Amidst the White House and congressional theatrics surrounding the so-called fiscal-cliff negotiations, a number of bills were signed into law by President Barack Obama that renew some of the worst excesses of the Bush years. Largely ignored by the media, these laws further entrench odious policies like indefinite detention, warrantless wiretapping and the continued operation of the U.S. gulag in Guantanamo. The deal to avert the fiscal cliff itself increases the likelihood that President Obama may yet scuttle an unprecedented cut in the Pentagon’s bloated budget. It’s not such a happy new year, after all.
On Sunday, Dec. 30, the White House press secretary’s office issued a terse release stating “The President signed into law H.R. 5949, the ‘FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization Act of 2012,’ which provides a five-year extension of Title VII of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.” With that, the government’s controversial surveillance powers were renewed until the end of 2017. The American Civil Liberties Union called it the “heartbreak of another Senate vote in favor of dragnet collection of Americans’ communications.”
A champion of progressive causes in the U.S. House of Representatives, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, is leaving Congress after 16 years, after his Cleveland district was eliminated due to Republican-controlled redistricting following the 2010 census. Days before his departure from Congress, I asked him about the FISA reauthorization.
“The FISA bill is just one example,” Kucinich replied, “We’re entering into a brave new world, which involves not only the government apparatus being able to look in massive databases and extract information to try to profile people who might be considered threats to the prevailing status quo. But we also are looking at drones, which are increasingly miniaturized, that will give the governments, at every level, more of an ability to look into people’s private conduct. This is a nightmare.”
Add to that, the nightmare of indefinite detention without charge or trial. Just over a year ago, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012, also known as the annual NDAA. That 2012 version of the sprawling NDAA contained a controversial new provision granting the U.S. military far-reaching powers to indefinitely detain people - not only those identified as enemies on a battlefield, but others perceived by the military as having “supported” the enemy. Chris Hedges, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times who was part of a team of reporters awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism, sued the Obama administration because, in his reporting, he regularly encounters those the U.S. government defines as terrorists: “I, as a foreign correspondent, had had direct contact with 17 organizations that are on that list, from al-Qaida to Hamas to Hezbollah to the PKK, and there’s no provision within that particular section [of the NDAA] to exempt journalists."
A federal judge agreed and ordered a stay, preventing that section of the NDAA from being enforced. The Obama administration appealed, and the case is still before the U.S. Court of Appeals. In the meantime, the court-imposed stay was overturned. With the renewal of the NDAA for 2013, with the indefinite detention provisions intact, Hedges told me, “The appellate court is all that separates us and a state that is no different than any other military dictatorship.”
Couched in the same 2013 NDAA is a section prohibiting the Obama administration from spending any of the bill’s $633 billion in construction or alteration of any facility for the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. This effectively ties President Obama’s hands, despite his 2009 executive order to close the prison complex, and his more recent reiteration of the goal. Of 166 prisoners still held there, 86 have been cleared for release, but remain imprisoned nevertheless. The legal group Human Rights First has just issued a blueprint, detailing how President Obama could close Guantanamo, despite congressional roadblocks.
The president’s second term will publicly begin on Jan. 21, the hard-fought-for holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.‘s birthday. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” King said. If President Obama aspires to do more than perpetuate an unjust status quo, he must start now.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.