By David Cole
September/October 2008 Issue
Will a new president give back the authority that Bush and Cheney grabbed for the executive?
As President Bill Clinton assumed office in January 1993, I held out great hope that the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s long-standing effort to deport my clients—eight people arrested in Los Angeles in 1987 for distributing magazines for a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization—might finally come to an end. We’d begun the case under President Reagan, and continued under the first President Bush. We had consistently prevailed in the federal courts, before judges appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents. The FBI director had admitted that none of our clients had engaged in any criminal activities, and that they were arrested only for their political associations. Surely the new Democratic administration—where some of my best friends were going to work—would abandon this ill-conceived effort?
Hardly. Instead of dropping the case, the Clinton Justice Department took it all the way to the Supreme Court, where it obtained a favorable ruling written by none other than Justice Antonin Scalia. The Clinton administration also aggressively used secret evidence to seek the deportation and detention of numerous Arab and Muslim immigrants, despite repeated court rulings that such tactics violated the Constitution. And after the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton signed into law the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which “streamlined” habeas corpus for all prisoners (accused terrorists or not), created a special court to remove “alien terrorists” (again using secret evidence), and made it a crime to provide “material support” to blacklisted groups, effectively resurrecting the McCarthy-era tactic of guilt by association.
So: While there may be many reasons to support Barack Obama, don’t assume that a Democratic president will necessarily transform the counterterrorism policies of the current administration. Government officials do not as a rule like to give up power, and President Bush has grabbed plenty of power for the executive branch since 9/11. Democrats in particular often feel vulnerable to being portrayed as soft on crime or terrorism, and far too many tack to the right on these issues, as Clinton did. If the problem is to be fixed—and it is essential that we fix it—it will only be because of sustained and popular pressure for change.