Twenty Examples of the Obama Administration Assault on Domestic Civil Liberties


by Bill Quigley

The Obama administration has affirmed, continued and expanded almost all of the draconian domestic civil liberties intrusions pioneered under the Bush administration.  Here are twenty examples of serious assaults on the domestic rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, the right to privacy, the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, and freedom of conscience that have occurred since the Obama administration has assumed power.  Consider these and then decide if there is any fundamental difference between the Bush presidency and the Obama presidency in the area of domestic civil liberties.

Patriot Act

On May 27, 2011, President Obama, over widespread bipartisan objections, approved a Congressional four year extension of controversial parts of the Patriot Act that were set to expire.  In March of 2010, Obama signed a similar extension of the Patriot Act for one year.  These provisions allow the government, with permission from a special secret court, to seize records without the owner’s knowledge, conduct secret surveillance of suspicious people who have no known ties to terrorist groups and to obtain secret roving wiretaps on people.

Criminalization of Dissent and Militarization of the Police

Anyone who has gone to a peace or justice protest in recent years has seen it – local police have been turned into SWAT teams, and SWAT teams into heavily armored military.  Officer Friendly or even Officer Unfriendly has given way to police uniformed like soldiers with SWAT shields, shin guards, heavy vests, military helmets, visors, and vastly increased firepower.  Protest police sport ninja turtle-like outfits and are accompanied by helicopters, special tanks, and even sound blasting vehicles first used in Iraq.  Wireless fingerprint scanners first used by troops in Iraq are now being utilized by local police departments to check motorists.  Facial recognition software introduced in war zones is now being used in Arizona and other jurisdictions.  Drones just like the ones used in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan are being used along the Mexican and Canadian borders.  These activities continue to expand under the Obama administration.

Wiretaps

Wiretaps for oral, electronic or wire communications, approved by federal and state courts, are at an all-time high.  Wiretaps in year 2010 were up 34% from 2009, according to the Administrative Office of the US Courts.

Criminalization of Speech

Muslims in the US have been targeted by the Obama Department of Justice for inflammatory things they said or published on the internet.  First Amendment protection of freedom of speech, most recently stated in a 1969 Supreme Court decision, Brandenberg v Ohio, says the government cannot punish inflammatory speech, even if it advocates violence unless it is likely to incite or produce such action.  A Pakistani resident legally living in the US was indicted by the DOJ in September 2011 for uploading a video on YouTube.  The DOJ said the video was supportive of terrorists even though nothing on the video called for violence.  In July 2011, the DOJ indicted a former Penn State student for going onto websites and suggesting targets and for providing a link to an explosives course already posted on the internet.

Domestic Government Spying on Muslim Communities

In activities that offend freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and several other laws, the NYPD and the CIA have partnered to conduct intelligence operations against Muslim communities in New York and elsewhere.  The CIA, which is prohibited from spying on Americans, works with the police on “human mapping”, commonly known as racial and religious profiling to spy on the Muslim community.  Under the Obama administration, the Associated Press reported in August 2011, informants known as “mosque crawlers,” monitor sermons, bookstores and cafes.

Top Secret America

In July 2010, the Washington Post released “Top Secret America,” a series of articles detailing the results of a two year investigation into the rapidly expanding world of homeland security, intelligence and counter-terrorism.   It found 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence at about 10,000 locations across the US.  Every single day, the National Security Agency intercepts and stores more than 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other types of communications. The FBI has a secret database named Guardian that contains reports of suspicious activities filed from federal, state and local law enforcement.  According to the Washington Post, Guardian contained 161,948 files as of December 2009.  From that database there have been 103 full investigations and at least five arrests the FBI reported.  The Obama administration has done nothing to cut back on the secrecy.

Other Domestic Spying

There are at least 72 fusion centers across the US which collect local domestic police information and merge it into multi-jurisdictional intelligence centers, according to a recent report by the ACLU.  These centers share information from federal, state and local law enforcement and some private companies to secretly spy on Americans.  These all continue to grow and flourish under the Obama administration.

Abusive FBI Intelligence Operations

The Electronic Frontier Foundation documented thousands of violations of the law by FBI intelligence operations from 2001 to 2008 and estimate that there are over 4000 such violations each year.  President Obama issued an executive order to strengthen the Intelligence Oversight Board, an agency which is supposed to make sure the FBI, the CIA and other spy agencies are following the law.  No other changes have been noticed.

Wikileaks

The publication of US diplomatic cables by Wikileaks and then by main stream news outlets sparked condemnation by the Obama administration officials who said the publication of accurate government documents was nothing less than an attack on the United States.  The Attorney General announced a criminal investigation and promised “this is not saber rattling.” Government officials warned State Department employees not to download the publicly available documents.  A State Department official and Columbia officials warned students that discussing Wikileaks or linking documents to social networking sites could jeopardize their chances of getting a government job, a position that lasted several days until reversed by other Columbia officials.  At the time this was written, the Obama administration continued to try to find ways to prosecute the publishers of Wikileaks.

Censorship of Books by the CIA

In 2011, the CIA demanded extensive cuts from a memoir by former FBI agent Ali H. Soufan, in part because it made the agency look bad.  Soufan’s book detailed the use of torture methods on captured prisoners and mistakes that led to 9-11. Similarly, a 2011 book on interrogation methods by former CIA agent Glenn Carle was subjected to extensive black outs.  The CIA under the Obama administration continues its push for censorship.

Blocking Publication of Photos of U.S. Soldiers Abusing Prisoners

In May 2009, President Obama reversed his position of three weeks earlier and refused to release photos of US soldiers abusing prisoners.  In April 2009, the US Department of Defense told a federal court that it would release the photos.  The photos were part of nearly 200 criminal investigations into abuses by soldiers.

Technological Spying

The Bay Area Transit System, in August 2011, hearing of rumors to protest against fatal shootings by their police, shut down cell service in four stations.  Western companies sell email surveillance software to repressive regimes in China, Libya and Syria to use against protestors and human rights activists.  Surveillance cameras monitor residents in high crime areas, street corners and other governmental buildings.  Police department computers ask for and receive daily lists from utility companies with addresses and names of every home address in their area.  Computers in police cars scan every license plate of every car they drive by.  The Obama administration has made no serious effort to cut back these new technologies of spying on citizens.

Use of “State Secrets” to Shield Government and Others from Review

When the Bush government was caught hiring private planes from a Boeing subsidiary to transport people for torture to other countries, the Bush administration successfully asked the federal trial court to dismiss a case by detainees tortured because having a trial would disclose “state secrets” and threaten national security.  When President Obama was elected, the state secrets defense was reaffirmed in arguments before a federal appeals court.  It continues to be a mainstay of the Obama administration effort to cloak their actions and the actions of the Bush administration in secrecy.

In another case, it became clear in 2005 that the Bush FBI was avoiding the Fourth Amendment requirement to seek judicial warrants to get telephone and internet records by going directly to the phone companies and asking for the records.  The government and the companies, among other methods of surveillance, set up secret rooms where phone and internet traffic could be monitored.  In 2008, the government granted the companies amnesty for violating the privacy rights of their customers.  Customers sued anyway. But the Obama administration successfully argued to the district court, among other defenses, that disclosure would expose state secrets and should be dismissed.  The case is now on appeal.

Material Support

The Obama administration successfully asked the US Supreme Court not to apply the First Amendment and to allow the government to criminalize humanitarian aid and legal activities of people providing advice or support to foreign organizations which are listed on the government list as terrorist organizations.   The material support law can now be read to penalize people who provide humanitarian aid or human rights advocacy. The Obama administration Solicitor General argued to the court “when you help Hezbollah build homes, you are also helping Hezbollah build bombs.”  The Court agreed with the Obama argument that national security trumps free speech in these circumstances.

Chicago Anti-war Grand Jury Investigation

In September 2010, FBI agents raided the homes of seven peace activists in Chicago, Minneapolis and Grand Rapids seizing computers, cell phones, passports, and records.  More than 20 anti-war activists were issued federal grand jury subpoenas and more were questioned across the country.  Some of those targeted were members of local labor unions, others members of organizations like the Arab American Action Network, the Columbia Action Network, the Twin Cities Anti-War Campaign and the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.  Many were active internationally and visited resistance groups in Columbia and Palestine.  Subpoenas directed people to bring anything related to trips to Columbia, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Israel or the Middle East.  In 2011, the home of a Los Angeles activist was raided and he was questioned about his connections with the September 2010 activists.  All of these investigations are directed by the Obama administration.

Punishing Whistleblowers

The Obama administration has prosecuted five whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, more than all the other administrations in history put together.  They charged a National Security Agency advisor with ten felonies under the Espionage Act for telling the press that government eavesdroppers were wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on misguided and failed projects.  After their case collapsed, the government, which was chastised by the federal judge as engaging in unconscionable conduct allowed him to plead to a misdemeanor and walk.  The administration has also prosecuted former members of the CIA, the State Department, and the FBI.  They even tried to subpoena a journalist and one of the lawyers for the whistleblowers.

Bradley Manning

Army private Bradley Manning is accused of leaking thousands of government documents to Wikileaks.  These documents expose untold numbers of lies by US government officials, wrongful killings of civilians, policies to ignore torture in Iraq, information about who is held at Guantanamo, cover ups of drone strikes and abuse of children and much more damaging information about US malfeasance.  Though Daniel Ellsberg and other whistleblowers say Bradley is an American hero, the US government has jailed him and is threatening him with charges of espionage which may be punished by the death penalty.  For months Manning was held in solitary confinement and forced by guards to sleep naked.  When asked about how Manning was being held, President Obama personally defended the conditions of his confinement saying he had been assured they were appropriate and meeting our basic standards.

Solitary Confinement

At least 20,000 people are in solitary confinement in US jails and prisons, some estimate several times that many.  Despite the fact that federal, state and local prisons and jails do not report actual numbers, academic research estimates tens of thousands are kept in cells for 23 to 24 hours a day in supermax units and prisons, in lockdown, in security housing units, in “the hole”, and in special management units or administrative segregation.  Human Rights Watch reports that one-third to one-half of the prisoners in solitary are likely mentally ill.  In May 2006, the UN Committee on Torture concluded that the United States should “review the regimen imposed on detainees in supermax prisons, in particular, the practice of prolonged isolation.”  The Obama administration has taken no steps to cut back on the use of solitary confinement in federal, state or local jails and prisons.

Special Administrative Measures

Special Administrative Measures (SAMS) are extra harsh conditions of confinement imposed on prisoners (including pre-trial detainees) by the Attorney General.  The U.S. Bureau of Prisons imposes restrictions such segregation and isolation from all other prisoners, and limitation or denial of contact with the outside world such as: no visitors except attorneys, no contact with news media, no use of phone, no correspondence, no contact with family, no communication with guards, 24 hour video surveillance and monitoring. The DOJ admitted in 2009 that several dozen prisoners, including several pre-trial detainees, mostly Muslims, were kept incommunicado under SAMS.  If anything, the use of SAMS has increased under the Obama administration.

These twenty concrete examples document a sustained assault on domestic civil liberties in the United States under the Obama administration.  Rhetoric aside, how different has Obama been from Bush in this area?

Muslims have a right to remain silent, and they have a right to retain attorneys.


In response to Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks about the NYPD being his personal army the following op-ed piece in Al-Jazeerah deserves a look

New York, NY – The Associated Press recently reported on know-your-rights trainings happening in New York City’s Muslim communities. This was one of the latest installments in the wire agency’s series confirming what Muslim New Yorkers had long suspected – that the New York Police Department has engaged in indiscriminate surveillance on ethnic and religious grounds, without concrete suspicion of criminal activity. Curiously, the AP’s latest story turns the series on its head, giving the dangerous impression that Muslim communities are refusing to share with law enforcement tips on actual criminal activity. This could not be further from the truth.

Through the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project at CUNY School of Law, we provide know-your-rights trainings in response to the NYPD and FBI’s broad-based surveillance of Muslim communities. We advise targeted communities about their rights when law enforcement knocks on their doors, asking questions about mosque attendance, political opinions and charitable giving that are unconnected to any suspicion of criminal activity.

We were therefore quite surprised to read the AP’s latest article, beginning with its headline, “Muslims Say: ‘Don’t Call NYPD'”. Our work focuses on a very different scenario: what to do when the NYPD calls you. And, in that context, the advice we offer is standard and uncontroversial fare, such as the rights to silence and to retain a lawyer, rights that apply to all within the United States.

The NYPD’s seeming suspicion of entire communities seems to be based on the notion that when Muslims live their faith and identity or associate with other Muslims, they pose a danger to American society. Like everyone else in the US, and especially given pervasive ethnic and religious profiling of Muslim communities, Muslims have a right to remain silent, and they have a right to retain attorneys.

This basic rights awareness message is important in Muslim communities where law enforcement has interrogated at least tens of thousands of people not suspected of any crime. The government seems most concerned about legally protected activity. Agents have attempted to question our clients about the mosques they attend, about what is said in those places of worship, about what they make of recent events in the Middle East, and about the websites they visit to get their news.

Of course, the government has no business prying into protected activity or fishing for opportunities to pressure people into sharing information about their families, neighbours and communities. Accordingly, we advise the clients and communities we serve to do what any American senator, president or public figure has done when law enforcement knocks: to exercise their right to remain silent and to retain an attorney.

The AP article misses an essential distinction between the reporting of criminal activity and participation in law enforcement’s indiscriminate efforts to collect information on the expressive and lawful activities of Muslim communities. To call Muslims “uncooperative” for exercising their rights in the face of such broad-based surveillance programmes is unfair and absurd.

In fact, there is no support for the claim that Muslims do not share information with law enforcement when they suspect criminal activity. It was a Muslim community in California, for example, that reported Craig Monteilh to the police when he started talking about blowing up buildings in the name of Islam. It turned out Monteilh was an informant on the FBI’s payroll. Taxpayer dollars were funding his efforts to collect the names, phone numbers, email addresses and licence plate numbers of Muslims in southern California.

The FBI and NYPD’s covert surveillance programmes in Muslim communities rely heavily on the deployment of undercover agents and informants such as Monteilh. Many informants are vulnerable community members themselves, who are pressured by the government to report voluminous amounts of information on the lawful activities of Muslims. In the cases that we know of, the government has used money, the threat of deportation or imprisonment and other forms of coercion to recruit its informants.

Though this may come as a surprise to a segment of the general public, informants are not typically sent into Muslim communities when law enforcement fears criminal activity is afoot. Instead, often without any suspicion of criminal activity, they are dispatched to countless mosques and community spaces around the country on fishing expeditions. Sometimes, as in the case of Monteilh, the informants actually promote violence.

A recent rally organised against NYPD surveillance in Manhattan signals that there remains great reason to hope. Even in this age of surveillance and fear, Muslims joined fellow New Yorkers to reject, collectively and publicly, the hallmarks of a police state. Together, they stood, prayed and chanted so that Muslims, too, can enjoy and exercise a full panoply of rights, including the right to express political opinions, to organise and, yes, to remain silent and to retain attorneys.

A Political Reality


Those who support democracy must welcome the rise of political Islam

From Tunisia to Egypt, Islamists are gaining the popular vote. Far from threatening stability, this makes it a real possibility

Wadah Khanfar

Andrzej Krauze 2811

Illustration by Andrzej Krauze

Ennahda, the Islamic party in Tunisia, won 41% of the seats of the Tunisian constitutional assembly last month, causing consternation in the west. But Ennahda will not be an exception on the Arab scene. Last Friday the Islamic Justice and Development Party took the biggest share of the vote in Morocco and will lead the new coalition government for the first time in history. And tomorrow Egypt’s elections begin, with the Muslim Brotherhood predicted to become the largest party. There may be more to come. Should free and fair elections be held in Yemen, once the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh falls, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, also Islamic, will win by a significant majority. This pattern will repeat itself whenever the democratic process takes its course.

In the west, this phenomenon has led to a debate about the “problem” of the rise of political Islam. In the Arab world, too, there has been mounting tension between Islamists and secularists, who feel anxious about Islamic groups. Many voices warn that the Arab spring will lead to an Islamic winter, and that the Islamists, though claiming to support democracy, will soon turn against it. In the west, stereotypical images that took root in the aftermath of 9/11 have come to the fore again. In the Arab world, a secular anti-democracy camp has emerged in both Tunisia and Egypt whose pretext for opposing democratisation is that the Islamists are likely to be the victors.

But the uproar that has accompanied the Islamists’ gains is unhelpful; a calm and well-informed debate about the rise of political Islam is long overdue.

First, we must define our terms. “Islamist” is used in the Muslim world to describe Muslims who participate in the public sphere, using Islam as a basis. It is understood that this participation is not at odds with democracy. In the west, however, the term routinely describes those who use violence as a means and an end – thus Jihadist Salafism, exemplified by al-Qaida, is called “Islamist” in the west, despite the fact that it rejects democratic political participation (Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, criticised Hamas when it decided to take part in the elections for the Palestinian legislative council, and has repeatedly criticised the Muslim Brotherhood for opposing the use of violence).

This disconnect in the understanding of the term in the west and in the Muslim world was often exploited by despotic Arab regimes to suppress Islamic movements with democratic political programmes. It is time we were clear.

Reform-based Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, work within the political process. They learned a bitter lesson from their armed conflict in Syria against the regime of Hafez al-Assad in 1982, which cost the lives of more than 20,000 people and led to the incarceration or banishment of many thousands more. The Syrian experience convinced mainstream Islamic movements to avoid armed struggle and to observe “strategic patience” instead.

Second, we must understand the history of the region. In western discourse Islamists are seen as newcomers to politics, gullible zealots who are motivated by a radical ideology and lack experience. In fact, they have played a major role in the Arab political scene since the 1920s. Islamic movements have often been in opposition, but since the 1940s they have participated in parliamentary elections, entered alliances with secular, nationalist and socialist groups, and participated in several governments – in Sudan, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria. They have also forged alliances with non-Islamic regimes, like the Nimeiri regime in Sudan in 1977.

A number of other events have had an impact on the collective Muslim mind, and have led to the maturation of political Islam: the much-debated Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979; the military coup in Sudan in 1989; the success of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front in the 1991 elections and the army’s subsequent denial of its right to govern; the conquest of much of Afghan territory by the Taliban in 1996 leading to the establishment of its Islamic emirate; and the success in 2006 of Hamas in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. The Hamas win was not recognised, nor was the national unity government formed. Instead, a siege was imposed on Gaza to suffocate the movement.

Perhaps one of the most influential experiences has been that of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, which won the elections in 2002. It has been a source of inspiration for many Islamic movements. Although the AKP does not describe itself as Islamic, its 10 years of political experience have led to a model that many Islamists regard as successful. The model has three important characteristics: a general Islamic frame of reference; a multi-party democracy; and significant economic growth.

These varied political experiences have had a profound impact on political Islam’s flexibility and capacity for political action, and on its philosophy, too.

However, political Islam has also faced enormous pressures from dictatorial Arab regimes, pressures that became more intense after 9/11. Islamic institutions were suppressed. Islamic activists were imprisoned, tortured and killed. Such experiences gave rise to a profound bitterness. Given the history, it is only natural that we should hear overzealous slogans or intolerant threats from some activists. Some of those now at the forefront of election campaigns were only recently released from prison. It would not be fair to expect them to use the voice of professional diplomats.

Despite this, the Islamic political discourse has generally been balanced. The Tunisian Islamic movement has set a good example. Although Ennahda suffered under Ben Ali’s regime, its leaders developed a tolerant discourse and managed to open up to moderate secular and leftist political groups. The movement’s leaders have reassured Tunisian citizens that it will not interfere in their personal lives and that it will respect their right to choose. The movement also presented a progressive model of women’s participation, with 42 female Ennahda members in the constitutional assembly.

The Islamic movement’s approach to the west has also been balanced, despite the fact that western countries supported despotic Arab regimes. Islamists know the importance of international communication in an economically and politically interconnected world.

Now there is a unique opportunity for the west: to demonstrate that it will no longer support despotic regimes by supporting instead the democratic process in the Arab world, by refusing to intervene in favour of one party against another and by accepting the results of the democratic process, even when it is not the result they would have chosen. Democracy is the only option for bringing stability, security and tolerance to the region, and it is the dearest thing to the hearts of Arabs, who will not forgive any attempts to derail it.

The region has suffered a lot as a result of attempts to exclude Islamists and deny them a role in the public sphere. Undoubtedly, Islamists’ participation in governance will give rise to a number of challenges, both within the Islamic ranks and with regard to relations with other local and international forces. Islamists should be careful not to fall into the trap of feeling overconfident: they must accommodate other trends, even if it means making painful concessions. Our societies need political consensus, and the participation of all political groups, regardless of their electoral weight. It is this interplay between Islamists and others that will both guarantee the maturation of the Arab democratic transition and lead to an Arab political consensus and stability that has been missing for decades.