Political Repression in the Age of Obama

Civil liberties and civil rights, politicial repression of activists and Muslim AmericansPolitical Repression in the Age of Obama
Originally presented as a speech at CAIR-Chicago (Council of American-Islamic Relations) event “Guilty By Activism” on March 15, 2012

By Michael Deutsch, attorney at People’s Law Office

In understanding the present dangers to our civil liberties, and the right to organize and to support movements here and throughout the world, we must analyze how this period of repression differs from those in the past.

Throughout U.S. history there has been political repression and the denial of civil liberties. Beginning with the rise of the labor movement in the late 19th century and through every period of political activism challenging capital, white supremacy and imperialism- be it against the IWW (International Workers of the World), the Anarchist movement, the Communist Party, the Black Liberation movement, or the movements of international solidarity with Puerto Rican Independence, Central American liberation or Palestinian rights and the green movements of today- we have had spying, break-ins (black bag jobs), wiretapping (in the modern period), detention without trial, political frame-ups of activists and yes, even government assassinations.

In 1972, the Supreme Court rejected a government claim that the President had the authority to order warrant-less wiretapping to spy on domestic radicals. Faced with this ruling the FBI simply decided to carry-out a series of illegal break-ins of the homes of anti-war radicals and their families. It was later learned that between 1972-1974 over 800 such break-ins occurred. Interestingly, one of the first victims of this secret policy was the Dallas based “Arab Education League” whose files were burglarized, and armed with that information scores of Palestinians living in the U.S. were arrested and deported. When these illegal break-ins were discovered after J. Edgar Hoover’s death there was an outcry and several FBI supervisors were indicted and convicted even though their defense was that they were ordered to commit the break-ins as part of protecting National Security. Later they were pardoned by Reagan.


What makes this period of the “War on Terrorism” and the policies of Bush/Obama different? I use Bush and Obama synonymously since Obama has continued the anti-constitutional policies of Bush, and in fact, even extended such policies, greatly escalating the drone assassination attacks, signing the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) allowing for indefinite preventive detention, maintaining Guantanamo, prosecuting whistle blowers and Arab/Muslim and other activists, extending state secrets to cover up torture, refusing to prosecute torture, sanctioning military tribunals, and secretly spying on American.

What makes this period different and infinitely more dangerous is that these policies of repression, which in the past were done secretly and when discovered were condemned as violations of our constitutional rights, are now being justified as legal as part of the authority of the executive to protect our national security.

So we have the obscene and to me terrifying specter of the U.S. Attorney General speaking at an American Law School (my alma mater) and in straight face claiming that the President has the absolute power to order the killing of anyone, anywhere without judicial process. He argues the outrageous idea that due process need not involve the judiciary but can be carried out secretly solely by the executive branch. Further, indefinite “Preventive Detention” without trial is now claimed to be legal and within the executive power, as are secret break-ins and warantless electronic surveillance, (under the Patriot Act), and the cover-up of torture and other government crimes under the State Secrets Act.

The usurpation by the executive branch of the investigative and contempt power of the Federal Grand Jury to intern political activists who refuse to collaborate with political investigations, is an early example of how detention without trial or specific criminal charge was legalized under U.S. law. During the McCarthy period the Supreme Court held for the first time (5-4) that political activists could be stripped of their right to remain silent and forced to provide information about their political activities or go to jail without criminal charge or trial. Armed with this power, the federal government has used this “legal” internment power over the following 50 years to imprison hundreds of activists who have refused to become informants against their movements – all done with the sanction of the courts and the law.

Similarly, today we have the “material support law,” which allows the government to criminalize first amendment activity, speaking, writing, protesting, raising money (yes, despite the so-called right to raise money under Citizens United), if done in conjunction with or under the direction of a “FTO” (Foreign Terrorist Organization), as designated by the U.S. Secretary of State, with little ability to challenge such a designation.

So when in the past the Government had to find a criminal hook, fabricated or not, to prosecute and repress political activists, today they can simply prosecute and imprison activists based on their public, non-violent First Amendment actions. And of course, this law is used only against groups that oppose U.S. policy. Not those groups who provide financial support to the terrorist Israeli Defense Forces or to the Jewish settlers, who are funded by rich Americans and terrorize Palestinians on daily basis. Even some groups who are designated FTOs are immune from prosecution like the Iranian MEK which is supported by a host of establishment figures, who have been paid millions of dollars to give speeches in their behalf, including several past CIA directors, as well as Howard Dean, Thomas Ridge, Rudy Guiliani and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell.


What we have now is institutionalized and legalized repression sanctioned by both parties- A wholesale bi-partisan attack on our fundamental constitutional rights. Not a peep against Obama’s policies from the Democrats, who were so quick to denounce the same policies when implemented by George Bush. Assassination is now legal, as is warrantless surveillance, break-ins, and the criminalization of First Amendment solidarity work. We need to challenge these insidious national security arguments, condemn all who make them, including Obama and Holder, and build an independent movement to regain our fundamental rights to organize and oppose U.S. policies

For more information about the work of People’s Law Office in defending civil liberties, visit Political Repression and Grand Juries.