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Nocera on Obama

President Obama delivering speech on national security, May 23, 2013

President Obama delivering speech on national security, May 23, 2013

[Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP]

I keep my quoting of NYT columnists to a minimum. Their work is easy to find. Their views are widely distributed. I don’t need to provide a clipping service that serves up their content. Not to mention that some of them should have retired long ago. They are an embarrassment with their pronouncements from on high on cultural trends and the future. (Yes, David and Tom, I’m talking about you.)

I have also been keeping my criticisms of the Obama administration to a minimum. Words fail on a day when officials confirm that the

State Department has asked Hong Kong to extradite Edward J. Snowden to face espionage and theft charges in the United States.

Espionage? Geez.

The NYT article goes on to note that “Mr. Snowden is the seventh person to be accused by the Obama administration of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 by leaking secrets to the news media, compared with three such cases under all previous presidents.” So much for Obama’s commitment to transparency and openness.

Anyway, I will now depart from my minimization efforts, turning the remainder of the post over to NYT columnist Joe Nocera. In his Saturday column four weeks ago, just after Obama reiterated his vow to close Guantánamo, Nocera wrote:

Late Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours before President Obama made his big national security speech — in which he said, for the umpteenth time, that the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, should be closed — a group of American lawyers representing Guantánamo detainees filed an emergency motion with the Federal District Court in the District of Columbia. The motion asked the court to order the removal of “unjustified burdens” that the military command at Guantánamo has placed on the detainees, making it nearly impossible for them to meet with their lawyers.

[snip]

The detainees are all in solitary confinement. They are shackled when they are taken to the shower. They cannot speak to their families unless they submit to that same repugnant body search. In other words, an already inhumane situation has become even worse on the watch of the president who claims to want to shut down the prison.

In his speech on Thursday, Obama hit all the right notes. He talked about how holding detainees for an indefinite period without charging them with any crime has made the prison “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” He noted that it has hurt us with our allies. He even mentioned how absurdly expensive the prison is — nearly $1 million per prisoner per year. “Is this who we are?” he asked.

“History,” he concluded, “will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism.” He’s right about that. But he will hardly be immune from that judgment.

[snip]

It is my belief, shared by many lawyers who have followed the legal battles over Guantánamo, that the president could have shut down the prison if he had really been determined to do so. One reason innocent detainees can’t get out is that the courts have essentially ruled that a president has an absolute right to imprison anyone he wants during a time of war — with no second-guessing from either of the other two branches of government. By the same legal logic, a president can also free any prisoner in a time of war. Had the president taken that stance, there would undoubtedly have been a court fight. But so what? Aren’t some things worth fighting for?

Whenever he talks about Guantánamo, the president gives the impression that that’s what he believes. The shame — his shame — is that, for all his soaring rhetoric, he has yet to show that he is willing to act on that belief.

And a week ago, after Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s PRISM project, Nocera wrote in another Saturday column:

I don’t know whether Prism and the other programs truly stop terrorists. I have my doubts. What I do know is that if you are going to lecture the world about right and wrong — and if you’re trying to stop bad behavior — perhaps you shouldn’t be engaging in a version of that behavior yourself.

Instead, this has become one of the trademarks of the Obama administration: decry human rights abuses abroad, but hold men in prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who have never been accused of a crime. Say all the right things about freedom of the press — even as you’re subpoenaing reporters’ phone records. And express outrage over Chinese hacking while carrying on a sophisticated spying operation of your own citizens. It may seem to us a false equivalence, but the existence of Prism will make it far more difficult to force the Chinese to get serious about stopping their own hacking.

Maybe America’s new motto should be: Do As We Say, Not As We Do.

I have nothing to add.

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Categories: Law, Politics
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