The right to indefinitely detain citizens without trial, classified kill-lists and “disposition matrices“, a fast-expanding fleet of legally-unaccountable aerial drones, and the presumptive right to kill American citizens without due process – all these sweeping expansions of executive power are the legacy of four years of Barack Obama’s presidency and of themselves represent a new era in the power of the American government over its citizenry.
Never before has an American president asserted their ability to act as judge, jury and executioner towards their own citizens, a power which Barack Obama claimed for the executive branch in killing the New Mexico-born fundamentalist preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki in a drone strike – followed by his 16 year-old son two weeks later.
The passage of the National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA) provides the President with the ability to place Americans under indefinite military detention without trial or even the provision of evidence; a power which extends to citizens abroad as well as to those on US soil. Such concepts seem utterly otherworldly to most Americans, especially given their origination from a liberal president who had been elected in large part as a response to the perceived belligerence and militarism of George W Bush.
With Obama facing a tight re-election battle with Mitt Romney, even his supporters – who would normally express alarm at these actions – are reticent to criticise him for fear of damaging his chances and empowering his Republican challenger. However it is important to note that the unprecedented assertions of executive power over the life and death of American citizens during the past four years is an issue that goes far beyond partisan politics and which will have lasting repercussions for the United States after the upcoming election is a distant memory.
While most Americans may trust Barack Obama as an individual not to abuse the broad new legal rights he has enshrined for his office, the undeniable truth is that regardless of whether he serves another four years, he will not be president indefinitely – and the expansive powers he has claimed represent an indelible legacy which will not expire when he leaves office. Even if Mitt Romney is defeated this coming November, an outcome which by most expert accounts is reasonably likely, further years and decades down the line there is no guarantee as to what type of president will come to office and what attitude they will have towards their new powers to detain and execute citizens without reference to once-sacred American values such as habeas corpus and the overarching right to due process – all of which have been unceremoniously discarded by this administration.
While the primary target of rights abuses in recent years have been religious minority communities towards whom significant percentages of Americans feel fear and antipathy, the dragnet will inevitably expand in the long-term given changing political priorities, and is already being applied to individuals and groups today whose ethno-religious background has nothing to do with the post-9/11 “War on Terror”.
Domestic surveillance and suppression
The FAA Reauthorisation Act signed into law by President Obama earlier this year means that unmanned drones will be moving from foreign military theatres into American skies at a rapidly accelerating pace – an estimated 30,000 by 2020. The first American to be arrested by a domestic police force with the assistance of Predator drone technology was an anti-government “sovereigntist” named Rodney Brossart who was detained on his property in South Dakota using what his attorney described as “guerilla-like police tactics“.
Drones are already in use by police forces around the country and law enforcement officials in Texas have already stated that they are considering equipping their own department’s Predator drones with rubber bullets and tear gas – weapons which have historically been suited for crowd suppression. Plans are being implemented for the use of drones for domestic surveillance from New York to California, the latter which held a large-scale exercise dubbed “Urban Shield” which heavily involved the use of unmanned drones for reconnaissance purposes.
Contrary to popular criticisms, drone technology is not inherently malign and in many ways domestic use of them as a tool of police forces is not dissimilar to the employment of helicopters and other aerial vehicles in the past. What makes the new and rapidly expanding domestic drone fleet a potential threat to American civil liberties is that it has come into existence without meaningful oversight or regulation of their activities. As such, no lines have been drawn to mitigate their effect upon public privacy nor upon their impending weaponisation. Just as the drone warfare campaign in Pakistan and Yemen has become an entirely extrajudicial exercise in targeted killing and assassination, domestic drone use is rapidly expanding without meaningful attempts at legal oversight.
In what has been perhaps a conscious decision, technology in the hands of government has been allowed to advance without requisite changes in legislation to bring protection to the fundamental rights of American citizens. A policy paper published last year by the ACLU regarding domestic drone usage stated that “all the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life – a development that would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States”.
Americans, especially those who identify with progressive values, must ask themselves what happens when this new, massively expanding and legally unaccountable fleet of unmanned drones comes into the hands of a president whom they do not view to be as personally scrupulous as Barack Obama – something which in the long-term is almost inevitable regardless of who holds office over the next four years.
A separate rule of law
As noted by New York Times Editor Andrew Rosenthal, in the post-9/11 period the United States has implemented what is effectively a “separate legal system for Muslim Americans“; one which is uniquely harsh, unyielding, and where the constitutional right to due process is applied unevenly if at all in the majority of cases.
In this environment, once unconscionable government powers – such as indefinite detention, blanket surveillance as well as state-sanctioned kidnapping and rendition – have been asserted and often codified, thus ensuring that they remain in effect into posterity. While it is America’s relatively small Muslim population today which bears the brunt of these measures, there is no guarantee upon whom they will be employed in the future. Ironically, Obama himself noted this in his 2004 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention where he astutely pointed out that “if there’s an Arab American family being rounded-up, without benefit of an attorney, or due process, that threatens my civil liberties”.
Disappointingly however, Obama has presided over an unprecedented and institutionalised erosion of the civil liberties of Muslim Americans and Muslims in general which has left them subject to blanket surveillance, due process-free indefinite detention, and, as noted earlier, in certain cases extrajudicial execution. The use of entrapment as a tool by law enforcement agencies to mastermind terror plots on their own and induce young, isolated and impressionable Muslims into joining them has effectively become standard operating procedure, with the tacit endorsement of the executive branch.
Following a time-tested historical pattern, these odious and broad government powers are already expanding from victimising minority communities to targeting the population at large, as was evidenced in FBI operations against the “Occupy” movement, which arose across several American cities earlier this year.
Japanese and African American communities have borne the brunt of government oppression in decades before, but the formalised and indefinite scope of powers granted during this administration provide the opportunity for any future president to rule with less regard to civil liberties than at any time in history, suspending fundamental rights by executive fiat and operating with less transparency than any administration which preceded it.
Again, while Americans may “trust” Barack Obama with such powers, there is no guarantee that an as-yet unknown president years later will not abuse the rights granted him through the erosion of constitutionally mandated checks on executive power and legal protections for the citizenry.
Paving the way for tyranny
Imagine for a moment it were George W Bush and not Barack Obama who had asserted the right of a president to kill American citizens without trial, subject them to permanent military detention and warrantless wiretapping, and who had authorised the creation of a legally unaccountable fleet of unmanned, perhaps armed, aerial robots to conduct surveillance over American cities.
The outcry among liberal Americans would almost assuredly be greater than the muted reaction which Barack Obama’s imposition of these very measures has created, and domestic opposition would perhaps cause them to be prevented or at least equipped with safeguards and oversight to prevent broad erosion of domestic civil rights. Although Barack Obama is facing an electoral challenge from Mitt Romney, a politician who many progressives find unpalatable, it is worth reflecting that regardless of what happens in this election these powers will always remain with any future president.
In coming years there could very well be another president as – or more – militaristic and belligerent than Bush and they will now possess far greater powers of domestic coercion than he ever had at his disposal. Had Bush wanted to impose such sweeping measures towards the latter years of his term he likely could not have – domestic opposition to the excesses of his government was more vocal and would have imposed great political costs had he tried to implement the type of radical measures which Obama has seamlessly placed into the hands of the federal government.
To be clear, Barack Obama is not a tyrant, and he is not as president going to undertake a broad-based campaign of oppression against the American people. But what his remarkably successful campaign against American civil liberties over the past four years has tangibly done is remove the legal structures which exist to prevent the empowerment of a potentially wanton and increasingly tyrannical government in the future.
The power to hold secret “kill-lists” of American citizens and a raft of other measures that would only recently have been thought unconscionable are now firmly in the hands of the executive branch. America’s founders knew the dangers of unchecked power and built safeguards to avoid the possibility of a president trampling the rights of the citizenry. Now that these have been systematically eroded by the Obama administration, what can we say of the next president who will inherit these sweeping new powers?
A time will inevitably come when progressives will have to face a right-wing president evocative of their former bête noire, and they will undoubtedly do so in an atmosphere where the ability of a president to oppress and subjugate American citizens is at a level comparable to legitimately despotic countries.
In the haste to squelch criticism of him during election season, it is worth reflecting that regardless of what happens on November 4, Barack Obama will not be president of the United States ad infinitum. Despite this, the legacy of dangerously expanded executive powers he has left behind will live on and will take a path which cannot be safely predicted. Failing to challenge this president on his campaign against US civil liberties may one day be looked at as a failing far more significant than the results of this single election.
Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.
Follow him on Twitter: @MazMHussain