Obama, Romney Still Silent On Civil Liberties In Last Debate

Moderator Bob Schieffer, center, watches as Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands before the start of the last debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Moderator Bob Schieffer, center, watches as Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands before the start of the last debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Civil liberties groups reacted to Monday night's debate with a mixture of disappointment and apathy: Disappointment because both candidates hardly said anything about civil liberties, apathy because people in the civil liberties community had little reason to expect anything else.

Over the last four years, President Obama has alienated members of the civil liberties community for a variety of reasons, ranging from his failure to make good on his 2008 campaign promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, to his signing of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, a bill that includes provisions which allow the government to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely. Many liberals still speak of Obama's performance in this area in tones of disbelief: Could this really be the same guy who came to national attention in 2004 with a speech in which he said, "If there's an Arab-American family being rounded-up, without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties"?

Chris Anders, the senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, said Tuesday that both Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney "should be giving voters a clearer sense of how they're going to protect civil liberties over the next four years."

While noting there were limits to what he could say about the debate because of the election rules governing nonprofit groups, Anders continued, "It's disappointing that issues like detention and surveillance did not come up in the debate last night, particularly since detention practices in the United States have been such an enormous issue internationally over the past ten years, and have had a significant impact on how the United States is viewed overseas and on how Americans view themselves."

Not that any civil-liberties advocates think better of Romney. "There's no issue on which I think he is better at [than] the president," David Segal, a former Democratic Rhode Island state representative and the head of the activist group Demand Progress, told HuffPost Tuesday. When it comes to foreign policy, in particular, "I think he's about equally bad at Obama on those issues," he said.

Last year, in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University, outlined the motivations behind Obama's civil-liberties tack to the right: "One man is primarily responsible for the disappearance of civil liberties from the national debate, and he is Barack Obama."

"Obama failed to close Guantanamo Bay as promised," Turley wrote. "He continued warrantless surveillance and military tribunals that denied defendants basic rights. He asserted the right to kill U.S. citizens he views as terrorists. His administration has fought to block dozens of public-interest lawsuits challenging privacy violations and presidential abuses."

The Obama administration, Turley continued, had looked at its liberal base and made "a cynical calculation that it already had such voters in the bag and tacked to the right on this issue to show Obama was not 'soft' on terror."

In other areas -- the environment, the economy -- Obama has garnered mixed reviews from liberals. No, he didn't succeed in passing cap-and-trade legislation, but he did introduce tougher emissions standards to the auto industry. No, he didn't significantly lower the unemployment rate, as pledged, but his 2009 stimulus bill arguably prevented it from getting much worse.

Yet when it comes to constitutional rights, and specifically the First and Fifth Amendments, many liberals on the left and libertarians on the right alike see little to applaud. The administration deserves credit for opposing the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, said Segal, referring to the piracy bills seen by many civil-liberties groups as assaults on the freedom of speech. And -- early on, anyway -- Obama did decry Bush-era "interrogation" practices at Guantanamo and at CIA black sites, he noted. "Yet it's hard to know how that relates to what's going on today in some black site on the other side of the world," Segal said.

Shahid Buttar, the executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a non-profit advocacy group, agreed that the candidates' silence did not bode well.

"These are very central questions that go to the heart of what the candidates plan to do in office," Buttar said Tuesday, before raising the specific question of "whether or not the right to dissent will have any meaning going forward or instead we're going to just slide into an authoritarian regime."

"I think that Americans value security but part of the challenge here is parsing facts from fiction," he added, "and I would go back to the 2008 presidential election as a very clear indication that the American public values liberty as well as security. We did in fact elect a president who ran on the platform, on the premise that those two values are not opposed but rather aligned. And instead of adopting liberty and security, what we in fact have adopted in the last four years and the eight years preceding that and seemingly for the next four years regardless of who wins this election is a paradigm designed to protect neither liberty nor security."

"Among the primary threats to security is our government," Buttar said, "and the founders of our nation warned us of this happening."

Follow Daniel Lippman on Twitter @dlippman and Saki Knafo @sakiknafo.

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