The President’s Pre-Memorial Day Speech

Last Thursday, President Obama gave a major speech at the National Defense University. He covered a lot of ground, too much to respond to with one essay. Let me talk about two parts of it: the winding down of the war on terrorism, and the shield law for reporters. Both of these sound logical and reasonable. Both positions are half-truths, at best.

Global War on Terror: The GWOT was forced on the US by a previous administration (I almost wrote regime). It was illogical and ill-advised then, and it’s no better now. Why? For one thing, you can’t fight ‘terrorism’. If your state is going to ‘declare war’ on someone, it has to be a state. That’s the way international law works, and trust me, in the long run, these things matter. Terrorism is a tactic, a weapon, an asymmetric application of force, usually one used by a non-state actor. It’s like declaring war on people who use tanks, or automatic weapons, or who depend on bank robbery as a source of income. You can have a policy against them. You can devote resources towards their eradication. You can’t declare war on them. Every president since at least Eisenhower has known this, but it took a Bush to ignore the fact. What declaring war allowed Bush to do, was to pass various laws destructive of civil liberties at home. It’s those laws, and the associated policies and court cases, that have, for example, caused my not-all-that-close-to-Canada city of Spokane to be described as being in a “Constitution-free zone”.

The trouble is that only now, seven thousand American dead later, is the American government coming to the conclusion that GWOT was a bad idea from an international standpoint, and backing away from the implications of an unlimited commitment to invading countries we feel are harboring …people who use terror as a tactic. Note that we are backing away from the commitment. We aren’t backing away from the powers we have arrogated to our country and the President, and we aren’t backing away from destruction of civil liberties at home. Nobody’s giving up any power. They’re just planning on using it more discreetly.

Freedom of the Press: “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.” Thus saith Thomas Jefferson. And to have an informed citizenry, you must have freedom of the press. This is such an important concept that it was enshrined in the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. The trouble is, those in power hate bad publicity, hate transparency, and above all hate criticism. So, deep down, they hate the First Amendment. This shows that it’s doing its job.

For most of our history those in power haven’t been able to do anything about this because, you know, The Constitution. Now, encouraged by the destruction of civil liberties promoted by the GWOT, they’ve figured out a way to do it: you don’t attack the law itself, you attack the circumstances around which it can be employed. The clearest example is the Fifth Amendment, the one that says you can’t be forced to give testimony against yourself. If you are a terrorist suspect overseas, it’s easy. You don’t have any constitutional rights, even when held by US forces in US facilities. They can waterboard you all they want. Fine, that’s foreigners, over in foreignistan. What about Americans in America? Almost as easy. You pass a law that says it’s illegal to lie to a federal officer. So from the first time you open your mouth, you are in jeopardy. The wisest course of action? Never talk to a FBI agent without a lawyer and a recorder present. Of course, we all do this anyway.

As far as freedom of the press is involved, the First Amendment isn’t broken if we restrict the freedom of government workers to talk to them, or if we take advantage of available loopholes in the law to, for example, charge reporters with espionage, or threaten to, or claim that we can, or exploit newly available technology to track people without warrants. And that’s what the DoJ has been doing for the last four years.

So when the President who has initiated more press leak investigations than any other President in history says he’s worried about Freedom of the Press, and he does this a week after the man he appointed to head the DoJ has admitted doing the things I just talked about, I wonder if it is all talk, particularly when the law proposed wouldn’t have kept DoJ from doing what they did. That tells me the speech was part of the smokescreen.

Fine words, as the philosopher says, butter no parsnips. So on this Memorial Day, a day traditionally devoted to platitudes, I’m going to withhold judgment, keep my powder dry, and see if actions speak louder than words.

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