Earlier this month, Obama refused to veto the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA), which the House of Representatives later passed by a 283-136 majority. The act—which effectively allows the indefinite detention of terror suspects before trial, eases the process of rendering American citizens to foreign regimes, and makes the closure of Guantánamo Bay more difficult—marks a new chapter in Obama’s erosion of civil liberties.
Although the White House had threatened to veto the bill, the official line now is that sufficient changes were made to the bill, following the president’s request, to avoid a veto. The reforms gave him the power to grant a waiver in individual cases so that defendants could be tried in civilian courts. But the legislation prohibits spending money in the civilian trials of suspected terrorists, rendering the waiver worthless.
The White House also insisted that, if implementing the NDAA jeopardised the rule of law, Congress would be expected to work “quickly and tirelessly” to reverse the damage. But oppressive laws spawn miscarriages of justice, the effects of which persist long after the legislation is tweaked.
Commentators have been quick to note the timing of Obama’s volte-face. With less than a year until the presidential election, Obama is being accused of capitulating to Republican factions in an attempt to be seen as tough on terror. But groups across the political spectrum have opposed the act and critics include the justice and defence secretaries and the directors of the CIA and the FBI.
Their refusal to veto the NDAA marks a new chapter in a civil liberties record already tarnished by the failure to close Guantánamo Bay (see ACLU director Anthony Romero’s article “Why hasn’t Obama closed Guantánamo?” in November’s Prospect), the expansion of Bagram, the detention facility, in Afghanistan, the refusal to investigate or prosecute Bush-era officials complicit in torture, the approval of drone strikes on US citizens and the blocking of numerous public-interest lawsuits challenging presidential abuses.
According to Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, Obama “has proved a disaster” for the “civil liberties cause” in the US. But the implications are much greater. Obama has struck the Bush-era bargain, deciding fundamental rights are a small price to pay for safety. Like…