Civil Liberties Should Unite Us

In a letter to Senator Rand Paul on Monday, March 4th, Attorney General Eric Holder stated:

“[I]t is possible … to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate … for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.” (.pdf link)

without explicitly excluding U.S. citizens under these vaguely-defined “extraordinary circumstances.” All it takes is a Google search of “rand paul” to see the Senator of Kentucky’s reply to this missive. Two days later Rand Paul held an (almost) thirteen hour filibuster against a vote on confirming CIA director John Brennan. Paul demanded a conclusive response to a “hospitably narrow” question: does the executive branch of government really have carte blanche to use drones against an American citizen within U.S. borders? The day after the marathon filibuster Press Secretary Jay Carney stated that the president does not have the power to “kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil” (without addressing what qualifies as “extraordinary circumstances” or “combat” unsurprisingly), and John Brennan was swiftly confirmed as CIA director. Nonetheless, Rand Paul brought the issue our of eroding civil liberties to the attention of the American public, even if only within a narrow hypothetical situation.

Whatever one thinks of Rand Paul as a politician overall, the concepts he touched on during the filibuster do not fall under the usual partisan distinctions. Civil liberties should be a unifying concept for those from the far right to the far left as it applies to all American citizens regardless of party affiliation.

However, these violations of civil liberties that should unite American citizens of all political stripes rarely do. These expansions of government power are not common knowledge. Those who do have the knowledge mainly use alternative internet resources to spread awareness, only to receive push-back from naysayers on both sides.

If Rand Paul’s thirteen hour filibuster accomplished anything even slightly substantial, it was that for that evening the right and the left were briefly united in standing behind the politicians who demanded answers about the exact nature of increased executive powers. The ACLU supported Paul’s filibuster as well as Code Pink and Van Jones, despite disagreeing with Paul on many issues.

I’m cynical enough to expect that this attention to civil liberties violations et al will fizzle away as it has in the past (e.g., the Patriot Act). This cynicism is in of spite the fact that this extreme example of executive power did not pop up out of nowhere without precedent. In ideal circumstances, some form of unity between the left and right would continue so that we could exercise our rights as citizens to demand answers and to push back on government overreach.

Though in a telling anecdote, my own Senator – Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut – didn’t seem to be on board the #StandWithRand train:

Alternating background noise for evening of office work: #StandWithRand and Elbow album The Seldom Seen Kid.

— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) March 7, 2013

This constituent feels really secure knowing that this guy who’s supposed to be representing my state thinks that wanting answers about whether the president has the power to assassinate U.S. citizens on U.S. soil is mere “background noise.” I really admire his dedication to preserving the guaranteed freedoms of U.S. citizens over partisan politics. If my senator’s tweet indicates a trend, it’s pretty unlikely that these ideal circumstances will unfold.

With regard to the drone strikes on American citizens, the writ of habeus corpus has been suspended before. In fact, President Lincoln did it during the Civil War. Whether one wants to include that as a hard precedent is optional. The Civil War certainly was an “extraordinary circumstance.” We were at war with fellow Americans who seceded from the Union (I’m a Yankee, so sue me). However, President Roosevelt’s orders to relocate over 100,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps in World War II provides a blatant example of undermining civil liberties. Thousands of Japanese Americans thrown into internment camps were stripped of their basic rights merely because they shared the same ethnicity as America’s enemy. Besides, it’s not as if the president hasn’t had the ability to assassinate people for awhile now (the link takes a very left perspective on the events themselves).

So the fact is that the right to due process has some history of being “suspended.” While that history does not provide an explanation for the acts of the past twelve years, it does put them into perspective.

The Patriot Act grants the government the authority to intercept private communications among citizens without needing probable cause to obtain a search warrant. It’s been used in “extracurricular” situations where terrorism is not the threat at hand and was misused in linking Brandon Mayfield to the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

You’ve heard about the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens being implied in the National Defense Authorization Act.

You’ve heard about the restrictions on an open internet proposed by SOPA and PIPA (which was shut down by millions of citizens making their voices heard). Maybe you’ve heard that CISPA has been introduced again.

Maybe you’ve heard about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which allows the government “to tap any conversation involving U.S. citizens without previously obtaining a warrant, as long as officials suspect those talk involve at least one person located outside of the United States.” HR 347 outlines some common sense precautions regarding protests by the White House, but has raised concerns about possibly changing one’s guaranteed right to protest. This administration has assassinated American citizens overseas. One was sixteen years old.

I’m one of those people who holds the “radical” opinion that all Americans deserve some sort of due process, including those overseas who commit treason. A military tribunal would suffice in place of a trial by jury based on the circumstances and charges, but – at the very least – there should be some sort of process by which these assassination calls are made. Turns out that’s not the case. Here’s the memo about it.

We know about the kill list. We know about the vague references in these bills that can be construed to have many meanings, including those that could restrict basic guaranteed rights if that power were to fall into the “wrong hands” so to speak. The fact that it took a thirteen hour filibuster to receive a definitive answer to the question whether the president has the right to call a drone strike on a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil should send shivers down the spines of the American people. Yes, even though Paul did get a response.

Yes, even though the Justice Department only changed – rather than walk back on – its statements. Many acts that slowly erode our civil liberties have already been passed – or will be passed – in a bipartisan manner and are rarely addressed. Look at the voter rolls for the Patriot Act, the votes for NDAA, the SOPA sponsors, the PIPA sponsors, the sponsors and votes for CISPA, the votes for FISA, and the votes for HR 347. This is the time to bring attention to these issues, right after civil liberties took center stage on the Senate floor.

This is as good a time as any to consider the precedents these laws set for future presidents. Even if one does not think there is anyone in the current leadership who would use these measures against the American people in an aggressive way – one has to consider the possibility of a future ruler rising to power ten, twenty, even fifty years from now. These are laws and measures that a tyrant could manipulate to take away the essential guaranteed liberties of American citizens. This is not a precedent either side should want on the books. These are hypotheticals we shouldn’t even have to ask our government about, since these liberties are “guaranteed” after all.

This is not the time to whine about Rand Paul the politician, or even about politics. This is the prime moment to talk about these issues with people on both sides of the aisle, to amplify these issues and raise awareness. This is the time for those of all stripes to unite in being skeptical of leadership. This is the time for all of those who even slightly care about civil liberties to exercise our First Amendment rights to insist the government respond to the very people it is supposed to represent.

That is, if anybody can take down those partisan blinders for even a few moments.