Whatever Happened to Civil Liberties?
During a scene in the 2006 Oscar-winning movie “The Departed,” Martin Sheen’s cop character points at government agents who are working with police during a sting operation and remarks: “All cell phone signals are under surveillance, due to the courtesy of our federal friends over there.” Alec Baldwin’s cop character then slaps the back of a fellow officer in glee, exclaiming: “Patriot Act, Patriot Act! I love it, I love it, I love it!”
I considered this scene to be a Hollywood liberal dig at then-President Bush, whose Patriot Act legislation was considered an assault on civil liberties by the left. At the time, liberals’ greatest beef with Bush was unquestionably on the issues of foreign policy and civil liberties — with the warrantless wiretapping and government eavesdropping permitted by the Patriot Act at the top of the list.
But that was then.
Under a Democratic administration, the left antiwar movement has become a distant memory, and liberal support for civil liberties has evaporated now that Obama wields the power to spy on citizens. Which he does — far more than Bush.
The American Civil Liberties Union reported last week under the headline “New Justice Department Documents Show Huge Increase in Warrantless Electronic Surveillance:”
Justice Department documents released … by the ACLU reveal that federal law enforcement agencies are increasingly monitoring Americans’ electronic communications, and doing so without warrants, sufficient oversight, or meaningful accountability.
The ACLU reported that between 2009 and 2011 the number of people subjected to telephone wiretapping had doubled or tripled depending on the category. The government conducted more telephone surveillance in those two years than it had in the previous decade. As far as snooping through your email, the ACLU reported that the number of authorizations the Justice Department received to use certain devices to conduct Internet surveillance increased 361% between 2009 and 2011. The ACLU continued:
Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that cellphone carriers received 1.3 million demands for subscriber information in 2011 alone. And an ACLU public records project revealed that police departments around the country large and small engage in cell phone location tracking.
Yeah, so remember that scene in “The Departed” where the feds help the police eavesdrop on private cell phone conversations? That’s really happening, and not just to gangster movie characters played by Jack Nicholson. It’s happening to American citizens, everyday, at an alarming — and increasing — rate as the Justice Department numbers obtained by the ACLU indicate.
But what are the hard numbers, exactly? That’s secret too. We’re not allowed to know. These discussions take place in “classified briefings,” but as Fox News’ Judge Andrew Napolitano recently explained: “Gazillions. That’s the number of times the federal government has spied on Americans since 9/11 through the use of drones, legal search warrants, illegal search warrants, federal agent-written search warrants and just plain government spying.”
The liberal narrative throughout the 2000s of an executive branch assuming dictatorial powers to circumvent the Constitution was an accurate one. After 9/11, President Bush used that tragedy to set an unconstitutional precedent from which this country has yet to recover.
But President Obama has not only maintained that precedent, he has greatly expanded it. On the civil liberties-related issues that infuriated the Left under Bush, Obama has done far more damage. If Bush established indefinite detention for enemy combatants with the Patriot Act, Obama not only retained this, but also gave us indefinite detention for American citizens with the National Defense Authorization Act. Also, under Obama, the president can even execute an American citizen suspected of terrorist activity without arrest or trial. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has it right:
Obama established one of the most reckless precedents imaginable: that any president can secretly order and oversee the extrajudicial killing of American citizens. Obama’s kill list transgresses against the Constitution as egregiously as anything George W. Bush ever did. It is as radical an invocation of executive power as anything Dick Cheney championed.
Then, of course, there is the drastic increase in government spying under Obama.
When Barack Obama ran for president he promised to “revisit” the Patriot Act, implement civil liberties protections, and restore judicial oversight. He lied. When Obama became president, he not only reauthorized the Patriot Act, but expanded the anti-constitutional powers of the executive branch.
Where are the angry “criminal” accusations we heard from the left when a Republican was in office? There are none. Liberals are mute. Partisan silence. Assaulting the Constitution is simply not a crime when their president does it.
Jack Hunter is the co-author of The Tea Party Goes to Washington by Sen. Rand Paul and serves as New Media Director for Senator Paul. The views presented in this essay are the author’s own and are independent of any campaign or other organization.