Saturday, November 22, 2008

Promises to keep: The ACLU puts the heat on Obama

Kudos to the ACLU for working from Day 1 to hold Obama to his always rather briefly expressed promises to end torture, close Guantanamo, and revisit FISA. Since November 5, when they took out full-page ads quoting those promises (the first two, anyway), they've been in congratulations-we're-waiting-for-action mode. Yesterday they sent an email to supporters linking to a segment of Obama's recent 60 Minutes interview in which he reiterates those promises (again, without elaboration), again filling the details void in their own terms:
During a 60 Minutes interview last week, President-elect Obama affirmed his intentions to reject torture and close the Guantánamo prison camp and the military commission system.

"It is incredibly gratifying that President-elect Obama plans to put an end to the Guantánamo prison camp and its sham military commission system which have been a stain on America's name at home and abroad,” said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. “We strongly urge him to take such action on Day One with the stroke of a pen, by executive order. The Bush military commissions that violate core constitutional principles and rely on hearsay, secret evidence and evidence obtained through torture have no place in our democracy. Federal civilian or military courts are perfectly capable of handling terrorism prosecutions and accommodating sensitive national security concerns, as has been demonstrated time and time again."
Needless to say, Obama did not say that he would close Guantanamo on Day 1 or that he would "end" the "military commission system." But this is the kind of "lobbying" that strengthens democracy. Obama has a large constituency that will "put their hands to the arc of history and bend" him to do more, sooner, to roll back the Bush assault on civil liberties than he might otherwise be inclined to do.

As a card carrying member, I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to the ACLU. Against the Bush Administration's "unitary executive" virus of absolute executive power, the group has proved one of this country's strongest antibodies, successfully challenging the whole extralegal military commissions apparatus in court, mobilizing members to pressure Democrats to resist the Military Commissions Act and the 2008 FISA bill, documenting and publicizing abuses in the secret prison system. Thanks largely to their efforts, the Supreme Court repudiated the Administration's worst excesses, preserving core principles of habeas and rules of evidence. (They did so mainly by bare 5-4 margins -- and now we've been spared the specter of a Court tipped with one or more new appointees inclined to grant the President any right of action he claims.)

The ACLU is primed to keep up a necessary pressure on Obama, fully aware that no president will be eager either to yield up powers claimed and exercised by his predecessor or to prohibit actions --i.e., forms of torture -- that powerful forces within the country's security apparatus will claim are essential to security.

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