Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What Happened to Habeas Corpus?

On December 31, 2011, a historic and controversial peace of legislation was signed into law by President Obama. His administration had fine-tuned the wording of bill, which was primarily to fund the military. But one provision in the bill had nothing to do with sustaining our defense efforts. (This is a common maneuver: attaching unrelated riders to major bills, knowing that Congress will be so eager to pass them that they will overlook the distasteful amendments.) Historian Michael Savage writes that

Barack Obama signed into law legislation that spelled out his power as president of the United States to detain any U.S. citizen indefinitely on the grounds that he or she might be a "terrorist." The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which the president had earlier promised to veto, represents the single most egregious rollback of American civil liberties in our nation's history. Obama made the move under cover of America's New Year's Eve Party, while most Americans were more concerned with having a good time than with losing their freedom.

No other president in U.S. history has sought or had such power. Note that this law does not merely apply to people in general, but to citizens. The legal tradition of habeas corpus demands that citizens cannot be jailed without being told which specific charges are being leveled against them; this tradition also implies the notion of a "speedy trial" and not "indefinite" detainment.

Obama insisted that the reason he signed the bill was to guarantee funding for the military, to support our troops. In the process, he deprived U.S. citizens of the very freedom for which our military is fighting. In fact, despite his insistence to the contrary, it was the president himself who had fought for the right of the Commander-in-Chief to detain American citizens. Obama was outed by radial leftist legislator Carl Levin, who explained what the president was up to on the floor of the Senate. Levin made it clear that the White House had pushed for the law to be applied indiscriminately to American citizens.

The president had directed his administration to insert these directives into the bill, and then explained that he was reluctantly signing them into law because they had been attached to an important piece of legislation: a sophisticated move indeed. How has the Obama administration interpreted the law since its passage?

The White House and the Justice Department have fought against bringing any cases involving indefinite detention of American citizens to trial for fear that the courts would overturn their right to abrogate citizens' constitutional guarantees of freedom from arbitrary arrest. In addition, the administration fought tooth and nail to insure that language barring the law from being applied to Americans was not included.

President Obama would prefer that this piece of legislation not be given much attention at all: it makes things easier for him if it is not well-known, or if the public doesn't think about it much. If any attention is given to it, he would certainly hope that it is perceived as a necessary, if regrettable, tool for national security. In fact, however, its wording is broad enough that it can justify any detentions ordered by the executive branch. It is less about national defense and more about increasing the discretionary power of the president.