Criminalization of Dissent And Militarism Of The Police

The Obama administration has affirmed, continued, and expanded almost all of the draconian domestic civil liberties intrusions pioneered under the Bush administration. Here are 19 examples of serious assaults on the domestic rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, the right to privacy, the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion, and freedom of conscience that have occurred since the Obama administration has assumed power.


1. PATRIOT Act. On May 27, 2011, President Obama, over widespread bipartisan objections, approved a Congressional four-year extension of controversial parts of the Act that were set to expire. In March 2010, Obama signed a similar extension for one year. These provisions allow the government, with permission from a special secret court, to seize records without the owner’s knowledge, conduct secret surveillance of suspicious people who have no known ties to terrorist groups, and obtain secret roving wiretaps on people.


2. Criminalization of Dissent, Militarizing the Police. Anyone who has gone to a peace or justice protest in recent years has seen that local police have been turned into SWAT teams and SWAT teams into heavily armored military with shields, shin guards, heavy vests, military helmets, visors, and vastly increased firepower. Protest police sport ninja turtle-like outfits and are accompanied by helicopters and special tanks. Even sound-blasting vehicles and wireless fingerprint scanners first used by troops in Iraq are now being utilized by local police departments to check motorists. Facial recognition software introduced in war zones is now being used in Arizona and other jurisdictions. Drones like the ones used in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan are being used along the Mexican and Canadian borders.


3. Wiretaps. Wiretaps for oral, electronic, or wire communications, approved by federal and state courts, are at an all-time high. Wiretaps in year 2010 were up 34 percent from 2009, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.


4. Criminalization of Speech. Muslims in the U.S. have been targeted by Obama’s Department of Justice for inflammatory things they said or published on the Internet. First Amendment protection of freedom of speech stated in a 1969 Supreme Court decision, Brandenberg v Ohio, says the government cannot punish inflammatory speech even if it advocates violence unless it is likely to incite or produce such action. The DOJ indicted a Pakistani resident living legally in the U.S. in September 2011 for uploading a video on YouTube. The DOJ said the video was supportive of terrorists even though nothing on the video called for violence. In July 2011, the DOJ indicted a former Penn State student for going onto websites, suggesting targets and providing a link to an explosives course already posted on the Internet.


5. Domestic Government Spying. In activities that offend freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and several other laws, the NYPD and the CIA have partnered to conduct intelligence operations against Muslim communities in New York and elsewhere. The CIA, which is prohibited from spying on Americans, has worked with the police on “human mapping,” commonly known as racial and religious profiling, to spy on the Muslim community. Under the Obama administration, the Associated Press reported in August 2011, informants known as “mosque crawlers,” monitor sermons, bookstores, and cafes.


6. Top Secret America. In July 2010, the Washington Post released “Top Secret America,” a series of articles detailing the results of a two-year investigation into the expanding world of homeland security, intelligence, and counter-terrorism. It found that 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence at about 10,000 locations across the U.S. Every day, the National Security Agency intercepts and stores more than 1.7 billion emails, phone calls, and other types of communication. The FBI has a secret database, Guardian, that contains reports of suspicious activities filed from federal, state, and local law enforcement. According to the Washington Post, Guardian contained 161,948 files as of December 2009. From that database there have been 103 full investigations and at least 5 arrests, the FBI reported.


7. Other Domestic Spying. There are at least 72 fusion centers across the U.S. that collect local domestic police information and merge it into multi-jurisdictional intelligence centers, according to a report by the ACLU. These centers share information from federal, state, and local law enforcement—and some private companies—to secretly spy on Americans.


8. Abusive FBI Intelligence Operations. The Electronic Frontier Foundation documented thousands of violations of the law by FBI intelligence operations from 2001 to 2008 and estimate that there are over 4,000 such violations each year. President Obama issued an executive order to strengthen the Intelligence Oversight Board, an agency which is supposed to make sure the FBI, CIA and other spy agencies are following the law. No other changes have been noticed.


9. Wikileaks. The publication of U.S. diplomatic cables by Wikileaks, and then by mainstream news outlets, sparked condemnation from Obama administration officials who said the publication of accurate government documents was an attack on the United States. The Attorney General announced a criminal investigation and promised, “This is not saber rattling.” Government officials warned State Department employees not to download the publicly-available documents. A State Department official warned students that discussing Wikileaks or linking documents to social networking sites could jeopardize their chances of getting a government job. The Obama administration continues to try to find ways to prosecute the publishers of Wikileaks.


10. Censorship of Books by the CIA. In 2011, the CIA demanded extensive cuts from a memoir by former FBI agent Ali H. Soufan, in part because it made the agency look bad. Soufan’s book detailed the use of torture on captured prisoners and mistakes that led to 9/11. A 2011 book on interrogation methods by former CIA agent Glenn Carle was subjected to extensive black outs. The CIA under the Obama administration continues its push for censorship.


11. Blocking Publication of Photos. In May 2009, President Obama reversed his position and refused to release photos of U.S. soldiers abusing prisoners. In April 2009, the Department of Defense had told a federal court that it would release the photos, which were part of nearly 200 criminal investigations into abuses by soldiers.


12. Technological Spying. The Bay Area Transit System in August 2011, hearing rumors of protests against fatal shootings by the police, shut down cell service in four stations. Western companies sell email surveillance software to repressive regimes in China, Libya, and Syria to use against protestors and human rights activists. Surveillance cameras monitor residents in high crime areas, on street corners, and at government buildings. Police department computers ask for and receive daily lists from utility companies with addresses and names of home addresses in their area. Computers in police cars scan every license plate of every car they drive by. The Obama administration has made no serious effort to cut back these new technologies.


13. Use of State Secrets to Shield Government from Review. When the Bush administration was caught hiring private planes from a Boeing subsidiary to transport people for torture to other countries, Bush successfully asked the federal trial court to dismiss a case by detainees tortured because having a trial would disclose “state secrets” and threaten national security. When Obama was elected, the state secrets defense was reaffirmed before a federal appeals court. It continues to be a mainstay of the Obama administration’s effort to cloak their actions in secrecy.


14. Material Support. The Obama administration successfully asked the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the government to criminalize humanitarian aid and legal activities of people providing advice or support to foreign organizations that are on the government list of terrorist organizations. The material support law can now be used to penalize people who provide humanitarian aid or human rights advocacy. The Obama administration Solicitor General argued to the court “When you help Hezbollah build homes, you are also helping Hezbollah build bombs.” The Court agreed with the Obama argument that national security trumps free speech in these circumstances.


15. Chicago Anti-War Grand Jury Investigation. In September 2010, FBI agents raided the homes of seven peace activists in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Grand Rapids, seizing computers, cell phones, passports, and records. More than 20 anti-war activists were issued federal grand jury subpoenas and more were questioned across the country. Some of those targeted were members of local labor unions and others were members of organizations like the Arab American Action Network, the Colombia Action Network, and the Twin Cities Anti-War Campaign, Many were active internationally and visited resistance groups in Colombia and Palestine. Subpoenas directed people to bring anything related to trips to Colombia, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Israel, or the Middle East. In 2011, the home of a Los Angeles activist was raided and he was questioned about his connections with the September 2010 activists. All of these investigations have been directed by the Obama administration.


16. Punishing Whistleblowers. The Obama administration has prosecuted five whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, more than all other Administrations. He charged a National Security Agency advisor with ten felonies under the Espionage Act for telling the press that government eavesdroppers were wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on misguided and failed projects. After their case collapsed, the government, which was chastised by the federal judge as engaging in unconscionable conduct, allowed him to plead to a misdemeanor and walk. The Admin-istration also prosecuted former members of the CIA, the State Department, and the FBI. They even tried to subpoena a journalist and one of the lawyers for the whistleblowers.


17. Bradley Manning. Army private Bradley Manning is accused of leaking thousands of government documents to Wikileaks. These documents expose untold numbers of lies by U.S. government officials, killing of innocent civilians, policies to ignore torture in Iraq, information about who is held at Guantanamo, cover ups of drone strikes, abuse of children, and much more damaging information about U.S. malfeasance. Though Daniel Ellsberg and other whistleblowers say Bradley is an American hero, the U.S. government has jailed him and is threatening him with charges of espionage, which may be punished by the death penalty. For months Manning was held in solitary confinement and forced by guards to sleep naked. When asked about how Manning was being held, President Obama personally defended the conditions of his confinement, saying he had been assured they were  meeting basic standards. 


18. Solitary Confinement. At least 20,000 people are in solitary confinement in U.S. jails and prisons, some estimate several times that many. Despite the fact that federal, state and local prisons and jails do not report actual numbers, academic research estimates tens of thousands are kept in cells for 23 to 24 hours a day in supermax units, lockdown, security housing units, “the hole,” and special management units or administrative segregation.


Human Rights Watch reports that one-third to one-half of the prisoners in solitary are likely mentally ill. In May 2006, the UN Committee on Torture concluded that the United States should “review the regimen imposed on detainees in supermax prisons, in particular, the practice of prolonged isolation.” The Obama administration has taken no steps to cut back on the use of solitary confinement in federal, state or local jails and prisons.


19. Special Administrative Measures. Special Administrative Measures (SAMS) are harsh conditions of confinement imposed on prisoners (including pre-trial detainees) by the Attorney General. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons imposes restrictions on such segregation and isolation from other prisoners and limitation or denial of contact with the outside world such as: no visitors except attorneys, no contact with news media, no use of the phone, no correspondence, no contact with family, no communication with guards, 24-hour video surveillance and monitoring. The DOJ admitted that several dozen prisoners, including pre-trial detainees, mostly Muslims, were kept incommunicado under SAMS.


These concrete examples document a sustained assault on domestic civil liberties in the United States under the Obama administration. Rhetoric aside, how different has Obama been from Bush in this area?  


Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He works with the Center for Constitutional Rights.