The Progressive | Obama Grabs Repressive Tools

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Whistleblowers and solidarity activists beware: The Obama Administration maybe coming after you. It is using the repressive powers of the state to try to send a chill down thebacks of many people who might dream of opposing U.S. policy.

The WikiLeaks revelations fell like a hammer onthe repressive reflex of those in power. God forbidthat in a democracy the citizenry actually knowswhat its government is up to, but pundits and politi-cians alike viewed the publication of Pentagon docu-ments and State Department cables as the gravestpossible assault.

The Pentagon tossed Private Bradley Manning,who is suspected of spilling documents to WikiLeaks,into solitary confinement for the last half year “for nodiscernable reason other than punishment,” said Psychologists for Social Responsibility. The group added that “solitary confinement is, at the very least, a form of cruel, unusual, and inhumane treatment in violation of U.S. law.”

That was just the beginning. Attorney General EricHolder opened a criminal investigation of Julian Assange and threatened to charge him under the Espionage Act of 1917. And both houses of Congress introduced bills to amend that oppressive act to make it even more oppressive. Anyone would be guilty of violatingthe Espionage Act if that person knowingly and willfully disseminated any classified information about U.S.human intelligence activities “in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States.”

Note the immense sweep of “in any manner.” And who would define “the safety,” much less the “interest,” of the United States?

Under this elastic language, The New York Times and The Washington Post would have committed a crime whenthey published the Pentagon Papers.

The dusting off and polishing of theEspionage Act should fill you with greatalarm. As Naomi Wolf has argued sowell, members of Congress and the White House “are manipulatively counting on Americans to have no knowledge or memory of the darkhistory of the Espionage Act, a history that shouldalert us all at once to the fact that this Act has onlyever been used—was designed deliberately to beused—specifically and viciously to silence people likeyou and me.” She reminds us that Eugene Victor Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison “for daring to read the First Amendment in public,” and that “E.E. Cummings spent three and a half months in a military detention camp under the Espionage Act for the ‘crime’ of saying that he did not hate Germans.”

But don’t be surprised if the revision of the Espionage Act goes through. Senators Scott Brown, JohnEnsign, and Joe Lieberman introduced it in the Senate,and the Republicans control the House. So we may see bipartisanship in the service of repression.

Meanwhile, according to an Office of Manage-ment and Budget memo that NBC got a hold of, federal agencies are supposed to develop an “insider threat program.”

Under this program, federal supervisors would beon the watch for “behavioral changes” that somehowwould suggest that employees may be leakers.

Agencies are also supposed to hire psychiatrists togauge the “despondence or grumpiness” of theiremployees as an indicator of “trustworthiness.”

Polygraphs are coming back. What’s more, super-visors are supposed to “capture evidence” of “post-employment activities.”

So if you’re a federal employee, you may become aperpetual suspect — even when you retire. That’senough to make anyone grumpy or despondent.

But it’s not like President Obama waited for theWikiLeaks controversy to start clampingdown. The most ominous assault had nothing to do with WikiLeaks.On September 24, Obama’s FBI descended on the homes and workplaces of fourteen socialists and solidarity activists working on Palestinian and Colom-bian issues in the Midwest. Many of the activists had helped organize protests against the RepublicanNational Convention in Minneapolis in 2008.

Twenty-five FBI agents came to the door of long-time Chicago activists Joe Iosbaker and Stephanie Weiner at 7:00 in the morning.

The feds stayed for ten hours, rummaging throughtheir house, and then leaving with thirty boxes of their belongings.

The agents even went through their son’s T-shirtdrawer and separated those that they considered controversial from those they didn’t, says Weiner.

At one point, the agent in charge was called in toevaluate one of the shirts because it said “Hellboy” onit, she recalls.

The pretext for this raid, and others that followed,was that the activists were “providing material support” or “attempting to provide material support” or “conspiring to provide material support” to groupsthat are listed by the State Department as terrorists.

Providing “material support” became a crime aspart of Bill Clinton’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Under the Patriot Act,the law was amended to define “material support” asproviding “any property, tangible or intangible, orservice,” and that service includes providing “expertadvice or assistance.”

The Obama Administration defended the statutebefore the Supreme Court last June in a case called Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. Then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan argued that even if humanrights activists were urging groups on the terrorist listto dispense with their violent activities, the activistswould still be guilty of providing “expert advice” andtherefore could face fifteen years behind bars. Kaganand the Obama Administration prevailed in a 6-3 decision by the Court.

“The Court ruled — for the first time in its history — that speech advocating only lawful, nonviolentactivity can be subject to criminal penalty, even wherethe speakers’ intent is to discourage resort to violence,” said Georgetown law professor David Cole, who represented the Humanitarian Law Project, inan article for The New York Review of Books.

This decision represents an astonishing assault onour First Amendment rights to freedom of speechand freedom of assembly.

The FBI continues to use brass knuckles againstthe solidarity activists. It has empaneled a grand juryin Chicago. But the fourteen activists all signed a letter to federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald assertingtheir Fifth Amendment rights and advising him thatthey would not cooperate with his investigation. Fitzgerald has now subpoenaed a total of twenty-three people to appear before the grand jury, and he seems to be focusing on those who visited with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Sarah Smith is one of them. The FBI came calling on her on December 3. “I took a trip last summer to Israel and Palestine. I am Jewish and wanted to see firsthand what life is likefor Israelis and Palestinians,” she said. “I went withtwo Palestinian American friends. You would think Jews and Palestinians going together to visit Israel andPalestine is something the U.S. government wouldencourage. Instead, all three of us are now beingordered by the FBI to go before a grand jury for goingon that trip.”

Fitzgerald has also resubpoenaed three of theactivists who asserted the Fifth: Tracy Molm, AnhPham, and Sarah Martin. Organizers worry thatFitzgerald will compel the three to testify by issuingthem immunity, and if they refuse to do so, he canthen toss them in jail.

These strong-arm tactics must stop.

The man who ran for President as constitutional law as a professor and a restorer of civil liberties is now dragging out some of the most repressive tools at his disposal. And he’s usingthem to go after not suspected AlQaeda terrorists but whistle blower sand leftwing solidarity activists. That should serve as a warning to us all.

—Matthew Rothschild