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Obama’s New Free Speech Threat

An Executive order seeks to punish U.S. citizens even for "indirectly" obstructing dictatorial rule in Yemen

President Barack Obama speaks at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)There is substantial opposition in both Yemen and the West to the new U.S.-backed Yemeni President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi was the long-time Vice President of the Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, and after Saleh finally stepped down last year, Hadi became President as part of an “election” in which he was the only candidate (that little fact did not prevent Hillary Clinton from congratulating Yemen “on today’s successful presidential election” (successful because the U.S. liked the undemocratic outcome)). As it does with most U.S.-compliant dictators in the region, the Obama administration has since been propping up Hadi with large amounts of money and military assistance, but it is now taking a much more extreme step to ensure he remains entrenched in power — a step that threatens not only basic liberties in Yemen but in the U.S. as well:

President Obama plans to issue an executive order Wednesday giving the Treasury Department authority to freeze the U.S.-based assets of anyone who “obstructs” implementation of the administration-backed political transition in Yemen.

The unusual order, which administration officials said also targets U.S. citizens who engage in activity deemed to threaten Yemen’s security or political stability, is the first issued for Yemen that does not directly relate to counterterrorism.

Unlike similar measures authorizing terrorist designations and sanctions, the new order does not include a list of names or organizations already determined to be in violation. Instead, one official said, it is designed as a “deterrent” to “make clear to those who are even thinking of spoiling the transition” to think again. . . .

The order provides criteria to take action against people who the Treasury secretary, in consultation with the secretary of state, determines have “engaged in acts that directly or indirectly threaten the peace, security or stability of Yemen, such as acts that obstruct the implementation of the Nov. 23, 2011, agreement between the Government of Yemen and those in opposition to it, which provides for a peaceful transition of power . . . or that obstruct the political process in Yemen.”

In other words, the U.S. Government will now punish anyone who is determined — in the sole discretion of the U.S. Government — even to “indirectly” obstruct the full transition of power to President Hadi. But what if someone — a Yemeni or an American — opposes Hadi’s rule and wants to agitate for a real election in which more than one candidate runs? Is that pure political advocacy, as it appears, now prohibited by the U.S. Government, punishable by serious sanctions, on the ground that it “obstructs” the transition of power to Hadi? Can journalists who report on corruption or violence by the Hadi regime and who write Op-Eds demanding a new election be accused, as it seems, of “threatening Yemen’s political stability”?

Jeremy Scahill, who has reported extensively from Yemen over the last year, reacted to the news of this Executive Order this morning by writing: ”This Executive Order appears to be an attack on Americans’ 1st Amendment Rights and Yemenis’ rights to self-determination“; he added: ”apparently the 1st Amendment had an exception about Yemen in it that I missed.” He then asked a series of questions, including: “What if a Yemeni citizen doesn’t believe in a one candidate ‘election’ and is fighting to change their government? US sanctions?” and ”How would Obama define an American citizen as ‘indirectly’ threatening the stability of Yemen’s government?” and “what if an American citizen doesn’t support Yemen’s government and agitates for its downfall? Sanctions from US Treasury? Wow.” Marcy Wheeler has some typically astute points to make about this as well.

Read the full article with update at Salon.com