US media ignores threat to democratic rights

The US media’s reaction to last week’s extraordinary back-to-back speeches by President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney has been one of political complacency and deliberate cover-up in the face of a profound threat to basic democratic rights exposed in the two men’s remarks.

The speeches last Thursday morning—Obama’s followed directly by that of Cheney—are without precedent. Never before in the history of the United States has a vice president of a previous administration issued such a blistering public attack against a sitting president. Cheney’s speech was couched in language clearly aimed at eliciting the support of sections of the military and intelligence apparatus by stoking resentments over the exposure of torture and the proposal to shut down the Guantánamo Bay prison camp.

It is clear from the speeches’ timing that Obama felt compelled to preempt Cheney’s anticipated denunciation of his administration’s national security policies by delivering his own remarks first, choosing as the venue for his speech the National Archives, which house the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. 

Obama invoked the principles of the Constitution and warned against those “who think that America’s safety and success requires us to walk away from the sacred principles enshrined in this building.” This was coupled with his preceding remarks describing the Bush administration as having pursued a policy based on the conception that “anything goes” and “the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means,” including the president assuming “blanket authority to do whatever he wants.”

While Obama made clear his acceptance of the essential framework of the “war on terror” as well as many of its methods, the implications of his speech were unmistakable: the developments of the past eight years have posed a direct threat to constitutional government in the US and raised the specter of dictatorship.

This was only underscored by Cheney’s own remarks, which consisted of a full-throated defense of torture, accusations that Obama had aided terrorism and unconcealed appeals to disgruntled CIA operatives and military officers.

Given the explosive character of these two speeches, the reaction of the media was remarkable for its superficiality and the complete absence of any serious commentary on these issues.

The two publications that pass for the US newspapers of record—the New York Times and Washington Post—both praised Obama’s speech, while dismissing Cheney for “fear-mongering” and for having “failed to acknowledge his administration’s failures.”

“We listened to President Obama’s speech on terrorism and detention policy with relief and optimism,” the Times editorial last Friday read. “Mr. Obama was exactly right when he said Americans do not have to choose between security and their democratic values,” it continued.

The Washington Post lauded Obama for having “perfectly outlined the challenges facing a nation battling a violent, nonstate enemy.” The Post continued, “Mr. Obama’s wisdom lies in accepting the reality of war but insisting that it can be fought in fidelity to US values.”

The Post praised the Democratic president for seeking to “craft legitimate and effective legal structures” for the war on terrorism measures, while the Times similarly contrasted Obama’s proposal to develop a detention policy “based on law” to Bush’s “policies of arbitrary detention and abuse.”

A somewhat blunter analysis of this apparent dichotomy was provided on the eve of the Obama-Cheney speeches in an article by Jack Goldsmith, a former assistant attorney general in the Bush era Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Writing in the New Republic, Goldsmith criticized Cheney’s attacks on Obama by questioning their underlying premise: that the Democratic president had overturned the policies introduced under Bush.

Goldsmith writes: “The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric.”

He cites Obama’s retention of the thesis that the US is a country at war with terrorism, an ideological conception used to invoke extraordinary executive powers, including “military detentions, military commissions and targeted killings,” all of which are continuing under the Democratic administration.

He points to the Obama administration Justice Department’s legal defense of indefinite detention without trial, military commissions, rendition, domestic spying and the state secrets privilege. Even on torture, he suggests, the change is “less ... than meets the eye.” He notes that the administration has set up a task force to consider whether the CIA should be allowed to use “tougher interrogation techniques” than the military, something that Obama’s appointee as CIA director, Leon Panetta, supports.

Goldsmith writes that Obama’s attempts to justify these policies in the name of law and constitutional government—rather than the mere assertion of unlimited powers for the “commander-in-chief”—represent “a prudent attempt to legitimize and thus strengthen the extraordinary powers that the president must exercise in the long war against Islamist terrorists.” Obama’s strategy, he continues, consists of “an attempt to make the core Bush approach to terrorism politically and legally more palatable, and thus sustainable.” 

This is undoubtedly the case. Thus, while under the Bush administration the bedrock legal principle of habeas corpus was abrogated by the president simply declaring captured individuals “enemy combatants,” the Obama administration is preparing to enshrine indefinite detention without charges or trials in a preventive detention law, which would stand in direct opposition to the US Constitution.

In his speech last Thursday, Obama declared that “prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man” and vowed that he would work to craft a “legal regime” that would involve “judicial and congressional oversight.” Whatever the legal trappings, however, what is being proposed is a law allowing for people deemed “individuals who endanger the American people,” to use Obama’s phrase, to be locked up without trial or indeed any proof of a crime being presented against them.

This represents the legal scaffolding for a police state.

The Obama administration—like the Bush White House before it—represents such measures as nothing more than a common sense response to the supposedly ubiquitous threat posed by Islamist terrorism. The real roots of these policies, however, go far deeper.

The essential continuity between these two administrations is based not on some common perception of an existential terrorist threat, but rather on the class interests that both these governments have defended and the profound contradictions of American capitalism in crisis. Neither the unprecedented social polarization and inequality that prevail within the US, nor the explosive growth of militarist violence that characterizes its role on the world stage, is compatible with democracy.

The indifference of the media to the dangers posed in the Obama-Cheney exchange only underscores the political reality that there exists no genuine constituency for the defense of democratic rights within America’s ruling establishment. The predominant sections of the ruling elite see democratic forms of rule and fundamental civil liberties as impediments to resolving the present crisis by means of war abroad and the decimation of the social conditions of the working class within the US itself.


Bill Van Auken