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Michael Brenner Headshot

Obama's War on WikiLeaks -- and Us

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The casual way that Americans are shredding their liberties is breathtaking. Rights that have been revered as the nation's spiritual heirloom for 225 years are cast aside like so many disposable keepsakes. We pretend that we still prize the ideals of which they are emblematic even as they are tossed aside. Only a people confused by runaway emotions, and forgetful of their identity, can act with such feckless abandon.

Blatant violations of basic legal rights and protections have been a feature of the 9/11 decade in America. Wholesale electronic surveillance, arbitrary detention, intrusive investigations of persons and organization without cause or court order, the participation of the CIA and military intelligence in contravention of stipulated prohibitions -- a wide array of unsavory and illegal practices. This past week has seen official lawlessness reach new depths.

The Obama administration's extrajudicial assault on WikiLeaks and the person of Julian Assange is the most frightening. Federal officials have put the muscle on private businesses to deny their services to both Wikileaks and anyone who wishes to extent financial support to them. The fact that PayPal, Amazon, Mastercard, Visa et al are de facto public utilities underscores the abuse of governmental power.

The Justice Department also may well have brought pressure on the Swedish government to enlist Interpol in the pursuit of Mr. Assange for surreal sexual offenses, still unstated, that prosecutors have been fondling for two months. (Allegedly Washington is threatening to cut off intelligence sharing to the newly frightened authorities in Stockholm). Now there are reports that the Swedes are collaborating with Washington to keep Assange in British detention long enough for him to be indicted on some contrived charge or other by the Justice Department, acting in complete secrecy. In addition, the United States Air Force has blacked out electronic access on all its computers to newspapers who have published excerpts from the leaked cables. Employees are further enjoined from reading said papers under pain of severe sanction. A general order prohibits each and every DoD employee even from looking at hard copy editions -- whether in the sanctity of their homes or in the lobby of Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel. This is the Stars & Stripes version of repressive practices used by autocratic regimes the world over -- practices that Washington righteously denounces as odious attacks on freedom.

The key point, overriding everything else, is that the United States has no legal authority to do any of these things. It did not seek legal authority. The White House and Pentagon simply arrogate to themselves the power to punish as they arbitrarily see fit. American officials from Barack Obama on down are declaring their right to inflict penalties on citizens based on nothing more than their will and whim. The premise, and the precedent, are in direct contravention of our fundamental liberties. There is no distinction in kind between these actions and the federal government's denying any individual or group DSL service or electricity because those utilities could be used to do things embarrassing to those who wield power in Washington.

As distressing as this situation is, that distress is compounded by the eerie silence that surrounds this historic power grab. The mainstream media make no editorial criticism, the news columns ignore the civil liberties issues -- as do the op-ed columns (Eugene Robinson is a notable exception), the bar associations utter not a word, the universities continue along their insular ways, and politicians either cry for Assange's blood (literally) or cower in dread of being labeled soft on saboteurs of the nation's security. It is especially noteworthy that The New York Times, itself culpable of, or accessory to whatever alleged crimes Mr. Assange may be accused of, has kept its lips discretely, if unheroically sealed.

The American collective state of mind has become incapable of making the elementary, basic distinction between personal preference and law. To raise the matter with colleagues and friends is to elicit responses dictated solely by what one thinks of Wikileaks, Assange and their doings. That is a logical non sequitur and ethically obtuse. My personal feelings about them have nothing to do with my judgment about the illegality and arbitrariness of what our government is doing. Nor should it. One should be fierce in denouncing this violation of our principles and laws whatever/whomever the object of the abuses. We used to understand that.

To round out the week's dismaying news on the civil liberties front, a Federal District Court judge, John Bates, threw out a lawsuit aimed at preventing the United States from targeting U.S.-born, Yemeni based Anwar al-Awlaki whom our security agencies have put on a kill hit list. The suit was brought by the cleric's father. The Obama Justice Department's opposition was grounded on the claim that the court has no legal authority to review the president when he makes military decisions to protect Americans against terrorist attacks. Judge Bates dismissed the suit in saying that only Mr. al-Awlaki has the legal standing to make the case. So now we have judicial confirmation of the right of unstated officials using unstated criteria to liquidate an American citizen on their own volition alone. The target's only apparent recourse is to secrete himself into a federal courthouse, along with lawyers, without getting himself gunned down on the way in. Again, virtually no public comment.

How have we reached this point? The obvious answer is fear -- fear exploited by self-serving elected officials whose own political interests trump their oath of office to protect and obey the constitution of the United States of America. Fear and the craven behavior it spawns. Supposedly we are a people whose bravery keep us free -- supposedly.