Last week the Washington Post reported on the Justice Department’s unsuccessful attempt at changing the laws so as to make it easier for the government to obtain access to emails of US citizens without a warrant. This report should be unsettling to those that value their relative freedoms. Unfortunately, these types of actions have become highly typical of the Obama administration, and should come as no surprise to informed readers. In fact, the Obama administration has sought to turn the US into a police state, while simultaneously driving the government underground. The following is a review of the most dangerous developments.
First off, any good police state needs prisoners. As of 2011 there were over 2 million people locked in US prisons. This means that although the US only has 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. If you include those on probation or parole, this figure rises to nearly 7 million (1 in 34 US adults). Amazingly, hundreds of thousands of people are in the US correctional system for victimless drug offenses—almost half of all federal prisoners in 2011. The US also holds the title for most prisoners raped. As of 2012, nearly 1 in 10 state prisoners reported an incident of sexual abuse (half of the incidents involved a staff member). Although the Obama administration can not be blamed for creating the world’s worst system of mass incarceration, it has certainly kept it in perfect shape and deserves credit for all the lives ruined by the US prison system since 2008.
Obama has not only continued repressive policies inherited from his predecessors, however. His administration has launched the most formidable assault on civil liberties in US history. This assault has been Obama’s most significant contribution to developing a police state.
In June 2010, Obama’s Justice Department scored a victory with Supreme Court decision Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. This was not a victory for those that value free speech, rather a major blow. Federal law prohibits giving material support to an organization on the US terrorist list. Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project decided that material support even includes advice, or speech. This makes it a federal offense to advise an organization that is on the (completely arbitrary) US terrorist list to pursue peace. This decision was followed by numerous FBI raids against peace activists, many of who were subpoenaed to a grand jury.
In December 2011, Obama signed into law a bill that effectively turned the military into a police force. The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included a provision that allows the US military to arrest and indefinitely detain US citizens that it believes have connections to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, all without a trial. Anyone detained can also be rendered to a foreign government. Although Obama publicly expressed his apprehensions with the preventative detention provision, it apparently didn’t bother him too much, as he promptly signed it into law and then went on to defend it in the courts.
The Obama administration has also significantly increased domestic spying. Last fall, the ACLU reported that “federal law enforcement agencies are increasingly monitoring Americans’ electronic communications, and doing so without warrants, sufficient oversight, or meaningful accountability.” Justice Department documents obtained by the ACLU show sharp increases in the use of “pen register” and “trap and trace” surveillance. (Pen registers capture outgoing calls and emails; trap and trace devices, incoming). The report notes that more people were affected by pen register and trap and trace surveillance in 2009-2011 than in the entire previous decade!
The most dangerous police state policy of the Obama administration has been it’s targeting of US citizens for assassination without due process. The most detailed articulation of this policy was leaked in a Justice Department memo early last month. This memo declares it legal for the government to assassinate a US citizen that is associated with al-Qaeda as long as the target represents “an imminent threat” against the US. However, the administration adopted an elastic definition of “imminent” that doesn’t actually require the target to be actively engaged in planning an attack.
In practice, the Obama administration has set a dangerously low precedent for targeting US citizens. In 2011, it targeted and assassinated Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and then weeks later, his son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, both of whom were U.S. citizens. The Obama administration claimed that Anwar al-Awlaki, a known al-Qaeda propagandist, was directly involved in planning terrorist attacks against the US. They provided no evidence to support this claim, however. That wasn’t a problem though, since evidence is unnecessary in an extrajudicial killing. Weeks later, Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was targeted and killed by a US drone while he was attending a picnic. Unlike his father, who was guilty of engaging in free speech, Abdulrahman had no activity in al-Qaeda; but as senior Obama advisor Robert Gibbs explained, Abdulrahman was killed because “he should have had a more responsible father.”
While the Obama administration has been pursuing dangerous police state policies, it has also driven the government underground by operating in total secrecy and punishing those that expose it.
The US government carries out policies such as preventative detention, extra judicial assassinations, and warrantless spying, but it does so in the dark, shielding itself from any scrutiny, and importantly, any judicial oversight. In fact, this has been a hallmark of the Obama administration. In 2012, the NY Times and the ACLU sued the Obama administration for refusing to reveal its legal justification for its targeted killings program. The Obama administration argued that it couldn’t disclose such details, as it would jeopardize national security. In early January 2013, a New York federal judge decided in favor of secrecy. Even the judge commented on the ridiculousness of her decision and the administration’s reasoning: “I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”
Again, a month later in February, the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 vote that US citizens could not challenge the Obama administration’s warrantless surveillance program. Why? Since the surveillance program is a government secret, individual citizens could not prove that they were personally been targeted, therefore they didn’t have “standing” to challenge the program.
The Obama administration is also increasingly citing national security as a reason for rejecting FOIA requests. “The government’s responsiveness under the FOIA is widely viewed as a barometer of the federal offices’ transparency,” the Associated Press reported. In 2012 “the government cited national security to withhold information at least 5,223 times — a jump over 4,243 such cases in 2011 and 3,805 cases in Obama’s first year in office. The secretive CIA last year became even more secretive: Nearly 60 percent of 3,586 requests for files were withheld or censored for that reason last year, compared with 49 percent a year earlier.”
In fact, US tax payers pay an enormous amount to keep their government as secret as it is. Last summer, the NY Times reported that in 2011, the government spent over $11 billion to protect state secrets. This is double the amount spent in 2001 by the Bush administration. “The costs include investigations of people applying for security clearances, equipment like safes and special computer gear, training for government personnel, and salaries for officials who review documents for classification and declassification.”
While US citizens fund their government’s repression and secrecy, they are expected to be submissive and quiet. If one is to be bold enough to expose the government by leaking anything deemed secret, they can expect the Obama administration to retaliate with unusual ferocity. They will be made an example of for others that might dare to do the same. Such an example is being made of whistleblower Bradley Manning.
Bradley Manning was a US army intelligence analyst in 2010 when he was arrested for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks. Included in the leak was a video of an American helicopter firing on innocent civilians in Baghdad (including journalists and children). This video certainly depicted war crimes. However, Manning did not receive praise for exposing injustice. Now 25, Manning has been locked in prison for two and a half years in torturous conditions that include “no contact with other people, being kept in his cell for more than 23 hours a day, being checked every five minutes, sleeping on a suicide mattress with no bedding, having his prescription glasses taken away, lights kept on at night, having toilet paper removed.” Currently, Bradley Manning is facing charges of “aiding the enemy” which could carry a life sentence.
Although Manning has received the worst treatment, many other whistleblowers have faced unusual state repression under the Obama administration. For example in the last few years six whistle blowers have been indicted under the anachronistic 1917 Espionage Act, which was passed in WWI to persecute dissenters as part of the first Red Scare. Prior to Obama, the Espionage Act was only used three times to prosecute whistleblowers. As the New York Times’ David Carr reported: “The Obama administration, which promised during its transition to power that it would enhance ‘whistle-blower laws to protect federal workers,’ has been more prone than any administration in history in trying to silence and prosecute federal workers.”
The Obama administration’s effort to institute a police state and drive the government underground might leave one a bit confused. What’s changed? Why did state planners all of the sudden decide it was time to increase domestic repression?
These trends make sense when one properly understands the function of states. States seek power and privilege for elites. These are a state’s “interests.” In order to pursue its interests, a state needs to control its domestic population. The more control, the better. The War on Terror created an environment of fear and jingoism that allowed state planners not only to increase repression abroad, but also at home. Obama is acting as any rational state planner would by taking advantage of opportunities to pursue power. We should not be surprised.
Jane Powers is a Seattle-based activist. She is a contributor to “No Flag.”