No Comment — January 3, 2012, 1:08 pm

Obama Signs the NDAA, World Does Not End (Yet)

On New Year’s Eve, as most Americans were focused on parties and football games, President Barack Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012. He issued a significant signing statement in the process:

I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists… I decided to sign this bill not only because of the critically important services it provides for our forces and their families and the national security programs it authorizes, but also because the Congress revised provisions that otherwise would have jeopardized the safety, security, and liberty of the American people. Moving forward, my Administration will interpret and implement the provisions described below in a manner that best preserves the flexibility on which our safety depends and upholds the values on which this country was founded…

I want to clarify that my Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens. Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a Nation. My Administration will interpret section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law.

Obama’s decision hardly provoked applause from the NDAA’s critics. The ACLU stated that it was a “blight on his legacy because he will forever be known as the president who signed indefinite detention without charge or trial into law.” Jonathan Turley has called Obama’s decision to sign the NDAA into law America’s “Mayan moment”—the dooming moment “when the nation embraced authoritarian powers with little more than a pause between rounds of drinks.”

On the other hand, two legal scholars with strong civil-liberties credentials and close ties to the administration, Marty Lederman and Steven Vladeck, authored a serious review of the NDAA’s most controversial terms and found them to be a mixed bag, but far from a civil-liberties apocalypse. The measure can fairly be called the “Gitmo Forever” Act because it contains a series of provisions designed to frustrate Obama’s pledge to close the detention operations at Guantánamo. On the other hand, as the result of effective lobbying by the White House and civil libertarians, the worst of the provisions concerning what the military calls “detention operations” were reshaped into provisions that are either relatively harmless or sound statements of law.

Surely both of these views can’t be right?

Civil libertarians obviously would have preferred a veto of the NDAA, followed by its repassage, stripped of the special-detention provisions. Still, they scored a modest success in the signing statement (an ironic achievement, given that they sharply criticize signing statements in principle). There, Obama made an explicit promise about how he would use the authority some saw in the Act to place American citizens in indefinite military detention. He also restated his opposition to the creeping militarization of the criminal-justice process. And Lederman and Vladeck are certainly right that the most offensive aspects of the detention provisions were brushed away in the last rounds of negotiation. Maybe the “Mayan moment” that Turley has in mind is coming in the fall.

I don’t think Turley or any other civil liberties critic expects to see the Obama Administration sweep America’s streets, picking up American citizens and shipping them off to overseas military prisons. In fact, to the irritation of some of his Republican critics, Obama has gone on record opposing military detention for terrorism suspects who are U.S. citizens for some time now. The concerns of civil libertarians are based more on their recent experience of a Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel that sought to legitimize torture, schemed to bury the Posse Comitatus Act, wrote memos authorizing warrantless surveillance, and approved numerous war crimes. If you’ve watched any of the recent G.O.P. presidential debates, then you know all of the contenders (excepting Ron Paul and possibly Jon Huntsman) embrace torture techniques like waterboarding, would expand Guantánamo, believe that military prisons are the alternative to an ineffective criminal-justice system, would revive extraordinary renditions and CIA black sites, and generally rush to characterize anyone who thinks differently about the world as un-American or worse. Among this group, measures to strip Americans of their citizenship are a serious topic, while the ending of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan provokes consternation. The question therefore becomes not what Barack Obama’s Justice Department would do with the NDAA, but what a Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney Justice Department would do. And on that score, Turley’s concerns, though melodramatic, are far from unrealistic.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2016

American Idle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My Holy Land Vacation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The City That Bleeds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Bloqueo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vladivostok Station

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ideology of Isolation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
"We all know in France that as soon as a politician starts saying that some problem will be solved at the European level, that means no one is going to do anything."
Photograph (detail) by Stefan Boness
Post
Tom Bissell on touring Israel with Christian Zionists, Joy Gordon on the Cuban embargo, Lawrence Jackson on Freddie Gray and the makings of an American uprising, a story by Paul Yoon, and more

Freddie Gray’s relatives arrived for the trial in the afternoon, after the prep-school kids had left. By their dress, they seemed to have just gotten off work in the medical and clerical fields. The family did not appear at ease in the courtroom. They winced and dropped their heads as William Porter and his fellow officer Zachary Novak testified to opening the doors of their police van last April and finding Freddie paralyzed, unresponsive, with mucus pooling at his mouth and nose. Four women and one man mournfully listened as the officers described needing to get gloves before they could touch him.

The first of six Baltimore police officers to be brought before the court for their treatment of Freddie Gray, a black twenty-five-year-old whose death in their custody was the immediate cause of the city’s uprising last spring, William Porter is young, black, and on trial. Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing.

Artwork: Camels, Jerusalem (detail) copyright Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
[Report]
How to Make Your Own AR-15·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Even if federal gun-control advocates got everything they wanted, they couldn’t prevent America’s most popular rifle from being made, sold, and used. Understanding why this is true requires an examination of how the firearm is made.
Illustration by Jeremy Traum
Article
My Holy Land Vacation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"I wanted to more fully understand why conservative politics had become synonymous with no-questions-asked support of Israel."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson
Article
The City That Bleeds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing."
Photograph (detail) © Wil Sands/Fractures Collective

Average speed of Heinz ketchup, from the mouth of an upended bottle, in miles per year:

25

After studying the fall of 64,000 individual raindrops, scientists found that some small raindrops fall faster than they ought to.

The Playboy mansion in California was bought by the heir to the Twinkie fortune, and a New Mexico man set fire to his apartment to protest his neighbors’ loud lovemaking.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today