Obama's State Secrets Slipup Means We Need to Be Louder

03/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Since this morning, when I heard about Obama's move to derail an court's investigation of extraordinary rendition under the Bush administration, I've been moving through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. I've gone through through denial and anger, and I've just started working my way over to bargaining.

The Department of Justice under Bush tried to dismiss the case in question (Mohamed, et al. v Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc) on the grounds that merely discussing in a court of law the acts of extraordinary rendition that Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen is said to have facilitated poses an intolerable threat to national security. Obama's rhetoric during the campaign led me to believe that this kind of argument would be rejected in his new, transparent administration. So when the New York Times reported today that Obama's lawyers are still pushing to have the case thrown out of court, I was shocked.

One of the judges was just as incredulous, asking "Is there anything material that has happened [to change the position of the Justice Department]?" and, unable to let the matter rest, following up with "The change in administration has no bearing? " I couldn't imagine what it was like to sit on the bench in that courtroom, trying to stay composed when I was shaking with anger over breakfast. I felt a sense of personal betrayal.

In June of 2007, I was one of 50 Presidential Scholars to sign and deliver a letter personally to George W. Bush, asking him to end the practices of torture and extraordinary rendition. The then president looked me in the eye and said "America doesn't torture" giving me the distinction of having been lied to personally by our former president, instead of just through his media distortions.

When I read today's Times story, I felt sick. Obama's election was supposed to mean the chance for a clean, visible break with the travesties of human rights abuses of the last eight years. I wanted to echo ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero, who said in a statement "This is not change. This is definitely more of the same." I didn't understand how President Obama could repeat these mistakes.

Obama let me down today, but I let him down first. I got lazy, embracing a message of hope while neglecting the work and sacrifice that is required to sustain that hope. After denigrating Bush as a feckless shirker of responsibility, I fell prey to the same error, willing to cede responsibility to my president, instead of remembering that my job didn't end on November 4th in the polling place.

What I voted for when I voted for Obama was the potential for change, not a guarantee. Although I still feel confident that Obama is aware of the dangers of these policies, no politician is good enough to be trusted to act justly without constant lobbying and pressure from activists nationwide. Our voices must ring out just as loudly in Washington D.C. in January as they did in Ohio and Florida in November, particularly as the debate over responses to the economic crisis threatens to drown out our calls for reform, and a focus on the legislative agenda creates the temptation to put these critical issues on the back-burner in the interests of making a cloture deal.

I shouldn't have been so surprised about the magnitude of the fight that lies ahead of us. Earlier this week, I wore my ACLU shirt reading Close Guantanamo for what I thought might be the last time, but the conversations it sparked convinced me otherwise. I was repeatedly asked by my classmates "Why are you wearing that shirt? Obama closed Guantanamo. It's finally over."

It's true that Obama has signed an executive order expressing his commitment to closing Guantanamo Bay within the year, and I'm delighted, but that still leaves us a long way from actually answering Guantanamo's hard questions: Where will former prisoners go? How will we differentiate between prisoners who have already been complicit in attacks, prisoners who may pose a threat in the future, and prisoners who are entirely innocent? Is it even still possible to set up a trial system for the dangerous prisoners?

Bush's policies have done lasting damage to America's image and to its moral integrity. The systematic changes and abuses that he and his administration instituted are still wreaking destruction and still must be actively opposed and rooted out. Obama will fail to undo the harm still being done by the Bush administration if we accept simply not actively doing wrong as sufficient. Passive neglect of ongoing abuses is unacceptable.

To engage in the self-deception and denial required to believe that Obama can or will correct these hidden perversions of justice without action from me and other likeminded citizens is not possible. The anger I feel is justified, but is only useful insofar as I use it as a reminder of the need to remain engaged, and of the consequences if I fail. As Obama's presidency goes on, I need to commit to lobbying, arguing, and bargaining to make sure that cases like Mohamed, et al. v Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc don't escape public scrutiny, and I can't give into depression and despair when Obama doesn't consistently work miracles.

Because one thing is for sure: the stakes of this fight are too high for us to end up at acceptance.