O mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who is the worst civil liberties president of them all?
Glenn Greenwald presents the terms for such an argument from the pages of the Guardian:
Abraham Lincoln illegally suspended the core liberty of habeas corpus without Congressional approval. Wilson’s attacks on basic free speech in the name of national security were indeed legion and probably unparalleled. Franklin Roosevelt oversaw the due-process-free internment of more than 100,000 law-abiding Japanese-Americans into concentration camps.
And then there are the two War on Terror presidents. George Bush seized on the 9/11 attack to usher in radical new surveillance and detention powers in the PATRIOT ACT, spied for years on the communications of US citizens without the warrants required by law, and claimed the power to indefinitely imprison even US citizens without charges in military brigs.
His successor, Barack Obama, went further by claiming the power not merely to detain citizens without judicial review but to assassinate them (about which the New York Times said: “It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing”). He has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, dusting off Wilson’s Espionage Act of 1917 to prosecute more then double the number of whistleblowers than all prior presidents combined. And he has draped his actions with at least as much secrecy, if not more so, than any president in US history.
…Certainly, the quantity of abuse matters. In that regard, Roosevelt’s interments and Wilson’s free speech prosecutions would appear worse than, say, Adams’ attacks on dissent, Bush’s indefinite detentions, or Obama’s citizen assassinations.
Moreover, it is one of the ironies of US history that civil liberties erosions are often accompanied by civil liberties progress from the same leader: Adams was integral in the founding of the republic and its rights-enshrining documents; Lincoln freed the slaves; Wilson supported women’s suffrage; Roosevelt appointed two of the most sterling civil liberties advocates to the supreme court; Obama withdrew authorization for some torture techniques (ones that were not in use when he was inaugurated) and banned CIA black sites (ones that were empty when he assumed office).
Ultimately, there are two critical factors that, for me at least, are highly influential if not decisive in determining the proper ranking. The first is the extent to which the civil liberties abuses are temporary or permanent.
… Just last week, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration is creating permanent bureaucratic systems to implement its War on Terror powers as it “expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years”. Specifically, “among senior Obama administration officials, there is broad consensus that such operations are likely to be extended at least another decade.” That “suggests that the United States has reached only the midpoint of what was once known as the global war on terrorism.”
Civil liberties abuses justified by a finite war can be awful while they last, but then they cease. Abuses that are systematized based on the premise that they are to be permanent do far more than that: they radically alter the nature of the government and the relationship of the political class to the citizenry.
… To the extent the validity of the proffered justification matters, and it must matter some, the War on Terror abuses are easily the worst for this metric. Unlike the actual, threatening wars of the past, this “war” is pure pretext, a total farce: so out of proportion to the civil liberties assaults employed in its name as to be inconceivable.