Reality Check

Reality Check

Vets the truthfulness of claims and measures the efficacy of public policy

Reality Check: Is Obama a Civil Liberties Conservative?

By Sam Brock
|  Wednesday, Feb 13, 2013  |  Updated 11:17 AM PDT
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In the aftermath of 9/11, then-President George W. Bush oversaw some policies that caused civil rights groups to cringe and Americans to protest. Yet years later, a new poll by The Hill shows voters are just as critical of the current president, if not more so, on the subject of civil liberties.  In this Reality Check, Sam Brock takes a look at whether President Obama's policies warrant the harsher reaction.

In the aftermath of 9/11, then-President George W. Bush oversaw some policies that caused civil rights groups to cringe and Americans to protest. Yet years later, a new poll by The Hill shows voters are just as critical of the current president, if not more so, on the subject of civil liberties. In this Reality Check, Sam Brock takes a look at whether President Obama's policies warrant the harsher reaction.

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President Obama has been at least as ineffective as his predecessor, George W. Bush, in balancing the civil liberties of Americans with aggressive tactics to combat the war on terror.

At least, that’s the view of more than half of all voters polled recently.

The washington, D.C. publication, The Hill, conducted a survey that found 37 percent of voters believe President Obama has actually been worse than President Bush when it comes to respecting civil liberties, while 15 percent characterize him as “about the same.”

Such a conclusion might have seemed improbable a few years ago, when controversy swirled around Bush Administration policies involving warrantless wiretapping, covert searches and harsh interrogation techniques.

Yet today, in light of President Obama’s increased scrutiny over the use of drones and continuation of policies crafted under President Bush, popular opinion appears to be changing.

According to Amy Zegart, a faculty member at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, the latest polling figures reflect both the criticism of the drone program and a greater tolerance for previously questioned anti-terror techniques.

“You see a pretty dramatic swing in public support for all kinds of things that provoked outcries during the Bush Administration,” Zegart said. 

One policy that raised particular concern for many Americans- the use of waterboarding during interrogation- was banned during the latter years of the Bush Administration.

President Obama, who campaigned on a promise to end interrogation techniques that don’t comply with Army guidelines, immediately banned all abusive interrogation methods upon taking office.

The president also formally closed CIA black sites at the start of his first term in 2009, though reports of proxy detentions in other countries plagued him thereafter.

But despite his actions aimed at improving transparency and trust, President Obama has actually continued many of the policies of his predecessor.

For example, some of the most controversial elements of the Patriot Act were signed into law in 2006.

The parts that weren’t, like roving wiretaps and the government’s expanded access to business records, were extended by President Obama for several more years.

Obama also signed a five-year extension of the FISA Amendments Act dealing with foreign surveillance, paving the way for more warrantless wiretapping and data collection.

“The last major piece of FISA court legislation, which was very controversial because it granted immunity for telecommunications companies that were engaged in the warrantless wiretapping programs, that was a piece of legislation voted on, favorably, by then Senator Obama,” Zegart said.

Zegart believes President Obama is inaccurately perceived as a liberal when it comes to national security issues.

“I think history does not back up [that impression],” Zegart said. “I think what you find is that he’s revealed to be a much more hard-nosed, pragmatic, cost benefit-calculating kind of president.”

But what about the use of drones in recent years- has that pushed President Obama into the realm of a civil liberties abuser?

More than 50 percent of those polled indicated as much, and the numbers back up the statement as well.

According to data provided by the New America Foundation, there were fewer than 20 drone attacks in Pakistan during the heart of President Bush’s second term, from 2004-2007.

In President Obama’s first term, however, there have been hundreds. The strikes peaked in 2010, with 122 attacks that resulted in an estimated 1,028 deaths, including dozens of civilians. And those numbers represent drone activity from one year, in one country.

“There has been *very little transparency with this program,” Zegart said. “So President Obama has criticized the Bush Administration extensively for not disclosing information about controversial programs, and he’s done exactly the same thing.”
Zegart said if President Bush had overseen the drone attacks, there would have been “outcries of outrage” at fever-pitch levels.

The drone strikes, combined with significant extensions of Bush era policy, bolster an overall thesis that President Obama has actually been more aggressive than Bush in pursuing counterterrorism techniques, often at the expense of civil liberties.  

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