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Before President Obama, it was grimly accurate to write, as I often did in the Voice, that George W. Bush came into the presidency with no discernible background in constitutional civil liberties or any acquaintance with the Constitution itself. Accordingly, he turned the "war on terror" over to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld—ardent believers that the Constitution presents grave obstacles in a time of global jihad.
On January 22, 2009, the apostle of "change we can believe in" proclaimed: "Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of my presidency." But four months into his first year in command, Obama instructed his attorney general, Eric Holder, to present in a case, Jewel v. National Security Agency, a claim of presidential "sovereign immunity" that not even Dick Cheney had the arrant chutzpah to propose.
It is one thing, as the Bush regime did, to spy on us without going to court for a warrant, but to maintain that the executive branch can never even be charged with wholly disregarding our rule of law is, as a number of lawyers said, "breathtaking." On the other hand, to his credit, Obama's very first executive orders in January included the ending of the CIA "renditions"—kidnapping terrorism suspects off the streets in Europe and elsewhere and sending them for interrogation to countries known to torture prisoners. However, in August, the administration admitted that the CIA would continue to send such manacled suspects to third countries for detention and interrogation.
President Obama also solemnly pledged to have "the most open administration in American history." Nonetheless, his Justice Department lawyers have already invoked "state secrets" to prevent cases brought by victims of the CIA renditions from being heard. In February, in a lawsuit brought by five graduates of CIA "black sites" before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, one of the judges, visibly surprised at hearing the new "change" president invoking "state secrets," asked the government lawyer, Douglas Letter, "The change in administration has no bearing on this?"