Rights Groups Still Waiting for Obama to Deliver

While human rights and open-government groups are generally pleased with President Barack Obama’s rhetoric during his first 100 days, some are skeptical that he will deliver on his promises.

Caroline Fredrickson, head of the Washington Legislative Office for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told IPS that Obama’s first 100 days "are something of a mixed bag."

She said the president’s first-day-in-office executive orders closing the Guantánamo Bay detention center, ordering a review of all cases there, and suspending the military commission trials were "an excellent start."

Frederickson was far less pleased with the president’s use of the "state secrets" privilege, which has prevented a number of lawsuits from ever being heard in court. And she questioned the wisdom of the administration’s position that detainees at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan have no right to challenge their detention.

She also cautioned that there are a number of "unknowns," including the issue of what to do with Guantánamo Bay detainees who are cleared for release, but who have no place to go, as well as where to keep those who are to be tried in U.S. courts and others who cannot be tried because the evidence against them was obtained through torture.

The ACLU is opposed to indefinite detention as well as to the establishment of special security courts. Obama has not yet clarified the administration’s position on these issues.

The London-based rights group Amnesty International expressed similarly mixed sentiments, praising Obama for declaring that he will close Guantánamo, but noting that after an "auspicious start" in making a swift announcement, more than 240 detainees are no closer to freedom.

"The bottom line is that… unlawful detentions at Guantánamo Bay continue, and for the vast majority of the detainees, the change in administration has so far meant no change in their situation," Amnesty said.

The group also expressed concerns about suspects held at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, which it said remained "shrouded in secrecy."

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) – which has mobilized a small army of pro-bono lawyers to defend Guantánamo detainees – praised Obama’s rhetoric but cautioned that "in many areas of critical importance – like human rights, torture, rendition, secrecy and surveillance – his words have been loftier than his actions."

Vince Warren, CCR executive director, noted that "secrecy was the hallmark of the [George W.] Bush administration. It classified more documents than any administration in history, restricted Freedom of Information Act requests and tried to protect government officials and military contractors from being held liable for illegal actions, such as torture and wrongful death."

"It invoked the state secrets privilege to avoid scrutiny in court and responsibility for government action more times than any other administration," he said.

"Obama has come down on both sides of this issue, ordering far more transparency through cooperation with Freedom of Information Act requests, while at the same time invoking state secrets in a case charging an aviation corporation with complicity in rendering a detainee to torture," Warren said.

He was also critical of Obama on the issue of electronic surveillance, pointing out that the new president "still has not repudiated the executive orders supporting warrantless wiretapping and the legal opinions used to support them."

Warren said that release of the "torture memos" prepared by lawyers in the Bush Justice Department was "welcome," but he noted that "Obama has indicated he will not prosecute former officials who broke the law and committed crimes, saying he would rather look forward than back. For there to be no consequences for creating a torture program not only calls our system of justice into question, but it also could allow the nightmare to happen all over again."

A generally positive assessment was offered by a leading open-government advocacy organization, OMB Watch, which said, "The president and his team have made significant progress in both the right-to-know and regulatory areas."

But it added that "there is still much work to be done as we move deeper into Obama’s term in office."

"Overall, the Obama administration has set a strong tone on transparency, but a true assessment cannot occur until the development of agency-wide policies are put in place and fully implemented," the group said.

"During his first full day in office, Obama successfully communicated the importance of transparency to agencies and the public by issuing memorandums on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and on transparency and open government."

But it was critical of the new president on the issues of "signing statements" and use of the "state secrets privilege" to keep cases out of court on national security grounds.

It said, "Many groups considered Obama’s signing statement on the 2009 omnibus appropriations bill to be an affront to whistleblower protections. These groups have interpreted Obama’s signing statement as impeding the ability of government employees to communicate with Congress."

"Further, in repeated court cases, Obama administration officials have insisted on maintaining the Bush administration’s broad interpretation of executive branch power on the issue of state secrets. There has been no public discussion of reviewing these policies for possible revision."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.