John Cusack Interviews Law Professor Jonathan Turley
About Obama Administration’s War On the Constitution
To sum it up: more war. So thousands die or are maimed; generations of families and veterans are damaged beyond imagination; sons and daughters come home in rubber bags. But he and his satellites get their four more years.
The AfPak War is more H. G. Wells than Orwell, with people blindly letting each other get fed to the barons of Wall Street and the Pentagon, themselves playing the part of the Pashtuns. The paradox is simple: he got elected on his anti-war stance during a perfect storm of the economic meltdown and McCain saying the worst thing at the worst time as we stared into the abyss. Obama beat Clinton on "I'm against the war and she is for it." It was simple then, when he needed it to be.
Under Obama do we continue to call the thousands of mercenaries in Afghanistan "general contractors" now that Bush is gone? No, we don't talk about them... not a story anymore.
Do we prosecute felonies like torture or spying on Americans? No, time to "move on"...
Now chaos is the norm and though the chaos is complicated, the answer is still simple. We can't afford this morally, financially, or physically. Or in a language the financial community can digest: the wars are ideologically and spiritually bankrupt. No need to get a score from the CBO.
Drones bomb Pakistani villages across the border at an unprecedented rate. Is it legal? Does anyone care? "It begs the question," as Daniel Berrigan asks us, "is this one a "good war" or a "dumb war"? But the question betrays the bias: it is all the same. It's all madness."
One is forced to asked the question: Is the President just another Ivy League Asshole shredding civil liberties and due process and sending people to die in some shithole for purely political reasons?
There will be a historical record. "Change we can believe in" is not using the other guys' mob to clean up your own tracks while continuing to feed at the trough. Human nature is human nature, and when people find out they're being hustled, they will seek revenge, sooner or later, and it will be ugly and savage.
In a country with desperation growing everywhere, everyday — despite the "Oh, things are getting better" press releases — how could one think otherwise?
Just think about the economic crisis we are in as a country. It could never happen, they said. The American middle class was rock solid. The American dream, home ownership, education, the opportunity to get a good job if you applied yourself... and on and on. Yeah, what happened to that? It's gone.
The next question must be: "What happened to our civil liberties, to our due process, which are the foundation of any notion of real democracy?" The chickens haven't come home to roost for the majority but the foundation has been set and the Constitution gutted.
Brian McFadden's cartoon says it all.
Here's the transcript of the telephone interview I conducted with Turley.
JONATHAN TURLEY: Hi John.
CUSACK: Hello. Okay, hey I was just thinking about all this stuff and thought maybe we'd see what we can do to bring civil liberties and these issues back into the debate for the next couple of months ...
TURLEY: I think that's great.
CUSACK: So, I don't know how you can believe in the Constitution and violate it that much.
CUSACK: I would just love to know your take as an expert on these things. And then maybe we can speak to whatever you think his motivations would be, and not speak to them in the way that we want to armchair-quarterback like the pundits do about "the game inside the game," but only do it because it would speak to the arguments that are being used by the left to excuse it. For example, maybe their argument that there are things you can't know, and it's a dangerous world out there, or why do you think a constitutional law professor would throw out due process?
TURLEY: Well, there's a misconception about Barack Obama as a former constitutional law professor. First of all, there are plenty of professors who are "legal relativists." They tend to view legal principles as relative to whatever they're trying to achieve. I would certainly put President Obama in the relativist category. Ironically, he shares that distinction with George W. Bush. They both tended to view the law as a means to a particular end — as opposed to the end itself. That's the fundamental distinction among law professors. Law professors like Obama tend to view the law as one means to an end, and others, like myself, tend to view it as the end itself.
Truth be known President Obama has never been particularly driven by principle. Right after his election, I wrote a column in a few days warning people that even though I voted for Obama, he was not what people were describing him to be. I saw him in the Senate. I saw him in Chicago.
CUSACK: Yeah, so did I.
TURLEY: He was never motivated that much by principle. What he's motivated by are programs. And to that extent, I like his programs more than Bush's programs, but Bush and Obama are very much alike when it comes to principles. They simply do not fight for the abstract principles and view them as something quite relative to what they're trying to accomplish. Thus privacy yields to immunity for telecommunications companies and due process yields to tribunals for terrorism suspects.
CUSACK: Churchill said, "The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist." That wasn't Eugene Debs speaking — that was Winston Churchill.
And if he takes an oath before God to uphold the Constitution, and yet he decides it's not politically expedient for him to deal with due process or spying on citizens and has his Attorney General justify murdering US citizens — and then adds a signing statement saying, "Well, I'm not going to do anything with this stuff because I'm a good guy."– one would think we would have to define this as a much graver threat than good or bad policy choices- correct?
TURLEY: Well, first of all, there's a great desire of many people to relieve themselves of the obligation to vote on principle. It's a classic rationalization that liberals have been known to use recently, but not just liberals. The Republican and Democratic parties have accomplished an amazing feat with the red state/blue state paradigm. They've convinced everyone that regardless of how bad they are, the other guy is worse. So even with 11 percent of the public supporting Congress most incumbents will be returned to Congress. They have so structured and defined the question that people no longer look at the actual principles and instead vote on this false dichotomy.
Now, belief in human rights law and civil liberties leads one to the uncomfortable conclusion that President Obama has violated his oath to uphold the Constitution. But that's not the primary question for voters. It is less about him than it is them. They have an obligation to cast their vote in a principled fashion. It is, in my opinion, no excuse to vote for someone who has violated core constitutional rights and civil liberties simply because you believe the other side is no better. You cannot pretend that your vote does not constitute at least a tacit approval of the policies of the candidate.
This is nothing new, of course for civil libertarians who have always been left behind at the altar in elections. We've always been the bridesmaid, never the bride. We're used to politicians lying to us. And President Obama lied to us. There's no way around that. He promised various things and promptly abandoned those principles.
So the argument that Romney is no better or worse does not excuse the obligation of a voter. With President Obama they have a president who went to the CIA soon after he was elected and promised CIA employees that they would not be investigated or prosecuted for torture, even though he admitted that waterboarding was torture.
CUSACK: I remember when we were working with Arianna at The Huffington Post and we thought, well, has anyone asked whether waterboarding is torture? Has anyone asked Eric Holder that? And so Arianna had Sam Seder ask him that at a press conference, and then he had to admit that it was. And then the next question, of course, was, well, if it is a crime, are you going to prosecute the law? But, of course, it wasn't politically expedient to do so, right? That's inherent in their non-answer and inaction?
TURLEY: That's right.
CUSACK: Have you ever heard a more specious argument than "It's time for us all to move on?" When did the Attorney General or the President have the option to enforce the law?
TURLEY: Well, that's the key question that nobody wants to ask. We have a treaty, actually a number of treaties, that obligate us to investigate and prosecute torture. We pushed through those treaties because we wanted to make clear that no matter what the expediency of the moment, no matter whether it was convenient or inconvenient, all nations had to agree to investigate and prosecute torture and other war crimes.
And the whole reason for putting this in the treaties was to do precisely the opposite of what the Obama administration has done. That is, in these treaties they say that it is not a defense that prosecution would be inconvenient or unpopular. But that's exactly what President Obama said when he announced, "I won't allow the prosecution of torture because I want us to look to the future and not the past." That is simply a rhetorical flourish to hide the obvious point: "I don't want the inconvenience and the unpopularity that would come with enforcing this treaty."
CUSACK: Right. So, in that sense, the Bush administration had set the precedent that the state can do anything it likes in the name of terror, and not only has Obama let that cement harden, but he's actually expanded the power of the executive branch to do whatever it wants, or he's lowered the bar — he's lowered the law — to meet his convenience. He's lowered the law to meet his personal political convenience rather than leaving it as something that, as Mario Cuomo said, the law is supposed to be better than us.
TURLEY: That's exactly right. In fact, President Obama has not only maintained the position of George W. Bush in the area of national securities and in civil liberties, he's actually expanded on those positions. He is actually worse than George Bush in some areas.
CUSACK: Can you speak to which ones?
TURLEY: Well, a good example of it is that President Bush ordered the killing of an American citizen when he approved a drone strike on a car in Yemen that he knew contained an American citizen as a passenger. Many of us at the time said, "You just effectively ordered the death of an American citizen in order to kill someone else, and where exactly do you have that authority?" But they made an argument that because the citizen wasn't the primary target, he was just collateral damage. And there are many that believe that that is a plausible argument.
CUSACK: By the way, we're forgetting to kill even a foreign citizen is against the law. I hate to be so quaint...
TURLEY: Well, President Obama outdid President Bush. He ordered the killing of two US citizens as the primary targets and has then gone forward and put out a policy that allows him to kill any American citizen when he unilaterally determines them to be a terrorist threat. Where President Bush had a citizen killed as collateral damage, President Obama has actually a formal policy allowing him to kill any US citizen.
CUSACK: But yet the speech that Eric Holder gave was greeted generally, by those others than civil libertarians and a few people on the left with some intellectual honesty, with polite applause and a stunning silence and then more cocktail parties and state dinners and dignitaries, back the Republican Hypocrisy Hour on the evening feed — and he basically gave a speech saying that the executive can assassinate US citizens.
TURLEY: That was the truly other-worldly moment of the speech. He went to, Northwestern Law School (my alma mater), and stood there and articulated the most authoritarian policy that a government can have: the right to unilaterally kill its citizens without any court order or review. The response from the audience was applause. Citizens applauding an Attorney General who just described how the President was claiming the right to kill any of them on his sole inherent authority.
CUSACK: Does that order have to come directly from Obama, or can his underlings carry that out on his behalf as part of a generalized understanding? Or does he have to personally say, "You can get that guy and that guy?"
TURLEY: Well, he has delegated the authority to the so-called death panel, which is, of course, hilarious, since the Republicans keep talking about a nonexistent death panel in national healthcare. We actually do have a death panel, and it's killing people who are healthy.
CUSACK: I think you just gave me the idea for my next film. And the tone will be, of course, Kafkaesque.
TURLEY: It really is.
CUSACK: You're at the bottom of the barrel when the Attorney General is saying that not only can you hold people in prison for no charge without due process, but we can kill the citizens that "we" deem terrorists. But "we" won't do it cause we're the good guys remember?
TURLEY: Well, the way that this works is you have this unseen panel. Of course, their proceedings are completely secret. The people who are put on the hit list are not informed, obviously.
CUSACK: That's just not polite, is it?
TURLEY: No, it's not. The first time you're informed that you're on this list is when your car explodes, and that doesn't allow much time for due process. But the thing about the Obama administration is that it is far more premeditated and sophisticated in claiming authoritarian powers. Bush tended to shoot from the hip — he tended to do these things largely on the edges. In contrast, Obama has openly embraced these powers and created formal measures, an actual process for killing US citizens. He has used the terminology of the law to seek to legitimate an extrajudicial killing.
CUSACK: Yeah, bringing the law down to meet his political realism, his constitutional realism, which is that the Constitution is just a means to an end politically for him, so if it's inconvenient for him to deal with due process or if it's inconvenient for him to deal with torture, well, then why should he do that? He's a busy man. The Constitution is just another document to be used in a political fashion, right?
TURLEY: Indeed. I heard from people in the administration after I wrote a column a couple weeks ago about the assassination policy. And they basically said, "Look, you're not giving us our due. Holder said in the speech that we are following a constitutional analysis. And we have standards that we apply." It is an incredibly seductive argument, but there is an incredible intellectual disconnect. Whatever they are doing, it can't be called a constitutional process.
Obama has asserted the right to kill any citizen that he believes is a terrorist. He is not bound by this panel that only exists as an extension of his claimed inherent absolute authority. He can ignore them. He can circumvent them. In the end, with or without a panel, a president is unilaterally killing a US citizen. This is exactly what the framers of the Constitution told us not to do.
CUSACK: The framers didn't say, "In special cases, do what you like. When there are things the public cannot know for their own good, when it's extra-specially a dangerous world... do whatever you want." The framers of the Constitution always knew there would be extraordinary circumstances, and they were accounted for in the Constitution. The Constitution does not allow for the executive to redefine the Constitution when it will be politically easier for him to get things done.
TURLEY: No. And it's preposterous to argue that.
CUSACK: When does it become — criminal?
TURLEY: Well, the framers knew what it was like to have sovereigns kill citizens without due process. They did it all the time back in the 18th century. They wrote a constitution specifically to bar unilateral authority.
James Madison is often quoted for his observation that if all men were angels, no government would be necessary. And what he was saying is that you have to create a system of law that has checks and balances so that even imperfect human beings are restrained from doing much harm. Madison and other framers did not want to rely on the promises of good motivations or good intents from the government. They created a system where no branch had enough authority to govern alone — a system of shared and balanced powers.
So what Obama's doing is to rewrite the most fundamental principle of the US Constitution. The whole point of the Holder speech was that we're really good guys who take this seriously, and you can trust us. That's exactly the argument the framers rejected, the "trust me" principle of government. You'll notice when Romney was asked about this, he said, "I would've signed the same law, because I trust Obama to do the right thing." They're both using the very argument that the framers warned citizens never to accept from their government.
CUSACK: So basically, it comes down to, again, just political expediency and aesthetics. So as long as we have friendly aesthetics and likable people, we can do whatever we want. Who cares what the policy is or the implications for the future.
TURLEY: The greatest problem is what it has done to us and what our relative silence signifies. Liberals and civil libertarians have lost their own credibility, their own moral standing, with the support of President Obama. For many civil libertarians it is impossible to vote for someone who has blocked the prosecution of war crimes. That's where you cross the Rubicon for most civil libertarians. That was a turning point for many who simply cannot to vote for someone who is accused of that type of violation.
Under international law, shielding people from war-crime prosecutions is itself a form of war crime. They're both violations of international law. Notably, when the Spanish moved to investigate our torture program, we now know that the Obama administration threatened the Spanish courts and the Spanish government that they better not enforce the treaty against the US This was a real threat to the Administration because these treaties allow other nations to step forward when another nation refuses to uphold the treaty. If a government does not investigate and prosecute its own accused war criminals, then other countries have the right to do so. That rule was, again, of our own creation. With other leading national we have long asserted the right to prosecute people in other countries who are shielded or protected by their own countries.
CUSACK: Didn't Spain pull somebody out of Chile under that?
TURLEY: Yeah, Pinochet.
CUSACK: Yeah, also our guy...
TURLEY: The great irony of all this is that we're the architect of that international process. We're the one that always pushed for the position that no government could block war crimes prosecution.
But that's not all. The Obama administration has also outdone the Bush administration in other areas. For example, one of the most important international principles to come out of World War II was the rejection of the "just following orders" defense. We were the country that led the world in saying that defendants brought before Nuremberg could not base their defense on the fact that they were just following orders. After Nuremberg, there were decades of development of this principle. It's a very important point, because that defense, if it is allowed, would shield most people accused of torture and war crime. So when the Obama administration –
CUSACK: That also parallels into the idea that the National Defense Authorization Act is using its powers not only to put a chilling effect on whistleblowers, but to also make it illegal for whistleblowers to bring the truth out. Am I right on that, or is that an overstatement?
TURLEY: Well, the biggest problem is that when the administration was fishing around for some way to justify not doing the right thing and not prosecuting torture, they finally released a document that said that CIA personnel and even some DOJ lawyers were "just following orders," but particularly CIA personnel.
The reason Obama promised them that none of them would be prosecuted is he said that they were just following the orders of higher authority in the government. That position gutted Nuremberg. Many lawyers around the world are upset because the US under the Obama administration has torn the heart out of Nuremberg. Just think of the implications: other countries that are accused of torture can shield their people and say, "Yeah, this guy was a torturer. This guy ordered a war crime. But they were all just following orders. And the guy that gave them the order, he's dead." It is the classic defense of war criminals. Now it is a viable defense again because of the Obama administration.
TURLEY: Certainly part of the problem is how the news media –
CUSACK: Oscar Wilde said most journalists would fall under the category of those who couldn't tell the difference between a bicycle accident and the end of civilization. But why is it that all the journalists that you see mostly on MSNBC or most of the progressives, or so-called progressives, who believe that under Bush and Cheney and Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez these were great and grave constitutional crises, the wars were an ongoing moral fiasco — but now, since we have a friendly face in the White House, someone with kind of pleasing aesthetics and some new policies we like, now all of a sudden these aren't crimes, there's no crisis. Because he's our guy? Go, team, go?
TURLEY: Some in the media have certainly fallen into this cult of personality.
CUSACK: What would you say to those people? I always thought the duty of a citizen, and even more so as a journalist, had greatly to do with the idea that intellectual honesty was much more important than political loyalty. How would you compare Alberto Gonzalez to Eric Holder?
TURLEY: Oh, Eric Holder is smarter than Gonzalez, but I see no other difference in terms of how they've conducted themselves. Both of these men are highly political. Holder was accused of being improperly political during his time in the Clinton administration. When he was up for Attorney General, he had to promise the Senate that he would not repeat some of the mistakes he made in the Clinton administration over things like the pardon scandal, where he was accused of being more politically than legally motivated.
In this town, Holder is viewed as much more of a political than a legal figure, and the same thing with Gonzalez. Bush and Obama both selected Attorney Generals who would do what they wanted them to do, who would enable them by saying that no principles stood in the way of what they wanted to do. More importantly, that there were no principles requiring them to do something they didn't want to do, like investigate torture.
CUSACK: So would you say this assassination issue, or the speech and the clause in the NDAA and this signing statement that was attached, was equivalent to John Yoo's torture document?
TURLEY: Oh, I think it's amazing. It is astonishing the dishonesty that preceded and followed its passage. Before passage, the administration told the public that the president was upset about the lack of an exception for citizens and that he was ready to veto the bill if there was a lack of such an exception. Then, in an unguarded moment, Senator Levin was speaking to another Democratic senator who was objecting to the fact that citizens could be assassinated under this provision, and Levin said, "I don't know if my colleague is aware that the exception language was removed at the request of the White House." Many of us just fell out of our chairs. It was a relatively rare moment on the Senate floor, unguarded and unscripted.
CUSACK: And finally simple.
TURLEY: Yes. So we were basically lied to. I think that the administration was really caught unprepared by that rare moment of honesty, and that led ultimately to his pledge not to use the power to assassinate against citizens. But that pledge is meaningless. Having a president say, "I won't use a power given to me" is the most dangerous of assurances, because a promise is not worth anything.
CUSACK: Yeah, I would say it's the coldest comfort there is.
TURLEY: Yes. This brings us back to the media and the failure to strip away the rhetoric around these policies. It was certainly easier in the Bush administration, because you had more clown-like figures like Alberto Gonzalez. The problem is that the media has tended to get thinner and thinner in terms of analysis. The best example is that about the use of the term "coerced or enhanced interrogation." I often stop reporters when they use these terms in questions. I say, "I'm not too sure what you mean, because waterboarding is not enhanced interrogation." That was a myth put out by the Bush administration. Virtually no one in the field used that term, because courts in the United States and around the world consistently said that waterboarding's torture. Holder admitted that waterboarding's torture. Obama admitted that waterboarding is torture. Even members of the Bush administration ultimately admitted that waterboarding's torture. The Bush Administration pushed this term to get reporters to drop the word torture and it worked. They are still using the term.
Look at the articles and the coverage. They uniformly say "enhanced interrogation." Why? Because it's easier. They want to avoid the controversy. Because if they say "torture," it makes the story much more difficult. If you say, "Today the Senate was looking into a program to torture detainees," there's a requirement that you get a little more into the fact that we're not supposed to be torturing people.
CUSACK: So, from a civil liberties perspective, ravens are circling the White House, even though there's a friendly man in it.
CUSACK: I hate to speak too much to motivation, but why do you think MSNBC and other so-called centrist or left outlets won't bring up any of these things? These issues were broadcast and reported on nightly when John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez and Bush were in office.
TURLEY: Well, there is no question that some at MSNBC have backed away from these issues, although occasionally you'll see people talk about –
CUSACK: I think that's being kind, don't you? More like "abandoned."
TURLEY: Yeah. The civil liberties perspective is rarely given more than a passing reference while national security concerns are explored in depth. Fox is viewed as protective of Bush while MSNBC is viewed as protective of Obama. But both presidents are guilty of the same violations. There are relatively few journalists willing to pursue these questions aggressively and objectively, particularly on television. And so the result is that the public is hearing a script written by the government that downplays these principles. They don't hear the word "torture."
They hear "enhanced interrogation." They don't hear much about the treaties. They don't hear about the international condemnation of the United States. Most Americans are unaware of how far we have moved away from Nuremberg and core principles of international law.
CUSACK: So the surreal Holder speech — how could it be that no one would be reporting on that? How could it be that has gone by with not a bang but a whimper?
TURLEY: Well, you know, part of it, John, I think, is that this administration is very clever. First of all, they clearly made the decision right after the election to tack heavily to the right on national security issues. We know that by the people they put on the National Security Council. They went and got very hardcore folks — people who are quite unpopular with civil libertarians. Not surprisingly we almost immediately started to hear things like the pledge not to prosecute CIA officials and other Bush policies being continued.
Many reporters buy into these escape clauses that the administration gives them, this is where I think the administration is quite clever. From a legal perspective, the Holder speech should have been exposed as perfect nonsense. If you're a constitutional scholar, what he was talking about is facially ridiculous, because he was saying that we do have a constitutional process–it's just self-imposed, and we're the only ones who can review it. They created a process of their own and then pledged to remain faithful to it.
While that should be a transparent and absurd position, it gave an out for journalists to say, "Well, you know, the administration's promising that there is a process, it's just not the court process." That's what is so clever, and why the Obama administration has been far more successful than the Bush administration in rolling back core rights. The Bush administration would basically say, "We just vaporized a citizen in a car with a terrorist, and we're not sorry for it."
CUSACK: Well, yeah, the Bush administration basically said, "We may have committed a crime, but we're the government, so what the fuck are you going to do about it?" Right? —and the Obama administration is saying, "We're going to set this all in cement, expand the power of the executive, and pass the buck to the next guy." Is that it?
TURLEY: It's the same type of argument when people used to say when they caught a criminal and hung him from a tree after a perfunctory five-minute trial. In t