Posts tagged ‘civil liberties’

Obama's "Nixon Goes to China" Moment

Barack Obama is the worst possible thing that could have happened for civil liberties in this country.  Not necessarily because he promotes the worst possible policies -- As bad as he has been (drone strikes, domestic spying, aggressive prosecuting of whistle blowers, indefinite detentions, executive orders, arbitrarily ignoring legislation, cutting myriad special favors, and overturning the rule of law in the auto bankruptcies), I could imagine others being worse  (Lindsey Graham -- eek!).

But Obama is the worst because he is beloved almost unconditionally by the very factions who are the natural defenders on the Left of civil liberties and opponents of creeping (non-economic) state control.  With all this insane cr*p coming from Obama, the opposition one would expect to these policies has been slow and muted.  The anti-war movement, for example, effectively dissolved once George Bush was in office -- the ACLU and a few others continue to public reports on civilian drone deaths but the stories don't make the front page now that Obama is President.  Only recently, with the press itself under attack, has anyone woken up, but even with recent revelations about the NSA and harassing leakers, the last press conference was still dominated by softballs everyone in the room would have been embarrassed to have asked George Bush.

The Left seems to believe that this is all OK as long as their guy wields the power, but that cannot last forever.  And you can be damn sure that neither President Hillary or the next Republican in the White House is going to eschew or reverse the precedents established by Obama.  We have to end them right now, or we are stuck with them forever.  It may be too late already.

 

** The title refers to the idea that only Nixon, an anti-communist Republican, could have opened up relations with Communist China in the early 1970's and defused opposition to the move by the Right, the natural opponents of such a move at the time.  A President McGovern would have been skewered.  In the same way, Republican President Bush was rightly attacked whole-heartedly by the Left for intrusions on civil liberties and military activities.  On the other hand, having these same type of actions taken -- really much worse actions -- taken by a Liberal President has mostly diffused the opposition.

Message to Obama: Respecting the Rule of Law includes respecting the Constitution

I have been on the road with business, and working on a fairly big announcement for next week, so I have been slow in keeping up with the emerging NSA scandal.  I want to give a few brief thoughts on Obama's defense of extensive NSA data gathering.  Obama said:

That’s not to suggest that, you know, you just say, trust me, we’re doing the right thing, we know who the bad guys are. And the reason that’s not how it works is because we’ve got congressional oversight and judicial oversight. And if people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.

  1. I don't trust any of the three branches of government.  You know what, neither did many of the folks who wrote the Constitution
  2. The involvement of the three branches of government in this issue boil down to less than two dozen people:  the President, a subset of the 15 members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a subset of the 11 judges (3?) on the FISA court, which has demonstrated pretty conclusively that they will approve any warrant no matter how absurdly broad
  3. Non-specific warrants that basically cover open-ended data gathering on every single person in the country, with no particular suspect or target named, are clearly un-Constitutional.  "and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."  I would love to know what probable cause the NSA cited to seized Warren Meyer's Verizon call records.  20 Washington insiders cannot change the Constitution -- that requires a vote of 3/4 of the states.
  4. Obama has stopped even pretending to care about the Constitution, an amazing fact given that he is nominally a Constitutional professor
  5. Partisan hypocrisy has never been clearer, as traditional defenders of civil liberties and opponents of the Patriot Act like Al Franken rush to defend the NSA spying (thank God for Linsey Graham, who can be counted on to be a consistent authoritarian).  Democrats and Republicans have basically switched sides on the issue.

When assessing any new government power, imagine your worst political enemy wielding the power and make your judgement of the powers' appropriateness based on that worst-case scenario.  Clearly, though, no one can see past the occupant of the White House. with Coke party members backing powers for Coke Presidents but opposing them for Pepsi Presidents and vice-versa.

New York Attempting to Make Contempt of Cop a Felony

One of the great revolutions in civil liberties has been the handheld video camera.  Time and again police that have taken individuals to jail and charged them with things like resisting arrest have been shown, through video evidence, to be lying their asses off.  It is depressing to see how many cases exist where video evidence directly contradicts the police story, and to think how many people have ended up in jail before such video evidence simply because the cops wanted them there and manufactured an incident.

One thing that accumulated video evidence shows is that many police officers seem to think the law makes them the dictator of the everything in a hundred yard radius around them, and they tend to get incensed when any citizen does not immediately respect this made-up authority and follow their every order, legal or not.  Further, it is clear that there are many officers who have absolutely no qualm about beating the crap out of someone with no immediate justification and then blaming the victim, knowing that their fellow officers will back them no matter what outrageous facts they make up.  Only video evidence is slowly breaking through this practice, which is why the police tend to fight back so hard against photography of their public actions, and why in-dash cameras so often happen to be turned off just when they are needed.

Having watched numerous videos of police encounters at sites like PINAC, I have no doubt that this proposed New York law making it a felony to annoy police officers will be shamelessly abused by police (the law requires some sort of body contact but that is extraordinarily easy for the police to manufacture, and the text of the law does not even require the contact to be initiated by the citizen so accused).

Obama's Total Failure

Forget about the economy -- libertarians expect Democrats to be horrible statists in economic matters.  But we hope to get some protection of civil liberties in exchange.  But Obama has been simply awful in this area as well -- prosecuting marijuana sellers that are legal under state law, claiming assassination powers, the drone war, wiretapping, failure to address gay marriage, etc.

Here is but one example - the Orwellian defense of warrantless wiretapping.  You can't sue us unless we tell you there is a wiretap, and we are not going to tell you.

As part of its concerted campaign to prosecute whistleblowers and to classify state secrets, the Obama administration has taken a position in Clapper that makes the Bush administration pro-secrecy campaign seem pale in comparison: namely, that no one can challenge warrantless surveillance unless the government tells you in advance that you’re being surveilled—which national security interests prevent it from doing. When Bush administration offered milder versions of the same arguments, the civil liberties community rose up in protest. Verrilli, for his part, was met by vigorous skepticism from the Supreme Court’s liberal justices.

It’s unfortunate enough that the administration asked the Court to hear the surveillance case in the first place, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had ruledthat the plaintiffs —lawyers and human rights and media organizations whose work requires them to communicate with clients, sources, and victims of human rights abroad—had legal standing to bring the case. Although they couldn’t be 100 percent sure that their telephone communications were being monitored, the appellate held that there was a “realistic danger” that their telephone communications were being monitored under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA), passed by Congress to codify some of the worst excesses of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. This led the journalists and lawyers to suffer tangible injuries—such as having to fly to the Middle East to communicate with clients rather than talking by telephone, for example, or being more circumspect in talking to Middle Eastern sources, as journalists such as Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges alleged.

In his Supreme Court brief and in the oral argument yesterday, however, Verrilli alleged that these harms were too speculative to create legal standing to challenge the law, since the lawyers and journalists couldn’t be sure they were being surveilled under the FAA rather than under some other warrantless wiretapping authority. Essentially, the Obama administration was arguing that targets of surveillance could only challenge the law after they knew they were being surveilled, though the government would never tell them they were being surveilled before bringing a case against them.

I am sure we would all like a ruling that we cannot be sued unless we give the plaintiff permission to do so, essentially what the Obama Administration is claiming here.

Update:  From the Washington Times:

Bloomberg News reported on October 17 that Attorney General Eric Holder “prosecuted more government officials for alleged leaks under the World War I-era Espionage Act than all his predecessors combined, including law-and-order Republicans John Mitchell, Edwin Meese and John Ashcroft.” :

The Justice Department said that there are established avenues for government employees to follow if they want to report misdeeds. The agency “does not target whistle-blowers in leak cases or any other cases,” Dean Boyd, a department spokesman, said.“An individual in authorized possession of classified information has no authority or right to unilaterally determine that it should be made public or otherwise disclose it,” he said.

However, when leaks to the press benefit the administration, prosecutions from the Jusitce Department are absent. For example, AG Holder was not prosecuting anyone over who leaked information about the killing of Oasma bin Laden. The Justice Department has yet to charge anyone over leaking information regarding the U.S. involvement in cyberattacks on Iran as well as an al Qaida plan to blow up a U.S. bound airplane. In fact, the Justice Department ended up appointing one of two attorneys to the cyberattacks investigation who was an Obama donor.

Part of the problem is that if this (or any other) Administration has its way, information that embarrasses the Administration get's classified, on the dubious logic that embarrassing the Administration embarrasses America.  With this definition, all whistle-blowing becomes "espionage".

Update 2:  More on Wiretapping from the EFF

To the contrary, there’s no indication that the still-active warrantless wiretapping program—which includes a warrantless dragnet on millions of innocent Americans’ communications—has significantly changed from the day Obama took office. With regard to the FISA Amendments Act, the Obama Administration has actively opposed all proposed safeguards in Congress. All the while, his Administration has been even more aggressive than President Bush in trying to prevent warrantless wiretapping victims from having their day in court and hascontinued building the massive national security infrastructure needed to support it. ...

Some have suggested it’s possible when Obama said “safeguards” on the Daily Show, he is referring to some unspecified secret administrative rules he has put into place. Yet if these “safeguards” exist, they have been kept completely secret from the American public, and at the same, the administration is refusing to codify them into the law or create any visible chain of accountability if they are violated. But given the ample evidence of Constitutional violations since Obama took office (see: herehere, and here), these secret safeguards we don’t know exist are clearly inconsequential.

Those European Hotbeds of Civil Liberties

I am happy to vociferously criticize the many shortcomings in US civil liberties.  But one are where I can't agree with other civil libertarians is their frequent homage to Europe as the home of civil liberties enlightenment.  Kudos, of course, to countries like Holland and more recently Portugal for reasonable drug laws.  But Europeans have many problems we do not share, particularly in protecting, or not protecting free speech.  Here is another example, from Sweden.  Just because they have a reputation for sexual freedom does not make them a civil liberties paradise:

One of the prime arguments I have always made about the Assange asylum case is that his particular fear of being extradited to Sweden is grounded in that country's very unusual and quite oppressive pre-trial detention powers: ones that permit the state to act with anextreme degree of secrecy and which can even prohibit the accused from any communication with the outside world.....

Svartholm is now being held under exactly the pretrial conditions that I've long argued (based on condemnations from human rights groups) prevail in Sweden:

"Gottfrid Svartholm will be kept in detention for at least two more weeks on suspicion ofhacking into a Swedish IT company connected to the country's tax authorities. According to Prosecutor Henry Olin the extended detention is needed 'to prevent him from having contact with other people.' The Pirate Bay co-founder is not allowed to have visitors and is even being denied access to newspapers and television. . . .

"Since he hasn't been charged officially in the Logica case the Pirate Bay co-founder could only be detained for a few days.

"But, after a request from Prosecutor Henry Olin this term was extended for another two weeks mid-September, and last Friday the District Court decided that Gottfrid could be detained for another two weeks.

"To prevent Gottfrid from interfering with the investigation the Prosecutor believes it's justified to detain him for more than a month without being charged....

Unlike in the British system, in which all proceedings, including extradition proceedings, relating to Assange would be publicly scrutinized and almost certainly conducted in open court, the unusual secrecy of Sweden's pre-trial judicial process, particularly the ability to hold the accused incommunicado, poses a real danger that whatever happened to Assange could be effectuated without any public notice....

By the way, the whole sexual freedom thing?  Uh-uh.  Which is another reason Assange is worried, since women can pretty much retroactively any sex they later regret as a sexual assault.

Obama Disappointment to Libertarians

We expected Obama to be a dumpster fire on economic issues and commercial liberty.  And he has been.

But here are two charts showing how the traditional libertarian choice in two-party electrions of "liberty in the bedroom or liberty in the boardroom" has broken down.  First, Bush was a mess on economic issues.  Now, Obama is a wreck on civil liberties issues.   Here is use of domestic surveillance tools, many times without warrants:

source

And here are drone strike casualties:

source

This Administration has increased the frequency of drone strikes by a factor of 8 over George Bush.  It has claimed that any civilian deaths from these strikes are combatant deaths because, well, civilians shouldn't have been hanging around near people we want to kill.  The Administration has claimed the right to assassinate Americans without any sort of due process, continues rendition and indefinite detainment, and has ramped up Federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in places like California where they are legal under state law.

Update:  While I was writing this, Ken at Popehat was saying something similar:

The United States government, under two opposed increasingly indistinguishable political parties, asserts the right to kill anyone on the face of the earth in the name of the War on Terror. It asserts the right todetain anyone on the face of the earth in the name of the War on Terror, and to do so based on undisclosed facts applied to undisclosed standards in undisclosed locations under undisclosed conditions for however long it wants, all without judicial review. It asserts the right to be free of lawsuits or other judicial proceedings that might reveal its secrets in the War on Terror. It asserts that the people it kills in drone strikes are either probably enemy combatants in the War on Terror or acceptable collateral damage. It asserts that increasing surveillance of Americans, increasing interception of Americans' communications, and increasingly intrusive security measuresare all required by the War on Terror.

But the War on Terror, unlike other wars, will last as long as the government says it will. And, as the MEK episode illustrates, the scope of the War on Terror — the very identity of the Terror we fight — is a subjective matter in the discretion of the government. The compelling need the government cites to do whatever it wants is itself defined by the government.

We're letting the government do that. We're putting up with it. We're even cheering it, because that's more comfortable than opposing it or thinking about how far it has gone.

Update 2:  And let's not forget that whole transparency thing.  The Obama Administration may be perhaps the worst Administration in decades in complying with FOIA requests for what should be public information.

Schizophrenic Trust in the Government

Matt Curran has spot-on comments about the death penalty in a letter to the Tampa Bay Times

Robyn Blumner's column highlighting the wrongful executions of Carlos DeLuna and Cameron Todd Willingham was a very compelling argument against the death penalty. I am a Republican who rarely agrees with Blumner, but in this case she was spot on. While I believe that there are individuals who certainly deserve to lose their lives for the crimes they commit (John Couey comes to mind), I simply do not trust the government to administer such a process fairly or accurately. This is because the government is run by human beings, who like the rest of us are motivated by narrow self-interest and restrained by limited knowledge. Because those in government rarely face the consequences of their decisions, they often make the wrong ones, even if their intent is pure.

What I find puzzling is how Blumner can so effectively articulate these failings of government when it comes to civil liberties in one column, and in the next champion its abilities and competence in economic matters. A criminal trial is a grueling and exacting process that seeks to administer justice in a very narrow, specific instance. If government doesn't deserve our faith in doing that correctly, how can we trust it to control and coordinate the countless decisions that hundreds of millions of Americans make each day in our economic lives?

For more from Matt, his blog is here.

Indefinite Detention of Americans Without Trial an Official, Legal Power of the President

The whole sad update here.

Rand Paul's attack on the bill is here.

This was an entirely bipartisan effort, with the 13 nay votes spit equally between the parties

Nay ID Crapo, Michael [R]
Nay ID Risch, James [R]
Nay IL Durbin, Richard [D]
Nay IA Harkin, Thomas [D]
Nay KY Paul, Rand [R]
Nay MD Cardin, Benjamin [D]
Nay MN Franken, Al [D]
Nay OK Coburn, Thomas [R]
Nay OR Merkley, Jeff [D]
Nay OR Wyden, Ron [D]
Nay SC DeMint, Jim [R]
Nay UT Lee, Mike [R]
Nay VT Sanders, Bernard [I]

Democrats have been unbelievably disappointing on civil liberties issues the last several years.  The same group that sniped relentlessly (and correctly) at George Bush about Guantanamo have now reversed themselves 180 degrees now that their guy is in office.

Thought For the Day

Radley Balko with this observation:

I don't promote government failure, I expect it. And my expectations are met fairly often. What I promote is the idea that more people share my expectations, so fewer people are harmed by government failure, and so we can stop this slide toward increasingly large portions of our lives being subject to the whims, interests, and prejudices of politicians.

I will concede that there's a problem, here. In the private sector failure leads to obsolescence (unless you happen to work for a portion of the private sector that politicians think should be preserved in spite of failure). When government fails, people like Dinauer and, well, the government claim it's a sign that we need more government. It's not that government did a poor job, or is a poor mechanism for addressing that particular problem, it's that there just wasn't enough government. Of course, the same people will point to what they call government success as, also, a good argument for more government.

It's a nifty trick. The right does it with national security. The fact that we haven't had a major terrorist attack since September 11, 2001 proves that the Bush administration's heavy-handed, high-security approach to fighting terrorism worked! But if we had suffered another attack, the same people would have been arguing that we need to surrender more of our civil liberties to the security state. Two sides. Same coin.

Executive Power Only A Problem When Someone Else Has It

On the day of Obama's inauguration,  I wr0te:

I will be suitably thrilled if the Obama administration renounces some of the creeping executive power grabs of the last 16 years, but he has been oddly silent about this.  It seems that creeping executive power is a lot more worrisome when someone else is in power.

I want to highlight two recent stories.  First, via Popehat:

The White House is considering endorsing a law that would allow the indefinite detention of some alleged terrorists without trial as part of efforts to break a logjam with Congress over President Barack Obama's plans to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Monday.

Last summer, White House officials said they had ruled out seeking a "preventive detention" statute as a way to deal with anti-terror detainees, saying the administration would hold any Guantanamo prisoners brought to the U.S. in criminal courts or under the general "law of war" principles permitting detention of enemy combatants.

However, speaking at a news conference in Greenville, S.C., Monday, Graham said the White House now seems open to a new law to lay out the standards for open-ended imprisonment of those alleged to be members of or fighters for Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

That is a really, really bad idea.  What would J Edgar Hoover had done with such a law?  Would Martin Luther King have been declared a terrorist.  And speaking of King, who the FBI kept under illegally deep surveillance for years, we have a second related story via Disloyal Opposition:

Last Friday, federal attorneys told the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals that government officials should be able to track the location of Americans by following their cell phone transmissions -- without having to get a warrant. While the FBI and state and local officials have already obtained logs from mobile phone companies that reveal the locations of customers' telephones, the practice has never formally been endorsed by the courts. The latest federal arguments -- and rebuttals by civil liberties organizations -- give the courts the opportunity to either support or repudiate federal claims that Americans have no "reasonable expectation of privacy" so long as they carry cell phones.

Yes, I blame Bush for getting the ball rolling on both these fronts, but wtf did we elect Obama for?  Many libertarians held their nose at his interventionist economics in order to try to thwart what they saw as a scary trajectory for executive power and civil liberties.  If we had wanted populist economic machinations combined with limitations on individual liberties, we could have voted for Pat Buchanon.

Capitalism: A Real Not Sarcastic Love Story

Sure, we all know that a series of carefully edited anecdotes on film constitute better evidence than comprehensive data and statistics, but Mark Perry soldiers on and does what he can anyway to rebut Michael Moore's new movie.  He has lots of good charts, but his summary is:

the evidence clearly demonstrates that along with capitalism and greater economic freedoms come: a) higher per-capita incomes, b) higher incomes for the poorest 10%, c) greater life expectancy, d) less corruption, e) cleaner environments, and f) greater political rights and civil liberties. Not a bad record for a system that Michael Moore portrays as evil, and says did "nothing for him."

I am always amazed at these attempts to portray countries like Cuba as superior to the US for the common man.  One only has to look at immigration patterns (and even better some measure of desired immigration intent, since our ridiculously restrictive immigration laws keep so many people out of this country) to see the common man's preferences.   Moore and his pears are like a man who looks at a river running from north to south and then arguing that the land in the south must be higher.

Just as an aside, there have probably been thousands of states in world history.   Of all those thousands of states and regimes from history, including the hundreds that exist today, there are probably only 15-20 that would have  social, economic, and political systems that would allow a man born to modest circumstances to make a fortune through criticism of the government and the social elite.

Civil Liberties in Britain

I am always ready to criticize the US and our steady slide into police state tactics against our own citizens.  But I think that those who have some rosy picture of European countries being some sort of civil liberties ideal towards which we should aspire are mis-informed.  Granted that a number of these countries have more sensible attitudes both towards drugs as well as sexual relationships that don't fit a biblical script, but their state police forces have powers over their citizenry we (at least not yet) don't tolerate.

Today's object lesson is Britain:

For the past couple of years the British government has been extremely aggressive in installing surveillance cameras "” CCTV on high streets, speeding cameras on highways, and so on. If you are a typical British citizen, your actions are captured on camera hundreds of times a day, and you can be watched with suspicion even without the government having any probable cause reason to suspect you of anything. Relatedly, they have also been challenging people taking pictures in public, and have recently essentially made it illegal to take pictures of police officers (with the justification being the possibility of terrorist abduction of officers). The erosion of civil liberties in Britain has been short and sharp.

Now some local authorities are witholding liquor licences from pub owners unless they agree to install CCTV inside the pub. One striking recent example is The Draper's Arms in Islington, a borough of London. As the Londonist notes:

Nick Gibson is attempting to re-open The Draper's Arms on Barnsbury Street, a former Evening Standard pub of the year winner that shut its doors last August. But to regain a licence, he's been told he must fit CCTV cameras that capture the head and shoulders of everyone entering the pub, and be willing to hand over footage whenever the police ask for it.

Gibson is furious at what he sees as erosion of civil liberties. However, his local MP and the Metropolitan Police keep blithely citing "˜public safety'. We find that a bit rich, considering studies have shown CCTV is less effective than increased street lighting at cutting crime, and CCTV footage is used to help solve just 3% of London robberies.

The Panic Imperative

Eric Posner writes:

Many legal academics claimed that courts should serve as fire walls
against the conflagration of fear. When the government locks someone
up, the courts should realize that in many cases either government
officials have panicked or are violating someone's civil liberties
merely to assure frightened citizens that something is being done. For
that reason, courts should treat the government's justifications with
skepticism, and never ever trust the executive branch.

These arguments have not yet surfaced in the current crisis. The
specter of fear is everywhere, not just on Wall Street. And the scale
of the government's reaction is no less than what it was after
9/11"”that is what probably scares ordinary people the most. Yet no one
who believes that the government exploited fears after 9/11 to
strengthen its security powers is now saying that the government is
exploiting financial crisis fears in order to justify taking control of
credit markets. No one who thinks that government would use fear to
curtail civil liberties seems to think that government would use fear
to curtail economic liberties. Why not?

No one, except me of course.  From my October 1 discourse with a Democratic friend:

I find it surprising that you take this administration
on faith in its declaration of emergency in the financial sector.
You've lamented for years about the "rush to war" and GWB's scare
tactics that pushed, you felt, the nation into a war it should not be
fighting, all over threats of WMD's that we could never find.  You
lamented Democrats like Hillary Clinton "falling for this" in Congress

But now the mantra is the same - rush, rush, hurry, hurry, fear,
fear, emergency, emergency. Another GWB declared crisis in which the
country needs to give the administration unlimited power without
accountability and, of course, stacks of taxpayer dollars to spend.  A
decision that has to be made fast, without time for deliberation.
Another $700 billion commitment.     And here the Democrats go again.
Jeez, these guys may have the majority in Congress but it is sure easy
for GWB to push their buttons when he wants to.  Heck, Pelosi is acting
practically as the Republican Whip to get GWB's party in line.

This is Iraq without the body bags, and without the personal honor
of brave soldiers in the trenches to give the crisis some kind of
dignity.

Where Were You Republicans?

As any reader of this blog will know, I am a strong supporter of opening up new areas in North America to oil drilling and freeing companies to develop western oil shale reserves.  Republicans in Congress are currently bashing Pelosi and the Democrats for not opening this development up.  Fair enough, I guess, but where were the Republican for the six years they had both the Congress and the Presidency?

As a libertarian, the situation in Congress simply sucks.  Republicans, who purport to be our allies on economic issues, do nothing of consequence with their six years running Congress.  Democrats, who purport to be our allies on civil liberties issues, immediately roll over on FISA once taking over Congress.  My general observation is that I like both parties better when they are in opposition.

Footloose, Arizona Style

At San Tan Flats, you can dance if you want to:

Outdoor dancing is now allowed at San Tan Flat.

Pinal County Superior Court Judge William O'Neil Wednesday
overturned the decision of the county board of supervisors that said
the restaurant was operating illegally by allowing patrons to dance to
live music on its back patio.

The case, which stretched over two years, drew national attention.


The supervisors' decision stemmed from a 1962 ordinance that banned outdoor dance halls.

Dale Bell, owner of the restaurant, contended the county violated his rights to run his business.

He sued the county for $1.

"That $1 is about freedom and about civil liberties and the government not being allowed to overreact," Bell said Wednesday.

Pinal County threatened to fine Bell $700 for each day he violated the ordinance.

Academic Arguments for the Imperial Presidency

Well, this, from Opinio Juris, certainly got my blood moving this morning:

The first part of Posner and Vermeule's book offers a forceful
theoretical defense of executive authority during times of emergency.
The book offers a thoughtful and well-reasoned perspective on the
cost-benefit analysis at play when government seeks the optimal balance
between the competing goods of security and liberty. Posner and
Vermeule argue that there is a Pareto security-liberty frontier at
which no win-win improvements are possible. That is, at this frontier
any increase in security will require a decrease in liberty, and
vice-versa. From my perspective, the existence of this security-liberty
frontier appears unassailable.

Given this frontier, Posner and Vermeule then offer their central
argument of institutional competence. They argue that there are few or
no domains in which it is true both that government choices about
emergency policies are not accurate (on average) and
that judicial review can make things better. They further argue that
civil libertarians who subscribe to vigorous judicial review in times
of emergency fail to identify a large and important set of cases in
which government blunders or acts opportunistically during emergencies and in which judges can improve matters

I haven't read the book, and am only just getting through the symposium they are holding.  My first, primal reaction is YUK!  Here are a couple of random thoughts:

  • I don't know if the last statement in the second paragraph is true -- I suspect it is not, or at least is subject to "improve matters" being interpreted differently by each individual.  However, it strikes me that even if the statement is true, checks and reviews by other branches of government still circumscribe executive excesses by their threat.  And the act and/or the threat of review leads to open political debate that can redirect executive actions.  Even GWB, who has pushed the theory of executive powers to new levels, can arguably be said to have modified his management of the Iraq war in response to Congressional scrutiny, even without explicit legislation being passed. 
  • The incentive system in government is for the government and its employees to grab new powers over the populace.  Anything that slows down that process, even in a "Crisis" is a good thing
  • If they want to argue that the Congress is useless as a check because in times of crisis they just become the president's bitch, I can't argue with you.  Just look at how the Democratic majority actions on Patriot Act rollbacks (none) or FISA enforcement (they actually retroactively gave Bush the power he wanted).  But this does not mean we should give up hoping they will try.
  • Government officials love it when they can act with enhanced power and decreased accountability.  If we institutionalize an imperial presidency in times of "crisis" and then give the President the power to declare a "crisis", then you can bet we will always be in a crisis.   Even if checks and balances don't tend to improve civil liberties decision-making in times of crisis, they at least help us get out of the crisis and declare normality again.  Otherwise we would never go back.

The real problem is that a government full of lifetime government employees is never, ever going to make the right choice on the security-freedom curve.  Really, by security, we mean government intrusion, so you can think of this as the government power vs. individual power curve.  And lifetime government employees are always going to choose for more power for themselves.  The problem is not who in government should fix our point on this curve, the problem is that anyone in the government is allowed to fix this point. 

That was what the Constitution was supposed to be for -- an act of the people fixing this point for the government.  The founding fathers were well aware of republics that had processes for slipping into dictatorship in times of war.  Rome was a good example, and eventually demonstrated what happened in this system -- the crisis never went away and you got a dictator all the time with no republic.  The founders explicitly did not write such a capacity for the president into the Constitution.  And it should stay that way.

Hopefully I will have more coherent thoughts after having read more of their work.

Update:  This comes to mind, for example

A recent interview with
Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, suggests that
the administration also feels duty-bound to withhold information when
it might be useful to critics who oppose President Bush's
anti-terrorism policies, since those policies are necessary to protect
national security. But the very same information can"”indeed, should"”be
released at a more opportune time, when it will help the president
pursue his policies....

And then further, to the issue of eavesdropping international calls:

It's
pretty clear McConnell's real concern is that debating this issue
endangers national security because it threatens to prevent the
president from doing whatever he thinks is necessary to fight
terrorism. Hence Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on
Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, is not at
all exaggerating when he observes, "He's basically saying that
democracy is going to kill Americans." And not just democracy, but
constitutional government of any kind, since anything that interferes
with the president's unilateral decisions with respect to national
security (which is whatever he says it is) is going to kill Americans
too.

All Your DNA Are Belong To Us

Boy, I totally missed this, and I live in Arizona.  Not until Reason highlighted the case was it even brought to my attention.  Apparently, Arizona is going to collect DNA samples from many of the people they arrest:

State lawmakers voted Tuesday to expand the state's DNA database
dramatically by requiring all people arrested for certain crimes to
provide DNA samples for state records whether they are convicted or not.

Conservative and liberal lawmakers alike raised alarms that the measure
would violate the civil liberties of people never convicted of a crime
and set a dangerous precedent for government collection of sensitive
genetic information.

"I think it is egregious," Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, a conservative
Republican from Gilbert and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee,
said on the House floor Tuesday. "It tramples on the liberties and
freedom of the people."

Apparently, the change is sneaking through buried in a budget bill.  And there are people our there who still trust the government?

 

Are You Kidding Me?

This is so wrong.  When possessing cash is a crime:

A federal appeals
court ruled yesterday that if a motorist is carrying large sums of
money, it is automatically subject to confiscation. In the case
entitled, "United States of America v. $124,700 in U.S. Currency," the
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit took that amount of cash
away from Emiliano Gomez Gonzolez, a man with a "lack of significant
criminal history" neither accused nor convicted of any crime.

I know what you are thinking -- there must be some other facts Coyote is leaving out that explain why a man should have his money confiscated for no other reason than he chose to keep it in cash.  Read the whole thing, because you won't find anything that makes this sane.  I do a lot of business down on the border, and get many Mexican customers (legally) visiting as a tourist.  Almost to a one, they show up with large rolls of cash.  Our preference for key fob credit chips and ubiquitous Visa cards is not shared by every other culture, and the desire to keep one's assets in cash should not be a crime (it may not be smart, but not a crime).  Hell, murderers have more protection under the law than this person carrying cash.

I would be interested to hear more about this from folks with a legal background, but I am surprised that an appeals court even has the purview to find that a crime exists when lower courts found none.  The problem here, I think, is that the cash can (legally, which is nuts) be seized and kept without a trial, just on the say-so of the police, who have the incentive to decide that the cash is seizable because they get to drop it into their budget pool.  So I guess the trier of fact is the police (?) and the lower court reversed the police decision and then the circuit court is reinstating it. 

This is just one example of the incredibly high price we pay in civil liberties for the war on drugs.  See this post to measure the countervailing benefits of the war on drugs.  Hat tip:  Catallarchy.

Update: Via Hit and Run, here is another nice feature of the war on drugs:

Tim takes one 24-hour Claritin-D tablet just about every day. That
puts him just under the legal limit of 75-hundred milligrams of pseudo
ephedrine a month. The limit is part of a new law that Quad Cities
authorities are beginning to strictly enforce.

The law limits the
amount of pseudo ephedrine you can buy. Pseudo ephedrine is an
ingredient in medicines like Sudafed and Claritin-D, and it's also a
key ingredient in methamphetamines.

"It's the only allergy medicine that works for me "“ for my allergies," Tim explained.

The only problem is, Tim has a teenaged son who also suffers from allergies. And minors are not allowed to buy pseudo ephedrine.

"I bought some for my boy because he was going away to church camp and he needed it," he said.

  That decision put Tim over the legal limit. Two months later, there was a warrant for his arrest.

And off to jail he went, with no apologies:

But even if you're not making meth, if you go over that limit "“ of one maximum strength pill per day "“ you will be arrested.

  "Does it take drastic measures? Absolutely. Have we seen a positive result? Absolutely," Sandoval stressed.

Do you see the similarity in these two stories.  Two different people, both punished by the state for taking legal actions similar to those taken by drug dealers (holding cash and buying Claritin) with absolutely no evidence they in fact had anything to do with illegal drugs.  Next up:  Anyone driving a Porche 911 will be arrested since those cars are favored by drug dealers. 

Circumscribing the "War on Terror"

One of the reasons I blog is that the act of writing helps me clarify my thinking on certain issues.  I have written a number of times about my concerns over the "war powers" this administration is taking upon itself.  Arnold Kling's article in TCS Daily helped me clarify a better framework for thinking about my issues.  I can now put my concerns in two categories:

  • The administration is going too far in using the war as an excuse to circumvent a number of Constitutional protections, from habeas corpus to search and seizure.  This does not mean that I am necessarily against all new activities, but they need to be initiated within our Constitutional framework.  Take surveillance activities.  Its not unreasonable to think that terrorism demands new surveillance tools.  But the principle we have always followed for surveillance is that Congress authorizes the power and the judiciary gets some type of review of the targets and methods.  Bush seems to have become impatient with separation of powers to the point that he does not even try to engage the other arms of the government, instead using the war to claim a fiat power.  (It should be noted that even when the separation of powers is respected, as with the Patriot Act, mistakes are made and we can go too far.  However, at least we can debate it and there are Congressmen we can hold accountable).
  • The second category of problem I have is with the open-ended nature of the war.  Calling this the "War on Terror" is only marginally more precise and limiting than saying we are fighting the "War against Bad Stuff."  If one asks, "Who are we fighting", the administration answers "Whoever the President says we are fighting against".  If one asks "When is it over" the administration either answers "Whenever the President says it is" or else, probably more honestly, they say "not for a long, long time."

In terms of civil liberties, the second point may be the most problematic.  Most citizens will grant the President some special war powers (as in fact the Constitution does), though we can argue whether the current administration has gone too far in defining these powers for themselves.   But if you combine this with letting the administration define exactly who the enemy is and how long the war lasts, it makes for a combination deadly to civil liberties.

Take the example of detention of enemy combatants.  Administration supporters argue that we have always been authorized to hold enemy combatants until the end of the war, as we did in WWII.  And so we did.  We were at war with Germany, so we detained German soldiers we captured until the end of the war.  Note that these are definitions that everyone at the time could agree on -- ie everyone knew what a German soldier was and everyone knew that "end of the war" meant when we marched into Berlin.  Few German detainees were held for much more than a year.  By the way, it is interesting to note that even in WWII, we abused this notion.  The administration defined "enemy combatant" as "anyone in the US of Japanese descent", so that we ended up interning innocent American citizens for years, much to our shame today.

However, in the current "war", an enemy combatant is anyone the administration says is an enemy combatant (at least in their theory) and "for the duration" means as long as the administration cares to hold them, up to and including "forever." 

Conservatives wish to argue that the "War on Terror" is a new kind of war and demands new tools to fight it, which they use to justify all kinds of secret searches and detainments.  Fine, but then it also needs new types of civil liberties checks.  Coming back to our detention example, in WWII it was not really necessary to have some kind of judicial review on the question of whether a captured German soldier was an enemy combatant;  the uniform was a pretty good giveaway.  However, such a review is necessary today, since the enemy combatants languishing at Gitmo (many of who I am willing to believe are bad guys) don't have any identifying uniforms or paperwork.

If I read him right, Kling is saying something similar:  Some security activities that were traditionally not allowed may be necessary, but for every civil liberties give-back there needs to be a countervailing new control or check on government activity:

On the whole, Posner makes a persuasive case for tilting the judicial
balance in favor of reasonable efforts to promote security rather than
strict-constructionist civil libertarianism. However, I believe that
what we need to do is re-build our civil libertarian fortresses, not
simply retreat from them. That is why I favor much stronger accountability for agencies engaged in surveillance. It is why I am proposing here a formal process for naming our enemies.

Does it Bother Anyone Else...

Does it bother anyone else that the only complaint voiced in this article about government requirements for building in surveillance backdoors into the Internet is about the cost?

Oh, and by the way, note the date on the act in question.  1994 makes it a Clinton-era law crafted after the first attempt to bomb the WTC.  All of you Democrats who feel smugly certain that civil liberties will be safe if only your party was in charge should note how closely the Patriot Act resembles Clinton's proposed anti-terrorism bill.  Just as Republicans have found that politicians shed their small government talk once they are in charge, our country's leadership tends to abandon any past queasiness about trampling on civil liberties once in a position of power, no matter what party they represent.

Bankrupcy of Advocacy Journalism

I have never been one to wade much into the whole "media bias" issue.  Whenever I have discussed it, my main point of view is that journalists of whatever political stripe tend to suspend necessary skepticism when writing about an issue they are really passionate about.  That is why advocacy journalism can yield such crap.  I have never once dug into a strong advocacy journalism piece and not found any number of "facts" to be without attribution and often to not even make any sense.

Most people have now heard the origins of the now-famous "million homeless families" non-statistic, which was reprinted over and over but has been admitted to have been just made up by a leading homeless advocate.  And lets not forget Mary Mapes, who proudly describes herself as an advocacy journalist, and her now famous use of forgeries in her Bush-National Guard reports, leading to the classic "Fake but Accurate" meme.  People who believe in a cause, whether it be homelessness or GWB's fundamental corruption, suspend skepticism for "facts" and "statistics" that fit their point of view on the subject.  Usually they will shrug off challenges to the fact, saying "well, it may not be exactly X but we know the problem is a really big number."  In other words, fake but accurate.

Angela Valdez has a nice analysis of one such advocacy journalism effort, in this case the Oregonian's over-one-hundred part series on the "meth epidemic".  For example, she writes:

On Feb. 20 of this year, columnist S. Renee Mitchell wrote, without
offering data to back up her claim: "The number of meth addicts"”and the
crimes they commit to support their habits"”is exploding."....

In fact, meth use during the past four years has either declined or
stayed flat, according to two major national drug-use studies. The
National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that meth use did not
increase at all from 2002 (two years before The Oregonian
started its carpet-bombing coverage) through 2004, the last year for
which there is data. The University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future
Study, which examines drug use among youth, actually shows a decline in meth use among high-school students from 1999 to 2005....

Despite The Oregonian's reliance on this figure, there is no good evidence that meth causes 85 percent of the property crimes in Oregon.

Portland State University criminology professor Kris Henning
says the number just doesn't make sense. Department chair Annette Jolin
says the unsupportable statistic has become "something of a joke"among
statistical researchers in the department.

For one thing, Oregon property crimes are much lower than they
were 10 or even 20 years ago, the time period of the supposed meth
"epidemic."

"If meth causes property offenses, and meth use has gone up,"
Henning says, "then property offenses should have gone up. And they
haven't. It's either that, or all the people who commit property crimes
have disappeared and been replaced by a small number of meth users."

I looked at the silliness of meth hysteria statistics here.  But my point is that this is not a meth issue - this is an advocacy journalism issue.  You could write the same article challenging any number of articles in the paper every day.

PS-  But on the subject of meth, I will make one prediction:  I predict that the meth hysteria will do more to create legislation and police practices that will undermine civil liberties than did 9/11.  In fact, much of the Patriot Act is already used more to fight the drug war than to fight terrorism.

Whose Civil Liberties am I Protecting?

I generally don't get worked up by the memes that fly back and forth between various political blogs.  However, one of late is starting to irritate me.  I have seen it all over the place on conservative blogs, but I will quote from James Taranto because I saw it on Best of the Web most recently:

Related to the terrorism-is-no-big-threat claim is the argument that American lives are less important than the civil liberties of terrorists.

Its not the lives vs. liberties part that works me up -- there probably is a real trade-off in there somewhere.  What irks me is portraying concerns about the Patriot Act, indefinite detentions without trial, and eavesdropping outside of the normal separation of powers checks and balances as "concern for the civil liberties of terrorists".

I am sure that there is a name for this kind of semantic trick, though I can't remember it, but I will say its bush league, right out of high school debate.  You could just as easily stump for repeal of the fourth amendment because it is only concerned with the "civil liberties of criminals".

No one except a few crazies cares much for the civil rights of convicted criminals and terrorists.  After all, what could be more of a violation of their civil rights than incarcerating them, but I have seldom seen a bond issue for more prisons that people won't vote for.

No, the problem is with the civil rights of the rest of us who are innocent.  We don't want our email read just in case we are terrorists.  We don't want our houses broken into at night just in case we are drug dealers.  And if we find ourselves in police custody, we want our habeas corpus rights respected and we want to get our due process or be released.

You see, that's the nagging little problem.  Because the people the administration and their law enforcement arms are detaining and eavesdropping on are only "suspected terrorists", or I will even grant you "strongly suspected terrorists".  And there is a whole great world of difference between even a strongly suspected terrorist and a convicted terrorist.  That is what due process and the presumption of innocence is all about.  We have a legal term for a person "suspected" by the police of crime or terrorism:  Innocent citizen.

Yes, I understand that for the police to do their business, they need to be able to investigate suspected criminals.  As I wrote here, we have a process for that - the legislature sets the rules for investigations and searches, the Supreme Court tests the rules against the Constitution, the administrative branches follow the rules, and the courts have various review roles, from approving wiretaps and search warrants to being a source of appeal for habeas corpus violations.  That is why I stated that though I opposed provisions of the Patriot Act, at least it followed this separation-of-powers script.  It is when the administration claims new powers for itself without legislative authority or judicial review that really gives me the willies.

And yes, I know that the counter-argument is that we are at war and the administration and the President as commander-in-chief have the abilities under their powers to do, uh, whatever it takes I guess to prosecute a war.  After all, you can't run to Congress for a vote every time you want to move the troops in a war, can you?

There is a major problem with this argument.  To the extent that the President has all this extra wartime power, the founding fathers put in a very sensible Constitutional provision that the Senate must make a declaration of war before the President has these wartime powers.  And you know what -- the Senate of this country has not declared war since about 1941 on anyone.  Even if I give GWB credit for all the best motives in the world, we cannot have a government where the President can assume all kinds of magic wartime powers AND unilaterally declare war himself (and no, the Senate authorization for military action in Afghanistan was not a declaration of war, at least in this sense).  Effectively the Administration is asking us to a) allow the Administration to define when and who we are at war against; b) allow the Administration to identify, without outside review, who the combatants are in this war; and c) allow the Administration to search or indefinitely detain these combatants that they identified, indefinitely and without review outside of Administration-controlled organizations.

No way.  And I don't think a President has these powers to arbitrarily name who is a threat and detain them without due process even in a declared war - I mean, does anyone remember the embarrassing Japanese internments in WWII?  Were the Japanese internments any different, except in scale, from the powers the administration is claiming today?

Supporters of the war in Iraq have defended that Iraq is better off despite the high ongoing civilian death toll from terrorist acts.  They argue that the people of Iraq are willing to pay the price of dealing with these terrorist attacks in order to gain the status of a free and open state.  I would ask, then, aren't we in the US just as willing to deal with some increased risk of terrorism in order to maintain a free and open state?

I don't consider myself a tinfoil hat guy.  I think many of the security concerns behind the administration's actions can be addressed with some respect to separation of powers, if the administration was just willing to try.  However, it is my observation that the administration gave up trying to work with Congress about 2 years into his first term.  GWB hasn't tried to push any kind of legislative agenda.  He hasn't tried to bring any adult supervision to the gross display of spending excess going on.  He hasn't even used his veto pen once.  It strikes me that the Bush administration decided in about 2002 that Congress wasn't serious (I can sympathize with that) and that they were going to go off on their own and run things by themselves.  Sorry, but no matter how good your intentions, it does not work that way.

When Multi-Culturalism and Individual Rights Collide

I have always been amazed that so many civil libertarians have embraced multi-culturalism.  To be a good civil libertarian, you have to be willing to defend a certain set of principles about individual rights ruthlessly against all intrusion.  But to be a multi-culturalist, you have to be willing to accept values and behaviors that are wildly out of sync with western liberalism as equally "OK".  These two never seemed reconcilable to me -- civil libertarians pursue moral absolutes, while multi-culturalism preaches that there are no absolutes.

Those on the left who have tried to embrace both civil liberties and multi-culturalism have sometimes had to bend themselves into pretzels to try to reconcile these beliefs.  Today we have the unbelievable spectacle of the same people accusing the US of becoming a theocracy because it is slow to embrace gay marriage at the same time defending radical Muslim groups who would kill gays on sight.  We can watch people go ballistic decrying naked human pyramids as "torture" but still defend Saddam and his Baathists as freedom fighters despite the hundreds of thousands they put into mass graves.  And we can observe that the same people who are trying to invalidate judge candidates because they went to prayer breakfasts are calling flushing a Koran down the toilet "torture".

I suspect, though, that the highly illiberal teachings of the Muslim religion may finally be forcing the left to recognize the incompatibilities of their civil libertarianism and their belief in cultural moral equivalence.  This is the theme of a great new piece by Cathy Young in Reason:

The tension between two pillars of the modern left"”multiculturalism and
progressive views on gender"”is not new. It has been particularly thorny
in many European countries where, in lieu of an American-style "melting pot"
approach, immigrants have been traditionally encouraged to maintain their
distinct values and ways. Recently, however, these tensions have started to
come out into the open. According to a
March article
in the German magazine, Der Spiegel, the murder of Dutch filmmaker
Theo Van Gogh by an Islamic extremist last November after he had made a
documentary about the oppression of Muslim women "galvanized the Netherlands
and sent shock waves across Europe."...

Misogyny and gay-bashing"”religiously motivated or not"”still exist
in Western societies as well, though at least they are widely condemned by
the mainstream culture. We should be able to say, loud and clear, that the
modern values of individual rights, equality, and tolerance are
better"”and just say no to multiculturalist excuses for bigotry.

Some good news on this topic, Kuwait has extended women the right to vote.