Saturday, September 19, 2009

#1 Lesson from the Obama Administration: Don't Trust a Politician

Politicians exist to be elected and to maintain their power once they have been. At no point do honesty, empirical reality, or human rights play into this, and when they do, it's a less than secondary concern.

The way pragmatic political concerns override principle is made perfectly clear by the gradual revelation that on policy, Barack Obama is far from progressive, particularly on matters of civil liberties. Of course, to most independent observers, this was already fairly apparent. Advocates for civil liberties, accountability, and the rule of law expressed their dismay in 2008 when then Senator Obama voted to grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies complicit in warrantless wiretapping. Anarcho-syndicalist activist Noam Chomsky advised that left libertarians, progressives, and liberals "vote Obama, but without delusions." He pointed out that while Obama was clearly better than McCain, his approach was full of rhetoric onto which we could project our hopes, but largely bereft of substance, particularly on matters such as American imperialism, accountability, and other matters on which our political status quo is rotten to the core.

However, not all progressives were so suitably cynical. I witnessed delighted and ecstatic excitement among many of my liberal friends upon his election, and even I was admittedly overjoyed to see the end of the Bush regime.

Since the election, the value of cynicism has been confirmed many times over. Whether on drug policy, rendition, torture, transparency, or military action, he has been simply Bush lite. He removed some of the more grievous injustices of Bush Administration policy, but still maintained their primary distinguishing substance of statist lawlessness.

President Obama promised the most transparent presidency in the history of the United States of America. This was decidedly not what he delivered. While I could cite innumerable examples of this, I will for the sake of concision cite only one. I'll let the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington explain.

"The Obama administration has now taken exactly the same position as the Bush administration, telling us the visitor logs are presidential records," said Anne Weismann, the legal counsel for CREW. "I don't see how you can keep people from knowing who visits the White House and adhere to a policy of openness and transparency. The discrepancy between the rhetoric and the policy is especially great."

The White House attempted to provide excuses, even going so far as to claim in classic Orwellian form that their secrecy was meant to maintain openness.

Asked about the issue by reporters, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said today that the administration's policy regarding the release of the logs is under review.

"The policy -- as you know, and I think many of you know, this has involved -- visitor logs have been involved in some litigation dating back to sometime in 2006," Gibbs said. "The White House is reviewing that policy based on some of that litigation."

Gibbs declined to say when the review would be completed, but said it is being conducted by the White House counsel's office and "other people."

"The goal is, and I think the president underscored his commitment to transparency on his first full day in office," Gibbs said. "This is not a contest between this administration or that administration or any administration. It's to uphold the principle of open government."

Ed Brayton responded with facts and solid libertarian principles.

If the goal is to uphold the principle of open government, the documents would have been turned over. The response from the administration to the FOIA request repeats that they are taking the exact same position Bush did, that visitor logs are "presidential records" rather than "agency records" and therefore exempt from FOIA.

And while the administration notes that this issue is currently a matter of litigation, it does not note that a federal judge has already ruled on the issue and said that those visitor logs are public records and must be made public under FOIA. That ruling is being appealed and the Obama administration is taking the same position that Bush did. This isn't a matter of it being "under review," the Obama administration has already declared its position in that court case.

On his first day in office, Obama issued an executive order that agencies must process FOIA requests with a focus on more transparency and accountability. His actions since then, however, show just how empty those orders were.

Similarly, while President Obama did (and still does) hold the incoherent position that we should "look forward" rather than prosecuting the grievous crimes of the Bush Administration, he did promise to restore due process and human rights to US policy on terrorism. This too proved to be a particularly empty promise.

For instance, rather than simply refusing to act to bring accountability for torture, the Obama Administration actively attempted to suppress information on it, by threatening to undermine the security of British citizens. Glenn Greenwald explains the case as follows.

Ever since he was released from Guantanamo in February after six years of due-process-less detention and brutal torture, Binyam Mohamed has been attempting to obtain justice for what was done to him. But his torturers have been continuously protected, and Mohamed's quest for a day in court repeatedly thwarted, by one individual: Barack Obama. Today, there is new and graphic evidence of just how far the Obama administration is going to prevent evidence of the Bush administration's torture program from becoming public.

In February, Obama's DOJ demanded dismissal of Mohamed's lawsuit against the company which helped "render" him to be tortured on the ground that national security would be harmed if the lawsuit continued. Then, after a British High Court ruled that there was credible evidence that Mohamed was subjected to brutal torture and was entitled to obtain evidence in the possession of the British government which detailed the CIA's treatment of Mohamed, and after a formal police inquiry began into allegations that British agents collaborated in his torture, the British government cited threats from the U.S. government that it would no longer engage in intelligence-sharing with Britain -- i.e., it would no longer pass on information about terrorist threats aimed at British citizens -- if the British court disclosed the facts of Mohamed's torture.

For the complete odious details of this threat, one can read excerpts of the letters sent by the administration to the British court.

Further, in addition to covering for past misdeeds, Obama continues policies of rendition, in which prisoners may be sent to secret prisons overseas, generally in countries where abusive methods such as torture can more easily occur. While the administration states that they will attempt to curtail abuse and torture, it remains a violation of habeas corpus and due process rights.

I could continue, but this post is fundamentally not about Obama. This is about why it is fallacious to trust politicians. Regardless of the eloquence of their speeches, their history of intellect and organizing, or any other points in their favor, they will act in their self interest for reelection and maintaining their power. Thus, the only rational approach is to treat them with cynical skepticism and scrutinize all of their policies, rather than "trusting" them, regardless of how much we may like them and support the plans they mention.

Regardless of their intentions or personalities, the filthiness of politics and power permeates the policies of every politician to some degree, and as George Orwell pointed out, "politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia."

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