Obama is out-Bushing Bush, and no one minds
That Obama has received so little flak over police spying on Muslims suggests Democrats can get away with far more than Republicans.
It has emerged that the White House has funded the New York Police Department’s surveillance of entire Muslim neighbourhoods with money earmarked for fighting drug crime. The revelations were detailed in reports by the Associated Press this week. In response, senior law enforcement officials and politicians have been either unapologetic or silent. Most tellingly, the Obama administration, which has championed Muslim outreach and has said law enforcement should not put entire communities under suspicion, said on Monday that it has no opinion on the matter.
Since the 9/11 attacks, the Bush and Obama administrations have provided $135million to the New York and New Jersey region through the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area programme (HIDTA). It’s unclear exactly how much of that money was spent on surveillance of Muslims because the programme has little oversight. But the AP discovered that the White House money has paid for cars that plainclothes NYPD officers used to conduct surveillance of Muslim neighbourhoods in New York and New Jersey, and for computers that stored information about Muslim college students, mosque sermons and social events. It also helps pay rent for the NYPD’s intelligence unit.
This is, effectively, a spying programme used to monitor American Muslims as they shop, work, socialise, pray and study. Police have photographed and mapped mosques and recorded license plates of worshippers. They have compiled lists of Muslims who took new, Americanised names, eavesdropped on conversations inside businesses owned or frequented by Muslims, infiltrated Muslim student groups and monitored websites of universities across north-east US. In the name of counterterrorism, Muslim American citizens have been catalogued, their private conversations and everyday activities recorded and stored in databases.
City officials like mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD chief Raymond W Kelly were unrepentant. Asked by the Daily News if he would apologise to anybody, Kelly said: ‘Not happening.’ Instead, he stressed that the NYPD will ‘continue to do whatever we need to do, within the law, to protect the people of New York City. New York is where they’ve come before, and where we believe they want to come again, to hit us again and kill us.’
This kind of gung-ho talk is most closely associated with the Bush era, when the draconian suppression of liberties in the US and beyond was carried out in the name of combating terror. By contrast, when Barack Obama was elected in 2008, there was widespread expectation that he would usher in a new, more tolerant era, and that he would restore the rule of law and the liberties sacrificed by his ‘cowboy’ predecessor. People on the liberal-left believed Obama’s promises of turning the politics of fear, polarisation and demonisation into the stuff of unflattering history books.
Yes, it was during Bush’s presidency that new regulations were introduced allowing HIDTA funds to be used for counterterrorism efforts. But the Obama administration has not put a stop to it and, even now, refuses to condemn it. The continuation of the Muslim spying programme jars sharply with the kind of liberties-respecting governance Obama promised Americans when he ran for president. It is emblematic of the cavalier attitude towards liberties that has been tagged as distinctly Republican but has, in fact, been entrenched under Obama.
On Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration has no opinion on how the HIDTA grant money was spent and that the White House has no authority to direct, manage or supervise any law-enforcement operations. If the administration truly has no power to influence a NYPD programme used for intrusive monitoring of scores of American citizens, then that would indicate great political impotence. After all, both in the domestic and international arenas, the Obama administration has warned against demonising and singling out Muslims in America and turned Muslim outreach into a priority. Well, it is hard to think of any starker way of ‘singling out’ a group than by stalking anyone who looks or sounds like they belong to it.
While the AP reports have caused a great stir, the Obama administration’s funding of the HIDTA programme is not at all out of character. While the administration has nurtured an image of inclusion, in reality it has pursued an aggressive counterterrorism approach that has involved a continuation and widening of Bush-era assaults on civil liberties. As a report by the American Civil Liberties Union marking last year’s decennial of the 9/11 attacks showed, Obama has not only approved the use of unconstitutional surveillance, he has also claimed unchecked authority to use lethal force against US citizens and authorised indefinite detention of terror suspects.
In August last year, the White House released a strategy for countering violent extremism that was littered with implicit rebukes to Republicans. It said: ‘Actions and statements that cast suspicion toward entire communities, promote hatred and division, and send messages to certain Americans that they are somehow less American because of their faith or how they look, reinforce violent extremist propaganda, and feed the sense of disenchantment and disenfranchisement that may spur violent extremist radicalisation.’
Conceivably, the authors of this report must now be trembling with fear. Because the NYPD’s surveillance programme does precisely what the counter-extremism strategy warned against: it separates out certain American citizens based on look and faith and treats their liberties with a shamefully cavalier attitude. Moreover, it has shown that the Obama administration does not see Muslims in any more flattering light than Bush-style Republicans did. The report was deeply coloured by the politics of fear, stressing that it is in America’s interest to keep Muslims sweet, or else they might blow themselves and other Americans up.
Yet Obama somehow gets away with out-Bushing Bush, particularly in the international arena where he is still seen as a representing positive change from Bush’s calamitous war on terror. But at home, too, Obama’s counterterrorism strategies don’t meet half as much outrage and derision as Bush’s did. Earlier this month, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found broad public support – including from the left-wing of the Democratic Party – for Obama’s authorisation of drone strikes to kill American and non-American terror suspects and his decision to keep the Guantanamo Bay military prison open.
The revelations that the NYPD routinely infiltrates places like schools, dollar stores and Halal restaurants in the name of rooting out terrorism shows – yet again – that civil-rights assaults were not a Bush-era anomaly, but continue under, and are literally sponsored by, the Obama administration.
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