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civil rights

Obama Has a Problem with the First Amendment

Government is none of our business

“For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city" is what Barack Obama said on his first day in the Oval Office, as he signed executive orders to reverse some of the Bush Administration policies. As a candidate he had called warrantless surveillance “unconstitutional and illegal”.

He has disappointed his followers ever since, continuing with secrecy and surveillance practices indistinguishable from the Bush government’s, except where they have gone still further.

He promised during the transition period between election and inauguration to enhance “whistle-blower laws to protect federal workers.” Instead, his attempts to silence federal employees and prosecute them under the Espionage Act have exceeded every administration in history. The act has been used only three times by all presidents since its enactment in 1917. Obama has already used it six times.

Worst was the case of Thomas Drake, formerly of of the National Security Agency, for telling a reporter for the Baltimore Sun of the government’s intent to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for an outside vendor to develop data monitoring software instead of an internal product that cost far less and was less invasive of privacy. Somehow, even this was classified — as is most everything now in our secret government. For this attempt to save taxpayers’ money, Drake was looking at 35 years in prison. The case was so weak that the government settled for a face-saving misdemeanor charge but Drake had been fired, lost his pension and was ruined financially by legal costs.

Then there is John Kiriakou, a CIA officer who, in the midst of a bloody shootout, stormed a house in Pakistan, captured a badly wounded man, and sent a cellphone photo of his ear that identified him as Abu Zubaydah, a prize catch in the early moments of the new war against al Qaeda in 2002. Today, that risk of his life for his country is forgotten by the Obama government that now accuses him of revealing to a journalist the classified names of two former CIA colleagues involved in waterboarding interrogations. The Obama Justice Department that has never prosecuted anyone for actually waterboarding prisoners wants to send Kiriakou to prison for 30 years for revealing two names.

The Obama Administration has take particular aim at press freedom. It has tried to force The New York Times’s James Risen to confirm that his source for a 2006 book on the agency’s attempt to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program was a former CIA officer on trial for providing Risen that information. Risen, along with Eric Lichtblau of the Times won the Pulitzer for discovering the Bush Administration’s spying on international communication traffic. Much like attorney-client privilege the press have traditionally not been forced to reveal their sources of information. Most states have laws that shield the press and a Virginia court ruled against the government’s attempt to force Risen to testify. But there is no federal shield law and a government unconcerned for the First Amendment is appealing.

President Obama has personally seen to it that a Yemeni journalist remains behind bars for the crime of exposing the Obama Administration’s cover-up of a December 2009 bombing raid in Yemen that went wrong. Getting wind that reporter Abdulelah Haider Shaye was about to be pardoned, an early release from a five year prison sentence, Obama on the phone with Yemen president Saleh asked that Shaye be kept behind bars.

His crime was discovering that the bombing was conducted not by Yemen but by the U.S. and had not killed targeted al Qaeda militants but 14 women and 21 children. At the site Shaye had discovered the remnants of cluster bombs and cruise missiles, ordnance never in Yemen’s arsenal. The President clearly does not want the truth to come out, and keeping a reporter in jail in a coutry not in a country which most Americans cannot find on a map is a good lock down. But a Wikileak intercept caught President Saleh saying to Gen. David Petraeus that his government agreed to say, “The bombs are ours, not yours”. The full story is reported by Jeremy Scahill at The Nation.

At great risk, Shaye had in the past gone into al Qaeda controlled areas of Yemen and interviewed their leaders, even U.S. citizen Anwar al Awlaki before he was judged a terrorist, leading to his controversial assassination by the U.S. Access to al Qaeda is an invaluable reportorial resource for gaining insights into the terrorists, but the Obama Administration instead now uses it as its excuse for imprisonment. Our ambassador to Yemen dutifully fabricates “Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating Al Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans”. All interviewed by Scahill who know Shaye say this is a lie, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and other international media organizations have called for Shaye’s release.

Meanwhile, we see a president who will sign off on the Justice Department’s new guidelines that permit U.S. intelligence agencies to hold the data collected on all of us — phone calls, e-mail, credit card charges, Internet wanderings, Facebook postings, everything — for five years, instead of promptly destroying it if no connection to terrorismis evident.

A press free to develop sources to find the truth is vital to preserving a democracy and preventing the encroaching secret government that Obama now finds to his liking. The one-time Chicago constitutional professor would be well to recall what Justice Hugo Black wrote when the Supreme Court ruled against the government’s attempt to block publication of the Vietnam war history that came to be called the Pentagon Papers: “The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.”

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