers on the part of President Obama. Now those arguments will be used by another president, and I wonder whether they will regret some of the – some of their successes.
When I ask Democratic supporters how they would feel about a future president whom they did not like, such as a president Palin, being able to use these same powers they felt comfortable putting in Obama’s hands, they shrugged. They really had no answer but seemed to feel that it was unlikely to happen. Now of course, we have the real possibility of a president Trump wielding these same powers.
People just don’t seem to realize the importance of creating systems and structures that, to the extent possible, do not depend on the good intentions of leaders to avoid abuse. Political leaders will always try to maximize their power and abuse the system and we cannot completely prevent it. But gratuitously handing over great power to them is a mistake and one would think that people would be able to overcome their partisan blinkers and see what seems to me to be an obvious truth.