[Here's a guest post from Jason Sparks aka @sparksjls. I meant to post this before the Iowa Caucus but -- SQUIRREL!! Oops. The points are still salient, and so you should still read it. Cheers! -ABLxx]
Cenk Uygur, late of MSNBC, now of Current, is featured in a new Huffington Post opinion piece urging Democrats to vote against President Obama in the Iowa caucuses. To support his underlying aim, Uygur cherry-picks a handful of issues on which he disagrees with the president’s actions, and in the process either purposefully misleads or, alternatively, has conducted so little research as to unintentionally mislead. Either way: He misleads. Let’s look at what he’s arguing.
Uygur opens his HuffPo piece with a screed about the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA); he takes issue with the final language contained in the NDAA sections pertaining to the detention of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. Uygur asserts that the NDAA allows for “the indefinite detention of US citizens by the military inside the US.” To bolster this frightening claim, Uygur links to this Glenn Greenwald post on Salon.com, in which Greenwald makes the same assertion: that the NDAA is the “indefinite detention bill.”
So, is it? How can we determine if the NDAA is the “indefinite detention bill” Uygur and Greenwald (to name just two) claim it is? How about if we look at the legislative language? The pertinent detention section of the NDAA is Sec. 1021/1022. Here’s the final language that came out of the House/Senate conference committee (the NDAA went to conference because the House-passed and Senate-passed NDAAs differed in key aspects, as we’ll discuss below.) I’m clipping at some length the key provisions at Sec. 1022, and have taken the liberty of bolding certain sub-sections:
SEC. 1022. MILITARY CUSTODY FOR FOREIGN AL-QAEDA TERRORISTS.
(a) Custody Pending Disposition Under Law of War-
(1) IN GENERAL- Except as provided in paragraph (4), the Armed Forces of the United States shall hold a person described in paragraph (2) who is captured in the course of hostilities authorized by the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40) in military custody pending disposition under the law of war.
(2) COVERED PERSONS- The requirement in paragraph (1) shall apply to any person whose detention is authorized under section 1021 who is determined–
(A) to be a member of, or part of, al-Qaeda or an associated force that acts in coordination with or pursuant to the direction of al-Qaeda; and
(B) to have participated in the course of planning or carrying out an attack or attempted attack against the United States or its coalition partners.
(b) Applicability to United States Citizens and Lawful Resident Aliens-
(1) UNITED STATES CITIZENS- The requirement to detain a person in military custody under this section does not extend to citizens of the United States.
To summarize: Sec. 1022 of the NDAA authorizes military detention of members or associates of al-Qaeda. The final conference language snipped above explicitly excludes American citizens and lawful resident aliens from the requirement to militarily detain members or associates of al-Qaeda. So, why the uproar from Uygur, Greenwald, and other civil libertarians? Well, they might say, the language doesn’t require military detention of American al-Qaeda members or associates, but that means that military detention is still permitted. Sure, that’s a fair criticism, but is this an indefinite detention bill? Of course it isn’t. Any reasonable reader of the final detention language would be hard-pressed to see the codification of military detention for al-Qaeda members and affiliates as “one of the worst laws ever passed in the US,” which is how Uygur frames it in his opening paragraph. Does this law, which allows for the military detention of suspected terrorists, do more harm to average Americans than the Alien and Sedition Acts did? More harm than the Supreme Court caused in its Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, affirming the legality of racial segregation?
Let’s remember something critically important: the Executive Branch of our government has asserted its authority to indefinitely detain enemy combatants (remember Gitmo?) for over a decade. During the entire Bush Administration, the Executive claimed and used this authority in creating a vast system of CIA prisons around the world, where they detained and – in some instances – tortured suspected al-Qaeda members and associates. That detention authority, which the Bush Administration asserted, was implicit in the 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF). The 2012 NDAA merely codifies that implicit authority, making it explicit, and therefore subject naturally to judicial challenge. By removing the authority from the amorphous land of implied authority, and placing it firmly in the realm of explicit Federal law, any future alleged violations by the US Government of this authority can be challenged in the Federal courts.
Oh, and about those secret CIA-run prisons established in the Bush Administration? Obama closed them all – on his first day in office.
Uygur’s claims that Obama has been a civil libertarian’s worst nightmare just does not pass the reasonableness test. Let’s look at just a handful of big wins for civil libertarians under the Obama Administration:
- Closed the Bush-established CIA-run foreign detention facilities.
- Refused to defend the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act
- Led the fight to repeal the Clinton-era discriminatory Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell military service policy
- Signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law
Has Obama been perfect on civil liberties issues? Of course he hasn’t. But in the real world of politics – which is the one we occupy – Obama has been better than any president since Johnson on civil liberties issues as a whole. This is incontrovertible fact.
Uygur complains about Dodd-Frank, which he says “doesn’t reform a damn thing.” Really, Cenk? Not a damn thing? If that’s the case, why are Republicans in the Senate refusing to confirm any Consumer Financial Protection Board Director nominated by the president, absent the Administration meeting GOP demands to water down the CFPB? And that CFPB, which will substantially increase consumer financial protections across an enormous array of financial products, is a product of the Dodd-Frank reforms that Uygur claims “don’t reform a damn thing.”
Uygur deploys the frequent complaint among some progressives, namely, that “Obama always caves!!!!” This complaint belies a stunning lack of understanding about how our Federal system operates. It assumes – or demands – that the president stamp his feet, yell and scream, and simply gets his way on everything. Certainly we all know that’s just not how our system works. Let’s briefly consider the flurry of legislation that passed during the December 2010 lame-duck session.
In return for a two-year, short-term extension of all Bush tax cuts (from the child tax credit for low-income earners to the marginal rate cuts for all earned income), Obama secured:
- A one-year, 2% tax cut for all wage earners (the payroll tax cut)
- A one-year, non-offset extension of maximum unemployment benefits up to 99 weeks
- Passage of the NEW START nuclear reduction treaty between Russia and the US, substantially reducing the dangerous nuclear weapon stockpiles held by each country
No president ever negotiates in ways that I – or anyone else – can approve of all the time. However, Obama has achieved huge victories in every aspect of his Administration – in foreign and domestic policy – and it’s impossible for me to believe that anyone who shares progressive beliefs can truly posit that he’s been a disaster – the way Uygur does.
Either Uygur hasn’t thought through the consequences of denying Obama a win in the Iowa caucuses, or perhaps, he believes that some brand benefit will accrue to him by opposing Obama in Iowa. If I’m being generous, and assuming Uygur thinks that progressive pressure now will lead Obama to govern “more progressively,” how would losing the Iowa caucuses work to achieve that goal? A loss by the president in Iowa would further embolden Republicans in Congress by creating the (mistaken) impression that Obama has lost the Democratic mandate to govern. A steady drumbeat would emanate from the national political press in support of this impression, only strengthening it further. The reality is that the president is working with a Republican-controlled House and a Senate that can’t move even the most moderate legislation through its chamber. No amount of pressure on the president will change this dynamic until after the November elections.
The president doesn’t need the Uygurs of the left hectoring him with unsubstantiated hysteria; he needs progressives to take the time to educate themselves when confronted with such hysteria. An educated left will quickly realize that the president is not the failure Uygur caricatures. An educated left will support the president and counter hysteria and hyperbole with facts.
[You can find Jason Sparks on the Twitters at @sparkjls.]