U.S. and World Politics

The Obama Surveillance State

By Margaret Kimberley

The state security apparatus, which came into being during the Bush administration is now supported just as strongly, if not more so, under president Barack Obama. There has been no let up, no change in course for a system, which becomes stronger with each passing day and which faces almost no political opposition.

The Obama justice department recently asserted that it can withhold classified information from a federal judge. Federal judges have security clearances and are permitted to see classified information in cases brought before them. The Obama justice department says that only the executive branch has the power to determine what information courts ought to have. The government attorney asserted, “There is no right for the plaintiff to give the court classified information at all.” The federal judge was so stunned that she described herself as “literally speechless” over the government claim that she ought to be kept in the dark.

The case in question is a remnant of the worst abuses brought about by the Bush administration, involving the kidnapping and rendition of Muslim cleric Abu Omar in Milan, Italy in 2003. A former CIA operative with State Department cover is now suing the federal government because it did not protect her right to diplomatic immunity. That operative was found guilty in absentia in an Italian court and faces arrest should she ever travel to Europe again. Now the Obama administration is once again protecting the Bush abuses which its supporters thought would now be long gone.

This is not the only instance of the current justice department moving forward with Bush administration prosecutions. Thomas Drake is a former employee of the National Security Administration now charged with violating the Espionage Act. He faces 35 years in prison, having been accused of giving documents to a reporter. Candidate Obama said he would protect the rights of whistle blowers, but now as president he tries to send them to jail. The Obama administration has brought five Espionage Act prosecutions to court, more than all other past administrations combined.

Not content to defend Bush era abuses, and send whistle blowers to jail, Obama and Congress have extended the Patriot Act, without changes, yet again. Two Democratic members of the intelligence committee, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, were not only among those who voted no, but they also exposed how the act is being interpreted in a new and dangerous way by the administration. The Obama justice department has decided to interpret the act in a way, which it will not reveal to the public. In other words, the government has a secret way of determining what is and isn’t legal but will not share that secret with congress or with the people. Orwell and Kafka would find new sources of inspiration with this president.

When George W. Bush was president, I, and many others, often used the word fascism to describe the growth of government powers and the diminution of our rights. Now that those very same assertions of executive power are being made by Barack Obama, should we not continue to raise the same concerns?

The sad fact is that the surveillance state has strong bi-partisan support and it is likely to only expand. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were the impetus for the Patriot Act and wars of aggression, but events, which ought to signal a return to normalcy never do. The death of Osama bin Laden was supposed to make us safer. That is what we have been told for nearly ten years.

Now that he is dead we are told that his death proves the need to continue doing away with civil liberties. We are told that we still have to fight endless wars and that we can’t ever get our rights back. Attorney General Eric Holder summed it all up for us. “Now more than ever, we need access to the crucial authorities in the Patriot Act.” Perhaps we were better off when bin Laden was still alive.

Conservative Bill Kristol hit the nail on the head when he called Barack Obama a “born again neo-con.” Kristol had reason for this high praise after the president sought out his advice before telling the world that he intended to make war against Libya. The right wing who Democrats use to keep unqualified support in their ranks are now getting off-line access to the man we are told must be protected from them. Of course that doesn’t make any sense, and neither do efforts to come to Obama’s defense on civil liberties or on any other issues either.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at Ms. Kimberley can be reached via e-Mail at

Black Agenda Report, June 1, 2011