Obama’s “Alice in Wonderland” Veil of Secrecy

A federal judge scratches her head at White House secrecy around the targeted killing of an American citizen.

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Nearly four years after Barack Obama first became president, one of the least-appreciated aspects of his presidency has been what you might call its residual Bush-Cheneyism. Although Obama has forbidden the use of torture and other enhanced interrogation techniques against suspected terrorists, he has interpreted his power to defend America’s national security nearly as broadly as did his predecessors in the White House. He has overseen expanded federal domestic surveillance, committed the military overseas with little Congressional consultation, and observes Bush’s pre-emption doctrine when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. (Never mind whether the bin Laden mission really included a “capture” option, as both U.S. and international law dictated it should.)

This week brought a striking reminder of Obama’s comfort with expansive executive power and secrecy, when a federal judge ruled that the administration doesn’t have to disclose an internal memo that justified the targeted killing-by-drone of Anwar al-Awlaki, an undeniably wicked al Qaeda agitator who also happened to be a U.S. citizen. He was likely the first American specifically condemned to die by a White House memo, but you won’t get to see the reasoning behind it because the White House has resisted requests to see it from the New York Times and the ACLU on national security grounds. In her peculiar ruling on Wednesday, Judge Colleen McMahon granted the administration’s right to secrecy.

But at the same time, she described an “Alice in Wonderland” legal dynamic that stymies challenges to executive branch national security measures–including ones that might violate the Constitution. The administration doesn’t simply refuse to explain its actions, it refuses to explain why it won’t explain. “I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret,” McMahon wrote.

To be fair to Obama, much of that thicket originates from the Bush era, and is the work of other federal judges who have deferred to executive power. But Obama has expended no energy cutting through it, either.

34 comments
TerryClifton
TerryClifton

The "collective" as I refer to the news media these days only water down anything negative about Obama. They always seek and use the Bush Administration to soften any criticism that rests squarely on Obama's shoulders. This is Orwellian to the core. Just read every article on this site, and you will see for yourself. I was never a big fan of Bush or Clinton but the press at least went after them when they screwed up. Now it's almost against the law for a journalist or even a columnist to call Obama out for his failures. When Slate magazine went after Obama for killing hundred's of innocent people in his "drone wars", their message was silenced almost immediately. After the news broke on conservative websites about "Fast and Furious", the media went out of their way to water down, ridicule the whistle blowers, and again made mountain to mole hill comparisons of the Bush Administrations program that was on a much smaller scale, and had Mexico's involvement. Fast and Furious was never brought up during the campaign, nor was the tax increases that those who live paycheck to paycheck are now seeing thanks to Obama's tax increases on everyone.

tvsterling
tvsterling

For those of my fellow Democrats who thought Obama could do no wrong this should be a real eye opener. Also America's police have become increasingly militarized. They & the Military were always Right Wing & they are moving further right by the minute. How long before weaponized drones are used against American Citizens? Not very long is my guess.

Ivy_B
Ivy_B

Those of us who were screaming against the power grabs of the Bush years (Do the name John Yoo ring a bell?), were also pointing out that once power was given to an executive, it wasn't given up by the next person holding the office. 

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

"...one of the least-appreciated aspects of his presidency has been what you might call its residual Bush-Cheneyism."

 Civil libertarian liberals were appreciating it in real time, thank you very much. Checks against executive power are hard to come by and even harder to keep, which is what people like Glenn Greenwald were screaming about at the very beginning of the Bush-Cheney abuses (see Klein, Greenwald, FISA). Welcome the party. It was yesterday.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

I very much enjoy how much Time Magazine (and other major media outlets) enjoy raising hypocrisy to an art form.

If the current "Alice in Wonderland" veil of secrecy had been employed by a Republican, you know damn well that ALL of you would be writing like vicious bloodhounds on the hunt.

Yet, since it's a Democrat, your expressed sentiment amounts to, "oh, how tragic that Obama does not even lift a finger to address this issue. C'ie la vie....."

As I've expressed in numerous prior posts, it's really no secret as to why you have lost readership and revenues over the last several years. You've ceased to operate as an objective news organization. Like other media organizations, you have become partisan, and have aligned with the Democratic Party. That is why you would never dare to print an embarrassing headline about the Party (and precisely why Republicans suffering the withering critique of your editorial staff).

Time Magazine used to be a beacon of objective news; sad to see it's fallen so low as to become no better than canned drivel.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

"one of the least-appreciated aspects of his presidency"

I'm not sure appreciated is the right word.

sacredh
sacredh

"The administration doesn’t simply refuse to explain its actions, it refuses to explain why it won’t explain."

.

Lol. It sounds like marriage.

sacredh
sacredh

We don't kill enough people. More drone strikes please.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

Judge McMahon is right, as a judge, to follow precedent and law. That we as lawmakers, journalists, and citizens allowed such precedent and laws to occur is the shame.

I am unaware of any president ceding power, therein lies the danger of the panic that followed 9/11.  We'll be dealing with it for generations. 

bobell
bobell

@mrbomb13 I think Michael Crowley is letting the facts speak for themselves, allowing us draw our own conclusions.  You want "objective news," yet you complain that Crowley didn't play the "vicious bloodhound."  Which is it?

My own conclusion is that the public ought to know more about this sort of thing than the courts allow, but I can't think of a legal principle that would draw a useful line between what the govt must disclose and what it  can keep secret.  Judges are fallible, and there really are things that shouldn't be made public.  It may be necessary, therefore, to err on the side of trusting the government, no matter how untrustworthy we think they are.

Shorter version: Bad as thinks suck now, they could be worse.

outsider
outsider

@sacredh  

 A suicide bomber walks into a bar. He shouts at the bartender, "Gimme
the money, or I blow this place to bits!" The worried bartender hands
him a wad of cash, and the bomber departs.


The next day, the suicide
bomber returns to the same bar. He shouts at the bartender, "Gimme the
money, or I blow this place to bits!"


"Are you nuts?" answers
the bartender. "If I give you money every day, I'll go out of business.
Plus, you're scaring away the customers."


"I tell you what," replies the bomber, "Gimme the money, and I won't come back until the day after tomorrow."



Welcome to the art of
negotiation, Republican style. Since the election of 2010, the United
States has narrowly averted three Republican-built suicide bombs: one
government shutdown, one debt default and one fiscal cliff. We have two
more scheduled for February: across-the-board spending cuts and another
debt ceiling expiration.


The Republicans' suicide
strategy is a relatively new addition to American politics. Newt
Gingrich pioneered the first government shutdown in 1995. It was so
disastrous that no one tried it again for 16 years. In the meantime,
Republicans pursued a more traditional method known as the democratic
process. They campaigned for election and took control of the White
House, Senate and House of Representatives. From 2001 to 2006, the
dominant Republicans passed plenty of conservative legislation. (They
did not, however, reduce spending or balance the budget.)

 That was a pretty good analogy - and nice fact speaking there about spending and the budget. 


But NOW is the time - because there is a dem senate and WH - so make the people feel the pain under the dems. 


It's just more politics.

bobell
bobell

@forgottenlord "Appreciated" = "understood."  I can't think of a more accurate word.

sacredh
sacredh

Honey, if you won't tell me what I did, at least give me a clue.

Was it something I did or didn't do?

Was it recently?

Was it bad?

Did you just dream I did something?

Am I involved in anyway?

.

bobell
bobell

@sacredh Careful, sacred, you're higher on the list than you think.

OT - Is there something in the water in Steubenville? I've been reading aboud  some weird goings on.

Chosun1
Chosun1

@Paul,nnto -- True, presidents have an uncanny ability to criticize the excesses of their predecessors while running for office and then embracing such excesses (and expanding them a bit) once in office.  The idea that Obama conducts activities that are less odious than Bush is silly.  Obama has replaced torture with murder by drones.  Apparently killing with big explosions prone to collateral damage, which strikes have even targeted Americans, is better than torture?  That's what TIME thinks.  Obama has expanded some aspects of illegal searches and wiretapping, etc.  Obama promised change he just forgot to mention it would be change for the worse.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@bobell @mrbomb13 

First, thank you for replying to my comment.  I have a few comments on your reply:

1) From a very macro-level perspective, Michael Crowley (like any other journalist) is indeed, "letting the facts speak for themselves."

2) If you re-read my original comment more carefully, you will find that my complaint was not that, "Crowley didn't play the bloodhound."  Instead, my complaint was that the media has not pressed the Democrats anywhere near as hard as they've pressed the Republicans.  I used the "bloodhound" simile merely for dramatic effect.

3) I'm not sure whether I agree with your conclusion about whether the public should know more.  On the one hand, one could argue that, "knowledge is power."  Conversely, the identities and methodologies of anti-terrorist programs (among other initiatives) would be compromised, and the level of risk would be elevated (without much return following).

4) The relevant legal principles are 1) Executive Orders and 2) (Government) Classification of Documents.  By Executive Order, the President (as head of the Executive Branch) may issue charges for any number of programs.  Following that, via Classification, the President may decree that certain documents may contain information that's "too sensitive" for the public to read.

5) Following #4, the "fallible judges" you mentioned just enhanced President Obama's (and future President's) ability to (simply put) keep things more secret.

6) I agree with your "shorter version" statement.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@MarkAnderson1 @mrbomb13 

A couple of comments for you, sir:

1) I am not a boy.  I am a man, and you may call me, "sir" (as I have respectfully called you).

2) I would request that you, sir, please elaborate upon your claim that my comment is nothing more than "partisan propaganda.  Your elaboration would be conducive towards us continuing this discussion.

3) I would request that you please refrain from using further unsubstantiated claims, and keep the discussion professional and respectful.  Otherwise, we won't get anywhere.

Thank you very much.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@bobell

I'm aware that a denotative interpretation of the word "appreciate" permits it to equate to "understood", but connotatively, appreciate is about also "liking" it - hence my objection.

sacredh
sacredh

Something strange is going on in Steubenville? I hadn't noticed.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@Chosun1   "The idea that Obama conducts activities that are less odious than Bush is silly."

Well in BHO's defense he didn't start two wars. 

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@shepherdwong @mrbomb13 

To provide further clarification:

1) I would be interested to know where I gave off even the faintest scent of "political partisanship."

2) I'm aware of the media's commentary on Obama's continuation of the Bush-era programs.  However, virtually none of that commentary (on the mainstream/cable networks) has been as seething, incisive, or as damning as it was while Bush was President.  Perhaps with your 30+ years of experience over me, you would please be so kind as to direct me to that harsher criticism of Obama.  

3) I refuse to presumptuously question anyone's age, because I view that to be disrespectful.  That's why I didn't (and still won't) question yours.  No need to play Cher in calling me, 'Sonny.' 

4) I read some of that blog, and that writer appears to have both ears tuned into the current political scene.  It will be interesting to add his perspective to the other news sources which I read on a daily basis (i.e. CNN, NY Times, Time, Newsweek, Fox News, Yahoo!, etc.).

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@mrbomb13 My reply is that your apparent political partisanship greatly exceeds your Googling skills. Many in the mainstream media have indeed "commented on how Obama still continues the Bush Administration's programs.  Those include the operations at Guantanamo Bay, the Patriot Act, drone assassinations, suspension of habeas corpus for terrorists, etc." At least as much as they did, and probably more critically, for the Bush/Cheney Administration. 

The media was, quite rightly, exercised about the Bush/Cheney torture program (a program expressly prohibited by Obama), though almost silent about the highly-questionable deaths of more than 100 detainees in military custody.


And you don't really want to question my age, Sonny. I "have been following politics/current events," a full generation longer than you. Keep at it. You seem smart enough to catch on eventually.

The guy that owns this blog had his eyes opened big-time and has some very smart people who are worth reading every day, if you want to learn what's what:

http://www.balloon-juice.com/

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@shepherdwong @mrbomb13 

First, thank you for replying to my comment.  Just a few points of clarification:

1) I am actually 25 years old, and have been following politics/current events since the year 2000.  The "13" in my screen-name is indicative of the year I earned my MBA (2013) in Marketing and Enterprise Resource Planning.

2) In my study of politics/current events, it seems as though the Executive Branch (during the Bush Administration) saw its powers expand in the years immediately following 9/11 (years 2001-2003).  Everyone - Congress, the media, etc. - believed that the White House required extended powers to 'go after' the terrorists who attacked us.  Those powers were granted by the Patriot Act, etc.  

3) Following that extension of powers, the media began to question the feasibility of success in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It also questioned whether the White House needed those powers, and whether Congress should 'rein in' the Bush Administration.  However, that never happened, because Republicans controlled all of Congress and the White House by the mid-2000s.

4) While conservative media outlets (i.e. Fox, Rush, Hannity, etc.) gave Republicans a free pass, the rest of the media did not.  A simple GOOGLE search will yield article after article (from years 2004-present) detailing the mainstream media's unceasing doubt and skepticism about the Republican Party, and whether it had garnered too much power.

5) Even though the Democrats now control the White House and the Senate, no one in the mainstream media has commented on how Obama still continues the Bush Administration's programs.  Those include the operations at Guantanamo Bay, the Patriot Act, drone assassinations, suspension of habeas corpus for terrorists, etc..  

So, in summary, your reply is only partially right.  Many did make excuses for the Republicans (Bush in particular) in the period immediately following 9/11.  However, that 'grace period' ended when people believed that the Republicans were 'getting too big for their britches.'  Yet, now that a Democrat is at the helm, the watch-dogs in the mainstream media have strangely fallen silent.

I eagerly await your reply, sir (notice how I do not question your age).

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@mrbomb13 Oh, I get it. Thirteen. Sorry, you would have an infant then. You should read up on the 2000s, now that you're a bit older.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@mrbomb13 What are you, like, eleven? The Beltway press barely uttered a squeak when Bush and Cheney shat all over the Constitution and any checks against executive overreach (see: illegal war, torture, massive electronic domestic eavesdropping, rendition, assassination, etc.) Many made excuses for them and assisted other Republicans' efforts to provide them political cover for their treason.

http://www.salon.com/2007/11/26/klein_3/

sacredh
sacredh

I spent a little time reading up on it. It doesn't surprise me. This area is a little on the crazy side.

sacredh
sacredh

That has been a huge story around here. I wasn't aware of it until recently though. I don't watch the local news or read the local paper. I know what's going on nationally, but I have almost no interest in what goes on locally if it's not politics.

Chosun1
Chosun1

@Paul,nnto @Chosun1 - Neither did Bush.  Al Qaeda did a mighty fine job of starting one of those.  Don't conflate Iraq and Afghanistan.