Commentary by James Shott
These days talk of government excesses is routine. A list of recent infractions contains things like the Internal Revenue Service using its resources to persecute applicants for non-profit status and the National Security Agency collecting data on every American’s phone calls and email.
Government excesses have been growing for a long time, and since 19 Muslim terrorists hijacked four airliners and successfully crashed three of them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the U.S. has been taking strong measures to detect potential terrorist threats, and these are by far the most threatening excesses.
The first of these was the USA Patriot Act, created and passed less than two months after the 9-11 attacks, and signed into law by President George W. Bush. Things have not improved since that fateful law passed.
The problem with such measures is that while they may or may not help prevent a terrorist attack, they present a frightening opportunity for government abuse. Americans are rightly distrustful of such mechanisms, and our Constitution prohibits our government from adopting liberty-crushing measures like these.
The National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (NDAA) was passed and signed into law by President Barack Obama, and greatly expanded the power and scope of the federal government to fight the War on Terror, including codifying into law the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects without trial. Including US citizens. Under the new law the US military has the power to carry out domestic anti-terrorism operations on US soil under the broad new anti-terrorism provisions provided in the bill.
This is not the first time such extraordinary misuse of the military has been considered. In 2002 a similar discussion arose, but was ultimately quashed by Mr. Bush.
Those features in the NDAA are unacceptable, even in the name of fighting terrorism. Prior to the NDAA the Posse Comitatus Act prohibited Federal military personnel and units of the United States National Guard under Federal authority from acting in a law enforcement capacity within the United States, except where expressly authorized by the Constitution or Congress. Americans also enjoyed the protections of the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The intention was to prevent precisely what the 2012 NDAA enacted into law.
Nevertheless, Mr. Obama signed the NDAA into law, saying, “I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists.”
However, according to Michigan Democrat Senator Carl Levin, Mr. Obama demanded that American citizens be included under the detention law and that the President of the United States have exclusive authority to invoke the statute. “The language which precluded the application of Section  to American citizens was in the bill that we originally approved…and the administration asked us to remove the language which says that U.S. citizens and lawful residents would not be subject to this section,” Sen. Levin said after the NDAA was signed into law.
Critics all across the political spectrum rightly opposed the NDAA because of elements in section 1021.
While many government excesses and cases of misbehavior go along uninterrupted, a federal judge appropriately put a stop to the offending elements of the 2012 NDAA only months after it took affect.
Federal Judge Kathleen Forrest granted a preliminary injunction striking down those sections of the NDAA that sought to provide the president the power to indefinitely detain citizens without benefit of their rights.
Judge Forrest concluded that Section 1021 “…failed to ‘pass Constitutional muster’ because its broad language could be used to quash political dissent.” In a statement clearly directed to lawmakers, she added, ”Section 1021 tries to do too much with too little – it lacks the minimal requirements of definition and scienter that could easily have been added, or could be added, to allow it to pass constitutional muster.”
The Obama administration, however, then fought successfully to appeal Judge Forrest’s injunction, and a 2013 version of the bill contains the same intolerable provisions as the 2012 version, and was also signed by President Obama.
Despite Mr. Obama’s comforting words, despite the bi-partisan opposition to section 1021, Mr. Obama demanded that language exempting America citizens and lawful residents from the provisions of Section 1021 be removed, he fought for and won keeping the Section alive in the 2012 version, and signed the 2013 version with those provisions contained in it.
No matter how much you may trust Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama, or any future president, no president can be allowed to have the absolute authority provided in the NDAA to detain citizens without due process, or to set the US military against the people. No individual can be allowed that authority. Ever!
There goes “innocent until proven guilty,” a major protection for citizens against tyranny. Erik Kain, writing on Forbes.com, says: “We’re talking about the stripping away of our most basic freedoms. We’re talking about a potential state that can call me a terrorist for writing this blog post and then lock me up and throw away the key.”
A majority of the US House and Senate approved these measures. Is this what you expect of your elected representatives?
Cross-posted from Observations