Sunday, December 31, 2006

10 Worst Civil Liberties Outrages of 2006

As the year comes to a close, Slate has ranked the top 10 worst civil liberties violations of 2006. You've probably heard of a lot of the offenses on this list, including the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the use of the "State Secrets" excuse to avoid any sort of constitutional accountability when it comes to things like secret wiretapping programs and extraordinary rendition (both also on the list).

Interestingly enough, the list includes the FBI's spying on various non-terrorist civilian organizations, including my religious denomination, the Quakers. On the one hand, it's pretty horrifying that a bunch of religious peaceniks like us are considered threatening enough to be spied on, but on the other hand, it's an honor to be in the company of some other innocent targets of FBI surveillance like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lennon.

Back to the bulk of the article, though, what makes a lot of these abuses particularly awful is that there is no accountability for them. The use of the state secrets doctrine, the use of proxy states (including Syria, of all places) to torture terror suspects without charges, and the use of the "enemy combatant" classification to deny due process all combine to mask the other abuses which the Geneva convention rightly calls outrages against human dignity. Even when victims are ultimately released (many detainees at Guantanamo bay were finally released this year due to total lack of evidence or, perhaps more alarmingly, mistaken identity), they have little legal recourse to obtain reparations for their wrongful imprisonment and their inhumane treatment, because the Bush administration will use any of a number of constitutionally questionable practices to stonewall them and keep any case challenging the unilateral power of the executive out of the courts.

Now, you would hope that, with the Bush administration running roughshod over the judiciary to try to mask their misdeeds, the congress would step in and try to restore the balance of powers. Indeed, for a while it looked like that might happen. Certain prominent Republicans like John McCain (himself a victim of wartime torture in Vietnam) started siding with Democrats and pushing for legislation to ban the use of torture by US forces (leaving aside the fact that it should go without saying that we ought to uphold our treaty obligations under the Geneva convention). The legislation that ultimately passed was a "compromise" which officially banned torture, but gives the president the sole authority to define what constitutes torture, and the sole responsibility for reporting on the techniques used in interrogation. If anything, the bill actually weakened oversight over the president.

So, all in all, it was a pretty bad year for civil liberties in the US. The silver lining is that a new congress is set to be sworn in soon, and I sincerely hope that a democratic majority will begin investigations to bring to light some of the Bush administration's worst outrages. While a new congress can't force a total change in the administration's policy, restoring the executive branch's accountability to the public will hopefully shame them into changing their ways.