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Our Vanished Civil Liberties

Caricatures created by politics never fit comfortably into the Oval Office. Eisenhower was less deferential to the military than he seemed likely to be, Kennedy was not at all beholden to the pope, George W. Bush was smarter than portrayed and Barack Obama has not led a charge from the left—least of all on behalf of the civil liberties that have eroded since September 11, 2001.

In pursuit of both terrorists and common criminals, Obama has perpetuated so many of the Bush administration’s policies that even Republicans might take heart. Granted, he triggered an outcry on the right when he attempted to close the Guantánamo prison and try the accused 9/11 plotters in federal court, and he repudiated the Bush/Cheney torture policies by ordering interrogators to abide by the Army Field Manual. His moderately liberal judicial nominees, including two for the Supreme Court, have not won him points with the Federalist Society, which grooms young conservatives for the bench.

Otherwise, though, there has been little in his civil liberties record to bother nonlibertarian Republicans. Data collection on individuals has flourished without judicial oversight. People under no suspicion are still monitored clandestinely with Bush-era legal tools. State secrecy is invoked to thwart lawsuits by victims of government abuse. Leakers and whistleblowers are aggressively prosecuted, and federal agencies vigorously resist inquiries made under the Freedom of Information Act. Last spring the hard line against defendants’ rights reached into certain criminal matters that have nothing to do with national security.

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