By Donna Lieberman — President Obama has taken many strong and vital stands in the name of our civil liberties – chief among them his unequivocal ban of torture, his pledge to close Guantanamo, and his order to close all CIA “black sites” – secret prisons around the world where an untold number of detainees were interrogated in ways not allowed on US soil.
But for the Obama administration to truly become the human rights beacon the world needs, its actions must match the president’s powerful rhetoric.
Obama has several opportunities to demonstrate a commitment to the Constitution that was severely lacking in the previous administration. He should allow several dangerous provisions and controversial provisions of the Patriot Act to expire as scheduled on December 31. There is no reason the government should be searching our library records or surveilling people with no known links to foreign governments or terrorist groups without a warrant. The Obama administration should drop its support of these indefensible provisions and instead support the JUSTICE Act which would give the FBI the tools it needs to keep Americans safe while protecting our privacy and respecting the Constitution.
The president must likewise reject indefinite detention – the practice of imprisoning a person without trial because he might commit a crime in the future or “confessed” under torture. The guarantee of a fair and impartial court proceeding is one of America’s founding values. More than 200 Guantanamo prisoners are waiting for their day in court, some of whom who have been there as long as seven years.
Most important, no one in America should be above the law. Torture is illegal and unconstitutional, and those who ordered it should be punished, no matter how high an office they held. President Obama has pledged to end torture, but if the Justice Department fails to prosecute those responsible for it, it sends a message to future administrations that they can break the law and get away with it. We cannot credibly hold ourselves out as a nation of laws and human rights until we show the world that we hold ourselves to our own standards. The Obama administration must stop hiding behind the Bush-era “state secrets” claim to prevent Americans from learning what happened in their name and to deny torture victims their day in court.
In November, Americans voted for a clean break from the Bush administration’s war on our liberties. Nearly a year later, Mr. Obama, we still have hope. But we are waiting for change.
Donna Lieberman is the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.