Noam Chomsky: Smoke and Mirrors, or Civil Liberties Under President Obama

Mike Stivers for Truthout: Anyone following issues of civil liberties under Obama knows that his administration's policies have been disastrous. The signing of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which effectively legalizes indefinite detention of US citizens, the prosecution of more whistleblowers than any previous president, the refusal to close Guantanamo, and the adoption of ruthless positions in trials such as Hedges vs. Obama and Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project don't even encapsulate the full extent of the flagrant violations of civil, political and constitutional rights. One basic question that a lot of people seem to be asking is, why? What's the rationale?

Noam Chomsky:Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project. That's an Obama initiative and it's a very serious attack on civil liberties. He doesn't gain anything from it – he doesn't get any political mileage out of it. In fact, most people don't even know about it, but what it does is extend the concept of "material assistance to terror" to speech.

The case in question was a law group that was giving legal advice to groups on the terrorist list, which in itself has no moral or legal justification; it's an abomination. But if you look at the way it's been used, it becomes even more abhorrent (Nelson Mandela was on it until a couple of years ago.) And the wording of the colloquy is broad enough that it could very well mean that if, say, you meet with someone in a terrorist group and advise them to turn to nonviolent means, then that's material assistance to terrorism. I've met with people who are on the list and will continue to do so, and Obama wants to criminalize that, which is a plain attack on freedom of speech. I just don't understand why he's doing it.

The NDAA suit, of which I'm a plaintiff – it mostly codifies existing practice. While there has been some protest over the indefinite detention clause, there's one aspect of it that I'm not entirely happy with. The only protest that's being raised is in response to detention of American citizens, but I don't see why we should have the right to detain anyone without trial. The provision of the NDAA that allows for this should not be tolerated. It was banned almost eight centuries ago in the Magna Carta.

It's the same with the drone killings. There was some protest over the Anwar Al-Awlaki killing because he was an American citizen. But what about someone who isn't an American citizen? Do we have a right to murder them if the president feels like it?

On Obama's 2012 election campaign web site, it clearly states that Obama has prosecuted six whistleblowers under the Espionage Act. Does he think he's appealing to some constituency with that affirmation?the surveillance state that's being built and the capacity to pick up electronic communication. It's an enormous attack on personal space and privacy. There's essentially nothing left. And that will get worse with the new drone technologies that are being developed and given to local police forces.

That expansion of the surveillance state, do you see that as another facet of expanding executive power? font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
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There will be new ways of combing through the data electronically to pick up things that look like suspicious connections, almost all of which will mean nothing, but they may find some things. It's kind of like the drone killings. You have what's called "intelligence." Sometimes it means something; other times it means nothing. It also means that if you have suspicions of somebody for some reason, whatever it is, you can go in there and find all sorts of incriminating stuff. It may not be legally incriminating, but it will be used to intimidate people – threatening to publicize things people meant to be private.

Do you think nonviolent, verbal dissent could eventually be criminalized? font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
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We've already lost that right. If you look at the criminal systems and the truly oppressed populations, like the black male population, for them, due process is sometimes existent, but overwhelmingly they just don't have it. You can't hire a lawyer; you don't get a decent defense and you don't have resources. That's how the prisons are filled.

Do you think the left in general could become another oppressed population in the future?The New Jim Crow. She points out, and she's quite right, that it's very analogous to what happened after reconstruction when slavery was technically eliminated, but it just turned into criminalization of black life. You ended up with a large part of the black, mostly male population in jail, and they become slave labor. This runs deep in American history. It's not going to be easy to extricate. Privileged whites on the left will never be subject to this, though. They have too much political power.

How do the military-industrial complex and market forces in general perpetuate these systems of injustice?

Very much so. Just look at the incarceration rates now. They're driven by privatized prison systems. The development of the surveillance technology like drones is also highly commercialized by now. The state commercializes a lot of this activity, like the military does. I'm sure there were more contractors in Iraq than soldiers.

Is there any way that political economic reform – like, say, overturning Citizens United – might rein in these industrial complexes?

Well, I don't think Citizens United is likely to be overturned, and it is, of course, a rotten decision, but it does have some justifications. And there are some civil libertarians like Glenn Greenwald who more or less supported it on free speech grounds. I don't agree with it, but I can see the argument.

On the other hand, things like detention without trial, well, that strikes right at the heart of Anglo American law dating back to the 13th century. That's the main part of the Charter of Liberties, the core of the Magna. Now that had a narrow scope; it was mostly limited to free men.

It's interesting to see the way in which due process is being reinterpreted by Obama's Justice Department in regards to the drone killings. Attorney General Eric Holder was asked why the administration was killing people without due process. Well, there was due process, he said, because they discuss it within the executive branch. King John in the 13th century would have loved that.

In two years, we're going to get to the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and it'll be a funeral. Not just this, but every other aspect. Take rendition, for example. One of the provisions of Magna Carta is that you can't send someone across the seas for punishment. Much of the world participates in rendition now.

Is there potential for legal redress in cases like Hedges vs. Obama? How viable is that strategy?the campaign to support him?

Bradley Manning is another case of radical violation of the Magna Carta. Here's a guy, an American citizen. He's been held in prison without trial for about a year and a half, a large part of it in solitary confinement, which is torture, and he's never going to get a civil trial. It'll be a military trial if he even gets one.

It's pretty remarkable to see that things like this are acceptable and not even worthy of comment. And Bradley Manning isn't even the worst case. Take, say, the first Guantanamo prisoner who went to what's called "trial" under Obama. Omar Khadr, his name is. Take a look at his history. He's a 15-year-old boy in his village in Afghanistan. Soldiers invade the village, so he shoots at them, trying to defend it. That makes him a terrorist. So he was sent to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, which is worse than Guantanamo. There's no Red Cross, no supervision, no nothing. He was there for a couple of years, and then sent to Guantanamo for another couple of years. Finally there came a chance to have a hearing before a military tribunal. This is mostly under Obama, for the record. His lawyers were told, You have two choices: You can plead guilty and you get another eight years in Guantanamo. Or you can plead innocent, in which case, you're here forever. So those are the choices his lawyers were given, practically in those words. So they told him to plead guilty. He's actually a Canadian citizen, and though they could have gotten him out anytime they wanted, Canada finally had the courage to step on the master's toes and asked for him to be released, though he remains imprisoned.

The point of this is that we accept it. There's virtually no protest over the fact that a 15-year-old child is treated this way.

Is it possible that we might see a revival of the global justice movement of the 1980s to launch large-scale movements against these practices and policies?

There is a global justice movement, and it does important work. But it doesn't conform to the prevailing doctrinal system of the powerful, so it doesn't make it into the public view. There was an interesting report published recently by the Open Society Institute, "Globalizing Torture." There were some very interesting aspects to that. It wasn't commented on much, but Latin American analyst Greg Grandin at New York University wrote a comment on it that was very important. He said that if you look at the map of countries that participated in the US torture practices – which remember, is a violation of Magna Carta – most of the world participated. Most of Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. But there was one striking omission: Latin America. There wasn't a single Latin American country that participated. Which is striking because Latin America used to be under the thumb of the United States. They did what we wanted or else we would overthrow their governments. Furthermore, during that whole period, Latin America was one of the world centers of torture. But now they've liberated themselves enough, so they're the one area of the world that didn't participate. That helps explain the passionate hatred of Chavez and Morales and others who have taken Latin America out of the US's reach. Those are very important changes. It shows that things can be done.

In your time as an activist and writer, do you see states on a trajectory toward more openness, transparency and accountability, obviously with movements pushing that, or do you see them as more opaque, unaccountable and exclusive?