Alex Massie

Obama’s Pragmatism Part 2: Civil Liberties Division

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In Washington at the weekend, I spent some time talking to a friend who works on privacy and civil liberties concerns. He'd been a little worried, professionally that is, that the Obama administration might reduce his workload and disappointed, personally that is, that it has not. Far from it in fact. Today's example is a demonstration of how innocent US citizens are, thanks to the No-Fly list, essentially consigned to exile:

For six weeks, Mr. [Yahya] Wehelie has been in limbo in the Egyptian capital. He and his parents say he has no radical views, despises al-Qaeda and merely wants to get home to complete his education and get a job. When he offered to fly home handcuffed and flanked by air marshals, Mr. Wehelie said, F.B.I. agents turned him down.

....“For many of these Americans, placement on the no-fly list effectively amounts to banishment from their country,” said Ben Wizner, a senior staff attorney with the A.C.L.U. He called such treatment “both unfair and unconstitutional.” An F.B.I. spokesman, Michael P. Kortan, said that as a matter of policy, the bureau did not comment on who was on a watch list. But he said the recent plots showed the need “to remain vigilant and thoroughly investigate every lead.”

“In conducting such investigations,” Mr. Kortan said, “the F.B.I. is always careful to protect the civil rights and privacy concerns of all Americans, including individuals in minority and ethnic communities.”

....The no-fly list gives the American authorities greater leverage in assessing travelers who are under suspicion, because to reverse the flying ban many are willing to undergo hours of questioning.

But sometimes the questioning concludes neither with criminal charges nor with permission to fly. The Transportation Security Administration has a procedure allowing people to challenge their watch list status in cases of mistaken identity or name mix-up, but Mr. Wehelie does not fit those categories.

As Kevin Drum says: "This is an abomination, pure and simple." He's right. Mr Wehelie is an American citizen, born in Virginia, to Somali immigrants. And it's not as if this is the only example can find of the Obama administration ignoring the constitutional privileges of US citizens. That's on Obama, not George W Bush, just as the administration's failure to deal with Guantanamo - and by deal, I mean honour its promises - is something that can't just be blamed on what it inherited or on Congressional demagoguery and stonewalling.

Here too, however, the administration's "pragmatism" betrays it. There aren't many votes in fixing these things and so it's not a priority to fix them. Equally, the attractions of power are such that policies that seemed abuses in opposition become vital tools and safeguards once you're in power.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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