Early in 2011 a colleague in a political chat group wrote that President Obama was a more virulent form of Bush. After some reflection, I concluded that my colleague wasn’t exaggerating; he was right in thinking that Obama was more dangerous than Bush because he was institutionalizing some of the worst policies of the previous administration. A striking example of President Obama’s ability to enact dangerous legislation is his quiet signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2011.
Obama’s last minute maneuver successfully minimized press coverage, as was its evident intention. Apparently the administration did not wish to highlight a contentious provision of the law which authorized the military to arrest anyone, including U.S. citizens and legal residents, and detain them, possibly for life if they were suspected of “substantially supporting” Al Qaeda, the Taliban or “associated forces.”[i] The effect of the new legislation was to override the jurisdiction of the FBI, apparently in order to skirt the due process that would normally be accorded a detainee if the local police or the Justice Department were involved.[ii]
It’s worth emphasizing that granting the President the power of arbitrary arrest means an end to habeas corpus, the legal right of a defendant to demand that government present evidence justifying the arrest, an indispensable barrier to the tyranny of a police state. In addition, as Alexander Cockburn pointed out (“The Man Who Shot Habeas Corpus,” The Nation, January 23, 2012), President Obama’s New Year’s Eve signature has also rendered a dead letter the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 intended to exclude the military from domestic law enforcement.
In the weeks before a bi-partisan Congress passed the NDAA into law by a Senate vote of 93-7 and by 283-186 in the House, President Obama threatened to veto the bill. Many were at first misled by this veto threat, thinking that Obama intended to defend the due process rights of U.S. citizens and others. However, as it turned out, there was no such intention, and the President signed the bill with only minor changes, leaving its draconian and alarming provisions in full force.[iii]
Paul Joseph Watson & Alex Jones of Infowars.com noted that the drive to remove longstanding protections came from the White House, not Congress. They point to a floor speech by Democrat co-sponsor Senator Carl Levin who said that it was the Obama administration “that demanded the removal of language that would have precluded Americans from being subject to indefinite detention.”
“The language which precluded the application of Section 1031 to American citizens was in the bill that we originally approved…and the administration asked us to remove the language which says that U.S. citizens and lawful residents would not be subject to this section,” said Levin, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee.[iv]
President Obama’s sweeping activism on this and other issues would seem to put into question conventional media characterization of him as a weak, compromising, reflective, sober, cautious, moderate executive. On the contrary, on this and many other national security and domestic priorities, he seems focused, manipulative, ruthless, even driven. In any event it may be useful to highlight the means by which the President has succeeded in implementing and “legalizing” such a radical policy as arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention.
As the leader of the Democratic Party President Obama can push through extremist legislation that a Republican president might find difficult or impossible to enact if only because of partisan politics. Obama’s chief enabler on the Senate side seems to be his reliable Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who, at least in front of the TV cameras, never seems embarrassed by whatever may be demanded by the White House.
Less obvious but arguably just as important in enabling the relatively smooth passage of “anti-terrorist” legislation is the Israel Lobby—aka the Zionist Lobby or the Jewish Lobby. It was this same pro-Israel, anti-Muslim force that infuses the mainstream media as well as making up many of the top levels of the last three administrations that assisted in producing the unpopular and disastrous Iraq war. Since the Bush’s administration’s objective was regime change in the most powerful Arab counterweight to Israeli area hegemony, they could count on the votes of even such liberal Senators as Hillary Clinton, Diane Feinstein, John Kerry and others for the October 2002 Iraq War Resolution.
Similarly, since the targets of the arbitrary detention provisions of the NDAA policy are understood to be Muslim “terrorists,” policy makers in the Obama administration presumably considered that no perceptible hue and cry would materialize despite the apparent unconstitutionality of the law and its manifest danger to basic freedoms.
Powerful grassroots loyalty to Israel was anecdotally brought home to me not long ago in discussion with a Zionist friend when I argued that President Obama’s decision to employ drone attacks to assassinate an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki and his 21 year old son in October 2011 in Yemen, were criminal acts and a disastrous precedent. My friend responded: “Well, you know, Ron, you and I have different views on these drone attacks.”
I gathered that in my friend’s view such people as had been targeted by the Obama administration —American citizens or not—were to be regarded as “terrorists,” since by definition they were engaged in a war against Israeli as well as U.S. interests. Thus in such cases, the President should be applauded for overriding Constitutional norms.
Author and activist Naomi Wolf expressed a good deal of the anger and frustration of many who felt betrayed by this extraordinary power grab. In a blog post she argued that history showed that there would be payback to those legislators who supported such autocratic legislation, since it was likely that they would be among the first to suffer its consequences.[v]
It might be comforting to find moral shelter in the prospect of such just retribution, but I suspect that an equally persuasive case could be made that as often as not the perpetrators and handmaidens of such villainy go unpunished and live out their lives in with dignity. If, however, in this particular case, Ms Wolf should prove correct, such a turnabout would require a very messy revolution, the likes of which could be expected to shatter many innocent lives along the way.
Similarly, it would seem fruitless to remonstrate with Zionists—those who believe that a Jewish state should supplant the former Palestine—and argue that support for Israel is a pernicious influence on the politics, and on the democratic freedoms enjoyed for two centuries under the U.S. Constitution. Such arguments might fall on deaf ears because it would be understood that measures like the arbitrary detention provisions of the NDAA are directed at those perceived to be Israel’s enemies. These enemies could include many who now are free to protest what they perceive as Israeli oppression. If legalization of indefinite detention in the U.S. helps to moderate or suppress such protests, it is, from their perspective, all to the good. Supporters of Israel are not the targets of the NDAA; they will not be the victims.
As I was preparing the reflections above for distribution, I came across Glenn Greenwald’s blog that happened to be on a not dissimilar topic: the victims of the U.S.’s civil liberties assaults.[vi] Greenwald has no hesitation in identifying the victims: they are, he writes, “racial, ethnic and religious minorities: specifically, Muslims (both American Muslims and foreign nationals).” Interestingly he also points as I do to those who believe that they benefit from these assaults, although he is careful not to name them. Choosing his words carefully, he refers to “those who dominate American political debates” and he explains that they “perceive, more or less accurately, that they are not directly endangered (at least for now) by this assault on core freedoms and Endless War.”
I thought it was remarkable that one of the most outspoken and widely read Left-wing bloggers seems to feel that it is the better part of valor not to specify Zionists, the Jewish Lobby, the Israel Lobby, the Zionist Lobby. Perhaps he feels that he would not come out the winner from the backlash that such naming of names could produce. In that case, his perception could be another indication of Zionist power. In any event, I respect his understanding of his self-interest.
Such reflections lead to consideration of such high profile figures on the Left as Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Phyllis Bennis and others who, as far as I can tell, to this day seem to deny the power of the Israel Lobby to influence and direct U.S. Middle East policy.[vii] I gather that the reason for their position is that they view the U.S. as the mighty imperialist bully, the great font of evil. Thus, by definition a tiny client state like Israel cannot dominate the greater power in any meaningful regard.
And what are we to make of those pundits on the Left who smell the whiff of anti-Semitism in those who point to—or even mention—the existence of Jewish power (the title of a book it so happens by journalist and author, J.J. Goldberg)? Such Leftists seem to be acting as assistant enforcers, attempting to ensure that such notions are not permitted within the borders of serious policy debate.
In a recent article on “The Mess in the Middle East,” (Middle East Policy, Winter 2011) (former) Ambassador (to Saudi Arabia) Chas W. Freeman Jr. cited the 20 standing ovations, which a special session of Congress in May 2011 presented to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In his speech, Netanyahu had openly rebuked President Obama for his “1967 Border Plan” which had outlined a proposal to resolve key differences between Israel and the Palestinians. Freeman was outraged at the “spectacle of members of Congress bouncing up and down like so many obsequious yo-yos” which he saw as “irrefutable proof of Israel’s hammerlock on U.S. policy.”
A measure of the depths to which U.S. political culture has fallen is that those who dominate American political debates were heartened, not dismayed, by the Congressional display.
[i] See Alexander Cockburn “The Man Who Shot Habeas Corpus,” The Nation January 23, 2012, who points out that “associated forces” “can mean anything, as can the phrase, “directly supported,” referencing those alleged in support of terror groups. The substance of “directly supported,” writes Cockburn, “will adjust itself to the whim of any ingenious prosecutor.”
[ii] See Chris Hedges on Democracy Now (January 17, 2012) for press reports that the arbitrary detention provisions were opposed by elements of the security establishment “the CIA, the FBI, the Attorney General, the Director of National Intelligence.” “Journalist Chris Hedges Sues Obama Admin over Indefinite Detention of U.S. Citizens Approved in NDAA,”
Similarly, according to a New York Times editorial (“Politics Over Principal,” December 15, 2011) “Nearly every top American official with knowledge and experience spoke out against the provisions, including the attorney general, the defense secretary, the chief of the F.B.I., the secretary of state, and the leaders of intelligence agencies.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/16/opinion/politics-over-principle.html?_r=4
[iii] Drilling down into the comments section of Naomi Wolf’s article—see Note 5 below—Roger Mattingly on January 1, 2012 illuminated the weasel wording of the arbitrary detention provisions of the NDAA. He explains that while the bill seemingly inoculates U.S. citizens since it does not REQUIRE detention in those cases, yet it is PERMITTED.
[iv] “Obama’s NDAA Signing Statement Is Meaningless,” http://www.infowars.com/obamas-ndaa-signing-statement-is-meaningless/
[v]Naomi Wolf, “How Congress is Signing its Own Arrest Warrants in the NDAA Citizen Arrest Bill,” December 12, 2011. http://naomiwolf.org/2011/12/how-congress-is-signing-its-own-arrest-warrants-in-the-ndaa-citizen-arrest-bill/
[vi] Glenn Greenwald, “”Who Are the Victims of Civil Liberties Assaults and Endless War?” January 16, 2012. http://www.salon.com/2012/01/16/who_are_the_victims_of_civil_liberties_assaults_and_endless_war/singleton/
[vii] An informed observer pointed out nuance among the three. He writes that while Chomsky dismisses the notion of a powerful Israel Lobby, “Bennis and Finkelstein minimize its influence although Bennis had acknowledged that an attack on Iran would be a war for Israel and Finkelstein has admitted that the Lobby does shape US policy regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict but, ahistorically, believes it has ‘little influence on overall US policy in the Middle East.'”