The Pigeons Come Home

Now that it looks like we’re headed for a … ugh … Trump/Clinton showdown, expect to see more articles like this:

Back in 2013, I argued that the U.S. has been building “all the infrastructure a tyrant would need, courtesy of Bush and Obama,” adding, “More and more, we’re counting on having angels in office and making ourselves vulnerable to devils.” With Trump and Hillary Clinton leading in the primaries, let’s revisit some particulars:

Bush and Obama have built infrastructure any devil would lust after. Behold the items on an aspiring tyrant’s checklist that they’ve provided their successors:

A precedent that allows the president to kill citizens in secret without prior judicial or legislative review

The power to detain prisoners indefinitely without charges or trial

Ongoing warrantless surveillance on millions of Americans accused of no wrongdoing, converted into a permanent database so that data of innocents spied upon in 2007 can be accessed in 2027

Using ethnic profiling to choose the targets of secret spying, as the NYPD did with John Brennan’s blessing

Normalizing situations in which the law itself is secret — and whatever mischief is hiding in those secret interpretations

The permissibility of droning to death people whose identities are not even known to those doing the killing

The ability to collect DNA swabs of people who have been arrested even if they haven’t been convicted of anything

A torture program that could be restarted with an executive order

Even if you think Bush and Obama exercised those extraordinary powers responsibly, what makes you think every president would? How can anyone fail to see the huge potential for abuses?

Before moving into a new house, parents of small children engage in child-proofing. Before leaving the White House, Obama should engage in tyrant-proofing. For eight years, he has evinced a high opinion of his own ability to exercise power morally, even in situations where Senator Obama thought that the president should be restrained. At this point, better to flatter his ego than to resist it. You’ll be gone soon, Mr. President, and for all our disagreements, I think your successor is highly likely to be less trustworthy and more corruptible than you were.

Insofar as you can, limit his or her ability to violate liberties or hide atrocities before you go. It may be the most significant step you can take to safeguard your legacy.

Conor, who like many libertarians, has been sounding alarms on these issue for the last decade, also calls on Congress to reclaim its power while it still can.

Lee warned about it when Bush was assuming Patriot Act, surveillance and torture powers. I warned about it when Obama assumed mass surveillance powers and started doing everything by executive order. The mantra was always the same whether you trusted Bush or trusted Obama or trusted both: it wasn’t about them; it was about the next President and the next.

And now we have a next President, either Clinton or Trump. And the public doesn’t trust either of them. Nor should they. Both have shown a disregard for Constitutional restraint and the Rule of Law. Both have shown that they will use the power of the office to engage in petty personal vendettas. Both of them could be imagined being overruled by the Supreme Court and saying, as Andrew Jackson once did, “John Roberts has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”

Yet rather than reign in this unprecedented power, our leaders seem to be expanding it. To wit:

A while back, we noted a report showing that the “sneak-and-peek” provision of the Patriot Act that was alleged to be used only in national security and terrorism investigations has overwhelmingly been used in narcotics cases. Now the New York Times reports that National Security Agency data will be shared with other intelligence agencies like the FBI without first applying any screens for privacy.

This basically formalizes what was already happening under the radar. We’ve known for a couple of years now that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the IRS were getting information from the NSA. Because that information was obtained without a warrant, the agencies were instructed to engage in “parallel construction” when explaining to courts and defense attorneys how the information had been obtained. If you think parallel construction just sounds like a bureaucratically sterilized way of saying big stinking lie, well, you wouldn’t be alone. And it certainly isn’t the only time that that national security apparatus has let law enforcement agencies benefit from policies that are supposed to be reserved for terrorism investigations in order to get around the Fourth Amendment, then instructed those law enforcement agencies to misdirect, fudge and outright lie about how they obtained incriminating information — see the Stingray debacle. This isn’t just a few rogue agents. The lying has been a matter of policy. We’re now learning that the feds had these agreements with police agencies all over the country, affecting thousands of cases.

This shouldn’t be a partisan issue: do you want Clinton or Trump to have these powers? But of course, it is a partisan issue. Congressional Democrats don’t want to reign in the power of the White House because they’re just fine with Clinton wielding that power. Republicans might be a little more principled, given their fear of Trump, but I suspect they wouldn’t mind too much if he had such power.

One way or another, we appear to be on the brink of realizing what all those civil libertarians have been complaining about for years. And the country may never be the same.

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