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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Big Brother Obama: Defending Liberty by Ending Liberty

Big Brother Obama: Defending Liberty by Ending Liberty
Image © Austin Cline
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So, Barack Obama hasn't even received a single vote for president yet and he's already adopted both Bushian rhetoric and Bushian attitudes towards an imperial presidency. Obama made all the right noises in the past about how it was wrong and unconstitutional for the government to monitor citizens without warrants or accountability, but now he has come out four-square in favor of just such power being invested in the presidency.

Some people try to portray this new FISA bill as a "compromise," but when one side gets everything they want while the American people lose all protections and constitutionally-guaranteed rights, the notion of "compromise" has lost all meaning. This is probably appropriate, because an Orwellian society of unchecked surveillance deserves an Orwellian vocabulary to describe it. It's hard not to suspect that Barack Obama's dramatic change in tone over the past months has at least something to do with the fact that today he stands on the brink of becoming Big Brother himself. Why, though, should we trust him and his administration with unchecked, unaccountable power any more than we should trust Bush and his cronies with such power?

The telecoms wouldn't have wanted immunity unless they knew they had broken the law, so we can be confident that laws were broken. What laws? Well, laws protecting Americans' privacy, so we can be confident that many people's privacy and conversations were illegally monitored on government orders. We can also be certain that the telecoms wouldn't have suffered any legal problems for refusing because some companies did protect their customers' privacy; those which complied with "orders" did so, however, because it was profitable to do so. They put corporate profit over our privacy, just as government actors put government power over the Constitution.

Unfortunately, we may never know who was harmed or how many people were harmed because the government which ordered this illegal activity and the corporations which were all-too-eager to "just follow orders" have conspired to cover it up — and by "government" I'm including Democrats like Barack Obama. Republicans were unable to pass a bill like this when they controlled the Senate; only under Democratic control was it possible for the Bush administration's illegal behavior to acquire the cover it needed.

As bad as all this is, it gets worse: Barack Obama has also essentially endorsed the idea that when the government asks corporations to do things which might break the law, those corporations have no obligation to determine whether the demands are legal and should be immunized from any eventual illegal behavior. He may have voted to remove it from the final bill, but when he voted for a bill hat contained this provision, he voted to support it. There have been plenty of complaints about the FISA immunity being handed to telecommunications corporations, but has anyone stopped to ask what it is about that immunity which should, in principle, be limited to just corporations?

In principle, the immunity which was handed to corporations could be handed to individuals. So if you think it was appropriate and reasonable to say that corporations shouldn't be held responsible for illegal behavior so long as the president tells them that behavior is OK, then there is no reason to refuse the same privilege to individuals. In effect, then, the FISA immunity provision legitimizes and enshrines "I was only following orders" not merely as a defense, but as a positive principle of action. So who will be next to receive such immunity in a "compromise"? How about those behind Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay?

This bill also enshrines the principle that the president somehow has the power and authority to give citizens or corporations "orders" at all — legal or illegal. When and how did Americans get duped into believing that any president or any administration official can "order" them to do anything? To be blunt, anyone who accepts the principle that the president has the authority to issue orders to citizens has necessarily rejected some of the most basic principles upon which America was founded. The president, whether he is George W. Bush or Barack Obama, isn't out "leader," our "commander in chief," or anything similar. He's an elected official with narrowly defined powers who can and should be yanked out of office when they try to overstep those boundaries.

If Barack Obama's support for warrantless domestic spying and immunization of illegal behavior weren't bad enough, large numbers of his supporters have been actively engaged in defending him and attacking his critics. Obama's detractors have frequently raised concerns about "cult of personality" surrounding him and if there were any evidence for this, it is being eagerly provided by those who are adopting the attitude that Obama can do no wrong — he was right when he opposed warrantless spying and immunity and he's right now that he supports it, so shut up and stop being critical of him. We've seen the same attitude in die-hard Bush supporters and it's no less ugly and dangerous when coming from the left.

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