Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Glenn Greenwald points to a NY Times piece by noted journalist Charlie Savage as evidence that the more things change, the more they stay the same:

Savage lists several other examples of controversial Bush/Cheney "War on Terror" policies which have been either fully embraced or preliminarily welcomed by the Obama administration, all of which have been previously discussed here (though one episode Savage didn't mention which is one of the most disturbing yet is the Obama DOJ's ongoing and increasingly aggressive efforts to keep Bush's NSA warrantless spying program shielded from judicial review, by invoking Bush's State Secrets argument).
Concerning the pending dispute over Bush's wildly broad assertions of executive privilege in order to prevent his aides (such as Karl Rove) from having to disclose information to Congress, Savage quotes Obama's White House counsel Greg Craig as follows:

Addressing the executive-privilege dispute, Mr. Craig said: "The president is very sympathetic to those who want to find out what happened. But he is also mindful as president of the United States not to do anything that would undermine or weaken the institution of the presidency. So for that reason, he is urging both sides of this to settle."

That may be the most revealing quote of the article. If -- as virtually all Bush critics agree -- the Bush presidency ushered in a massive and dangerous expansion of executive power, isn't it necessary, by definition, to scale back some of those powers -- i.e., to "undermine or weaken the institution of the presidency" -- if those abuses are to be reversed? The cynical view has long been that Obama will not, on his own, meaningfully uproot Bush's executive power expansions because political officials do not get into office and then start voluntarily giving up their own power. Craig's statement constitutes a virtual affirmation of the cynic's view of Obama's intentions.

But then he goes on to say this:

Having said all of this, and while believing that Savage's article is of great value in sounding the right alarm bells, I think that he paints a slightly more pessimistic picture on the civil liberties front than is warranted by the evidence thus far (though only slightly). Additionally, it is all but certain that media stars and right-wing Bush followers will dishonestly exploit Savage's article to make claims about "vindication of Bush policies" that go far beyond the cautious statements Savage makes.

As Savage notes, there was a flurry of Executive Orders issued by Obama in the first week which are indisputably positive and constitute genuine reversals of some key Bush policies -- banning CIA black sites, guaranteeing International Red Cross access to all detainees (i.e., no more secret detentions), freezing all military commissions, increasing some Executive Branch restrictions on presidential secrecy powers, substantially limiting the interrogation techniques which (at least for now) the CIA is authorized to employ. All of those orders were, by design, preliminary, incomplete and reversible -- and their value is therefore limited -- but they were clearly important steps in the right direction.

So Obama will not "meaningfully uproot Bush's executive power expansions", except for dismantling Gitmo, ensuring Red Cross access to detainees, freezing military commissions, banning "black" sites and....well, everything else Greenwald lists above.

Greenwald is a thorough, methodical and logical writer, so anytime he seems to so boldly contradict himself, your first thought should be that you might be missing the point. Which I thought in passing. But I think Greenwald is bogged down, as I discussed the other day, by the idea of going after Obama supporters who would diminish or belittle legitimate criticism of Obama's policies. He acknowledges that there's been both good and bad to the Obama administration's approach on detention and terrorism thus far, but spends most of his blog upbraiding those "people who believe that Barack Obama is kind, just and good, and thus are going to have a hard time believing that he's embracing some of the most abusive Bush/Cheney policies even when he does it right in front of their faces." But he doesn't actually link to anybody as an example. Now I certainly have no doubt that there are some liberals/progressives out there belittling critics of the Obama administration, but everybody I read (and I read some noteworthy magazines, newspapers and blogs) seems to think-just like Greenwald-that there's some good and some bad to what the Obama administration has done so far. I don't deny that those who would enable the Obama administration to defy the Constitution must be criticized, but who are they?

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