The Civil Libertarian Backlash Against Obama 2012 Begins

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A prominent law professor writes that his election may prove "one of the single most devastating events" in the effort to reverse post-9/11 excesses

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Just weeks after the ACLU released its scathing indictment of the Obama Administration's failures on civil liberties, law professor Jonathan Turley has become one of the most prominent individual civil libertarians in America to attack President Obama's record as he seeks reelection. The list of transgressions he lists in a Los Angeles Times op-ed is familiar to regular readers of this space: "He continued warrantless surveillance and military tribunals that denied defendants basic rights," Turley writes. "He asserted the right to kill U.S. citizens he views as terrorists. His administration has fought to block dozens of public-interest lawsuits challenging privacy violations and presidential abuses."

Though the Obama Administration stopped waterboarding detainees, Turley, who has served as legal counsel for several accused terrorists and at least one prominent leaker, also faults it for failing to fulfill its treaty obligations with regard to the Bush Administration's illegal torture. "For many civil libertarians, it will be virtually impossible to vote for someone who has flagrantly ignored the Convention Against Torture or its underlying Nuremberg Principles. As Obama and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. have admitted, waterboarding is clearly torture and has been long defined as such by both international and U.S. courts," Turley points out. "It is not only a crime but a war crime. By blocking the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for torture, Obama violated international law and reinforced other countries in refusing investigation of their own alleged war crimes. The administration magnified the damage by blocking efforts of other countries like Spain from investigating our alleged war crimes. In this process, his administration shredded principles on the accountability of government officials and lawyers facilitating war crimes and further destroyed the credibility of the U.S. in objecting to civil liberties abuses abroad."

Despite these transgressions, the Obama Administration has faced a lot less backlash from the left -- notable exceptions include organizations like the ACLU and individuals like Glenn Greenwald -- than did the Bush Administration, an unfortunate truth that causes Turley to offer a harsh assessment of the Democratic Party. "Even though many Democrats admit in private that they are shocked by Obama's position on civil liberties, they are incapable of opposing him. Some insist that they are simply motivated by realism: A Republican would be worse. However, realism alone cannot explain the utter absence of a push for an alternative Democratic candidate or organized opposition to Obama's policies on civil liberties in Congress during his term," he writes. "It looks more like a cult of personality. Obama's policies have become secondary to his persona."

The combination of the record and the left's reaction to it is what worries him most of all. "In time, the election of Barack Obama may stand as one of the single most devastating events in our history for civil liberties," he writes. "Now the president has begun campaigning for a second term. He will again be selling himself more than his policies, but he is likely to find many civil libertarians who simply are not buying." Speaking for myself, that sounds about right.

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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