Archive for June 13th, 2012

How we got our rights—and how little our presidents contributed

Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 9:38 pm by

Over the past 100 years Americans have experienced an explosion of individual rights.  When President Woodrow Wilson took the oath of office in March 1913, there were no meaningful protections of freedom of speech or press, or of equal protection or due process. Racial segregation prevailed in the South, birth control information was banned from the mails, and homosexuality dared not publicly speak its name.

Today, we enjoy arguably the broadest range of formal protections of civil liberties of any country in the world. While it is true that racial justice and many other rights remain a dream, our achievement is truly impressive and can properly be called a “rights revolution.”

How did we get these rights? The principal theme of my new book, Presidents and Civil Liberties From Wilson to Obama, is that our presidents have not been leaders in the growth of American liberties. Indeed, several chief executives committed the worst violations of civil liberties. Wilson suppressed freedom of speech and press in World War I; Franklin D. Roosevelt placed 117,000 people in concentration camps; Richard Nixon set in motion spying and burglaries directed against his critics, and then conspired to obstruct justice; Ronald Reagan violated federal laws in the Iran/Contra affair; the abuses of  George W. Bush are too fresh in our memory to need reciting here.Four Presidents Posing for a Photograph at the Grand Opening of the Nixon Library

Harry Truman was the only president ever to risk his political career in the support of individual rights. His position on civil rights between 1946 and 1948, including the first national civil rights commission and his order to desegregate the armed services, was far in advance of public opinion, including the attitudes of whites outside the south.

To be sure, since the 1970s Democratic Party presidents have supported women’s rights, reproductive rights, racial justice, and more recently LGBT rights. But with the exception of Jimmy Carter, who criticized discrimination against homosexuals in the 1976 election, they did not take the lead on these issues. Rather, they followed, and that is the point. Even sympathetic presidents support civil liberties issues only when a substantial constituency presses for it.

In short, we got our rights over the past 100 years because people and groups thought about what a freer society might look like and then embarked on the long and arduous task of making it come true. Grassroots activism was responsible for bringing the landmark court cases that we typically use as short hand for rights progress—championing the issue, finding the clients, drafting the legal briefs.

Which brings us to the present moment. President Barack Obama has greatly disappointed civil libertarians, particularly on national security issues. His opponent Mitt Romney is beholden to a Republican Party that is waging a war on women and an assault on voting rights, is indifferent to the rights of people of color, particularly immigrants, and is opposed to constitutional limits on national security powers. Vote as you will this November, but if the past is any guide we need to look beyond presidents and our warped political debates. Our challenge is to build the broad support for rights that politicians cannot ignore. A pipe dream? It happened before on the rights we enjoy today—and it can happen again.

News Digest 6/13/12

Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 5:00 pm by

6/13, PostStar, NYC City Council members propose police oversight

6/13, Michael Schmidt, New York Times, U.S. Security Expands Presence at Foreign Airports

6/12, Michael Stone,, Wyden protects privacy – blocks FISA surveillance law

6/12, CNN, Sen. Paul says no to domestic drones

6/11, Pete Kasperowicz, The Hill, House members attempt to curb president’s power of indefinite detention

6/11, Michael Tarm, Associated Press, States in Unchartered Waters Using Own Terror Laws

NC program examines incarceration, torture and accountability

Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 1:37 pm by

Are we sanctioning torture? Christiana Cowger from NC Stop Torture Now, a North Carolina organization dedicated to upholding the Eighth Amendment, suggests that both we as a country and we as individuals might be doing so through our failure to speak out against unconstitutional practices. In an interview with North Carolina Public Radio, Cowger recounts some of the recent horrors that have been taking place in the name of America and the “war on terror.”

Muslim men who were suspected of terrorism, or who might know someone who knows something about terrorism, were taken [by the CIA]. It was a very loose drag net, very comprehensive.

[Non-US] countries [under the sanction of the CIA] were asked to interrogate these men secretly, using torture and questions fed to them by the CIA. They were held for months and years incommunicado, no access to lawyers, judges, or the Red Cross, their families not knowing where they were, not charged with any crime, not brought before any judge or jury. Then, often, they were freed without charges or transported further to Guantanamo to be held there indefinitely, but at least in a recognized manner.

Cowger also reveals how the states and people of the US have become, essentially, reluctant accomplices to such unsanctioned practices and advises us on what we should do to fight back.

North Carolina has been deeply involved in extraordinary rendition and torture by hosting Aero Contractors in taxpayer funded airports. . . . These activities have essentially been carried out in our [taxpayers'] names using public airports. We’ve been providing all the services airports provide to facilitate this process of enforced disappearance and torture. We [NC Stop Torture Now] think the state should investigate. . . .

The United States is a signatory to several major treatises like the Convention Against Torture, and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, and those clearly prohibit inhumane treatment and torture. The clearly require that a state that has participated in those practices must investigate and must hold accountable those people who designed, ordered, and executed the program.

Will we hold our government accountable? Get involved in speaking out against government atrocities and show that you, like Christina Cowger, oppose torture, secret interrogation, and illegal detainment.

Internet Privacy: Are we really safe?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 10:54 am by

A new version of Internet Explorer will have “Do Not Track” (DNT) enabled by default. According to, a site maintained by two Stanford researchers, DNT is “a technology and policy proposal that enables users to opt out of tracking by websites they do not visit, including analytics services, advertising networks, and social platforms.”

By informing consumers about the data websites collect, DNT aims to empower consumers and build trust online.

In a similar vein, attendees of the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP) conference created a Social Networking User’s Bill of Rights, back in 2010. This Bill of Rights would defend 14 different rights, including a right to appeal, “Protection: Treat my data as securely as your own confidential data unless I Internet Privacychoose to share it, and notify me if it is compromised”, to “Data minimization: Minimize the information I am required to provide and share with others.”

In February, the Obama Administration unveiled it own bill of rights that included DNT and seven protections, like transparency, accountability, and individual control. While these efforts are admirable, it is hard to see how these provisions can truly protect Internet privacy. DNT does give one the option to ensure that his or her personal information is not misused. However, it makes one think, if you need to enable DNT on a website, should you really put your trust in it in the first place? Because the opportunity is there for personal information to be misused, and if one is so concerned with his or her personal information, then the information should not be posted there.

The goal is in perspective. “Obviously, for DNT to be effective, it is also important that websites have a common understanding of what the consumer expects when their browser sends the DNT signal.” However, the trouble is, how do we effectively communicate this to all those websites? Whenever Internet privacy and personal information is talked about, one cannot leave Facebook out of the discussion. Because of the sheer size of Facebook, it would be a huge win to have that company supporting all of these privacy provisions. However, even Facebook stated, “We don’t agree with all of the proposed elements of the Bill of Rights for social-network users.” How are these rights supposed to prevail if one of the biggest companies does not fully support them? The first step is to make sure that the “internet giants” are in full support, because if they are not 100% behind protecting consumers’ personal information, then the smaller websites have no reason to either.