End of the Obama Era

Official portrait of Barack Obama
Official portrait of Barack Obama, by Pete Souza, The Obama-Biden Transition Project [CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons”
At 11:47a Eastern, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States.  As that happened, Barack Obama joined the ex-President’s club, leaving behind a legacy that will probably take a little time to truly comprehend.  Just as Bill Clinton benefited from slow-developing policies enacted by George H.W. Bush, it can take years before a President’s actions are truly understood.

I’m not ashamed–why would I be?–to admit that I voted for Obama in 2008 based on his promises to clean up the messes left behind by George W. Bush. And there were certainly messes, not the least of which–but probably the most obvious–was the near-collapse of the economy.  The problems in America, however, were so much deeper.  George W. Bush had presided over an administration which had flouted international human rights norms through its policies of extraordinary renditions, operation of so-called Black Sites and Gitmo, torture, and specious spying on Americans.  Obama ran on a platform that promised to end these abuses, promised to provide greater transparency, and promised to curtail the abuses of the Bush Administration.

So, how’d Obama do?

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Indefinite Detentions

I am wary of brushing with broad strokes, and I suppose President Obama is deserving of a wee but of lee-way, but I’m getting sick of feeling the cynical “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”  Again, at the risk of even pointing to an AP article, the AP says that U.S. District Judge John Bates has ruled that the United States can continue to hold detainees indefinitely.  This policy, of course, was created under the Bush administration with the help of a pliant Congress.  The reason why Obama is deserving of scorn is that it provided Judge Bates with a definition of who can continue to be held at Gitmo: those who the president has determined “planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and persons who harbored those responsible for those attacks,” as well as those “who are or were part of Taliban or al-Qaida forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed (i.e., directly participated in) a belligerent act in aid of such enemy armed forces.”

Judge Bates opinion  (Hamlily et al., v. Obama, No. 05-0763 (JDB) (civil) (D.D.C. 2009) (and others)) is interesting in a number of ways.  

  1. First, it notes that the Government no longer argues that authorization for detention comes from the President’s authorities under Article II of the Constitution, but from Congress’s Authorization for the Use of Military Force.  Hamlily at 1 n.1.  I suppose that’s refreshing from an overreaching-Executive perspective, but it still doesn’t change the fact that indefinite detention is still being sought.  
  2. Second, Judge Bates bases his opinion on a prior, substantially similar case, Gherebi v. Obama, Civ. A. No. 04-1164, 2009 WL 1068955 (D.D.C. Apr. 22, 2009) which states that the law of war actually supports the detentions.  
  3. Third, Judge Bates rejects the Government’s detainability framework–which includes “substantially support” (language cribbed from 18 U.S.C. § 2339A)–insomuch as it includes “support.”  (Everything else, as I’ve noted, is fine.)  The reason for this?  Judge Bates “can find no authority in domestic law or the law of war, nor can the government point to any, to justify the concept of ‘support’ as a valid ground for detention.”  Hamlily, at 7.
  4. Fourth, Judge Bates has noted that the government has abandoned the argument that the detainees are “enemy combatants,” because such a classification doesn’t exist in a “non-international” conflict.  Id. at 13, citing Int’l Comm. of the Red Cross, Official Statement: The Relevance of IHL in the Context of Terrorism (July 21, 2005) available at http://www.icrc.org/Web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/html/terrorism-ihl-210705. As such, “The Court also concludes that the authority claimed by the government to detain those who were “part of . . . Taliban or al Qaida forces” is consistent with the law of war. Even though this portion of the government’s framework is consistent with the law of war, however, the government’s position cannot be said to reflect customary international law because, candidly, none exists on this issue.” Id. at 15.

There are other nuggets in there, but that’s the gist of the opinion.  It’s surprising to see some of the things the Obama administration was asking for (such as advocating for the indefinite detention of those who provide financial support), and it really does make one ask what’s going on?  Is it, like some are arguing vis-a-vis the release of the abuse photos, that the Obama administration is really just trying to lay out a sop that will eventually get rejected?  If so, that’s a risky move, in my opinion, as Courts have been brow-beaten into submission to make sure they don’t step on the President’s toes.  See Hamlily at 6.  Or is it that Obama really has no interest in the Change message he ran on, as satirized by the Daily Show? 

Yes We Can…

I don’t know the answer, but I know I’m not the only one getting restive.

Bye bye Gitmo

Color me surprised, because I truly didn’t think he’d keep this promise.  President Obama has signed an Executive Order ordering that Gitmo be closed as practicable as possible, and in any event, no later than one year from now.  He has also signed an Executive Order creating a Special Interagency Task Force to study what to do with the individuals housed at Gitmo (and elsewhere), and while he was at it, he revoked Executive Order 13440, and issued yet another Executive Order ensuring lawful interrogations.  Impressive.

According to the Voice of America, the world welcomes these changes.  That’s not surprising, as the world’s been pretty pissed at the US for quite some time for how we’ve gone about our bidness.

Well, It’s Not Like He Could Have Invited Rev. Wright…

So, Obama has asked Rick Warren to deliver the invocation on inauguration day.  This has apparently caused consternation among the left, though one should always be suspect about blanket statements such as “the left is angry.”  I will say, though, I’m not a big fan of this choice; I’m not sure why a secular country (which, in theory, is what the United States is supposed to be) needs to have an invocation at inauguration, period.

Obama’s National Security Team

So the big story this morning, reported by Bloomberg (and thousands of other outlets), is that President-elect Obama has named his nominees for his “national security” team.  This includes: Senator Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State; current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for Secretary of Defense; retired Marine General James L. Jones for National Security Advisor; Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano to head up the Department of Homeland Security; Susan Rice as U.N. Ambassador; and Eric Holder for Attorney General.

What’s interesting is how the Department of Justice has been conceptually moved into the realm of “national security.”  It’s not necessarily an inappropriate fit, but it is interesting that an organization tasked with enforcing civil rights and dealing with antitrust issues is being called a national security component.