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Constitution in Crisis

August 2012, Vol. 11, No. 8

In this issue:

TSA to employ new surveillance technology developed with CIA help


Grassroots News

Law and Policy

New Resources and Opportunities

TSA to employ new surveillance technology developed with CIA help

Technology weblog Gizmodo recently reported on a disturbing advance in our government’s ability to violate the privacy of law-abiding Americans: a laser that can “instantly know everything about you from 164 feet away.”  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will begin utilizing the laser-based scanner as early as 2013, will full implementation at border crossings and airport checkpoints planned over the next two years. laser scanner

The Picosecond Programmable Laser was invented by Genia Photonics and developed by In-Q-Tel, a company chartered by the CIA. The inventors claim that the laser can read anything from a person’s adrenaline levels, traces of gun powder on a person’s clothes, and that “it is even able to detect traces of explosives left by fingerprints.”

This latest airport security announcement may reflect the next step in the FBI’s plan to compile a complete biometric database capturing the physical characteristics of all Americans. In 2007, the FBI entered a contract for $1 billion to build such a database, compiling “digital images of faces, fingerprints and palm patterns” in conjunction with iris patterns, face-shape data and scar identification. While this might sound like fiction written for the next movie in the Bourne Identity series, the program—the  “Next Generation Identification” program—is real.

The CIA-developed laser technology to be employed by TSA—the same agency that brought us electronic bodyscanners ridden with safety, health and oversight programs, as well as the “chat down” screening procedures modeled on Israel’s airport security measures—could add to the FBI’s collection of biometric data.

What makes the Picosecond Laser even more dangerous than prior examples of expensive corporate surveillance tools is the very feature its developers tout as its greatest asset: portability. In-Q-Tel has stated that:

[A]n important benefit of Genia Photonics' implementation as compared to existing solutions is that the entire synchronized laser system is comprised in a single, robust and alignment-free unit that may be easily transported for use in many environments….This compact and robust laser has the ability to rapidly sweep wavelengths in any pattern and sequence.

While public discussion has focused on implementation only in airports and at border crossings, such portability allows the laser’s potential use to know no limits. Routine traffic stops, protests and demonstrations, and people going about their everyday lives may all soon be subjected to laser scanning, allowing the government to collect data about the bodies of law abiding Americans. Despite potential benefits to airport security, this latest advance in surveillance technology may spell doom for what remains of the Fourth Amendment.


BORDC in the news

In the last month, BORDC has appeared around the country to focus public attention on legislative issues including the NDAA and the impending extension of FISA, as well as long overdue solutions to the constitutional crisis including the JUSTICE Act and the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA). 

Executive Director Shahid Buttar visited the San Francisco Bay Area to address several audiences. On July 30, between speaking at grassroots forums on the NDAA and national security state in San Francisco (on Sunday, July 29) and Oakland (on Tuesday, July 31), Shahid had the pleasure of sharing an hour with radio host Rose Aguilar and legendary whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg on KALW 91.7FM.

Daniel, subject of the 2010 Academy award-nominated documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America, is an adviser to BORDC and shared his unique perspective on the threat posed to dissent by the looming specter of domestic military detention without trial. Rose’s program, Your Call, explored a series of interconnected issues including the NDAA, its implications for democracy, opportunities for We the People to mount resistance, and the deafening silence in the presidential campaign on these issues.

Shahid also appeared on KPFA’s Morning Mix with JR, where he further addressed the NDAA's dangerous indefinite detention provisions with host Mickey Huff from Project Censored, before wrapping up his bay area visit with the final of two panels raising public awareness about civil liberties abuses.

Shahid’s writing also appeared in Huffington Post and Politicalese, which cross-posted his article “America’s One-Party State.” In it, he concludes that that “Whatever choice America makes this November, our ensuing policies will reflect the continuing influence of the Bush & Cheney neoconservative revolution…. It is a shame that neither of the major political parties offers We the People an alternative.”

To view prior appearances of BORDC’s work in traditional and new media, visit our online press archive.

BORDC seeks interns for fall 2012

As the summer comes to an end, BORDC seeks enthusiastic interns to join our team. If you—or anyone you know—would be interested in an internship focused on civil liberties, constitutional rights, and cultivating grassroots activism, please review the position description online and follow the application instructions.

Opportunities are available throughout the US, with applications welcome through Labor Day (September 3). While interns must agree to dedicate at least 15 hours per week to BORDC for the fall academic semester, applicants need not be students to be considered—so please share this information with current students, as well as recent graduates, those embarking on a new career path, and anyone else seeking to expand their skills and support the struggle to restore constitutional rights.

For those interested in volunteering with BORDC with a lower level of commitment, a variety of other opportunities includes research, outreach, and writing projects. For example, writing for our blog is a great way to build your skills and gain recognition under your own byline.

BORDC seeks Communications & Development Assistant

BORDC seeks a Communications & Development Assistant based in Northampton, MA.

The communications and development assistant will coordinate communications with supporters, manage and maintain a variety of records, coordinate speaking engagements, support other members of the staff, and manage and coordinate intern research projects. A Bachelor's degree is required, along with strong written and verbal communications skills, organizational skills, and attention to detail. Familiarity with constitutional rights and civil liberties issues is preferred, and familiarity with HTML is strongly preferred.

This position will begin on a part time basis (20 hours per week) but could become full time in 2013 for the right candidate. A full job description is available on BORDC's website.

To apply, email a cover letter and resume to with "Communications & Development Assistant" in the subject line.

Applications will be accepted through Friday, August 24, 2012. Electronic applications only. No phone calls, please.

Legal Fellows join BORDC, expanding communications and organizing capacity

With the support of generous grants from the CS Fund and the Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA), BORDC is excited to welcome MLFA Legal Fellow Michael Figura and National Lawyers Guild (NLG) Legal Fellow Nadia Kayyali, who will join the organization in September.

Legal fellow

Michael is a recent graduate of City University of New York School of Law (CUNY), where he served as Executive Articles Editor of the New York City Law Review and was awarded several fellowships, including the Haywood Burns Fellowship for Civil and Human Rights and Charles H. Revson Law Student Public Interest Summer Fellowship. Since graduating from Wesleyan University in 2006, Michael’s student internship and prior experiences including serving with the Center For Constitutional Rights, CLEAR (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility) Law Clinic, Office of the Appellate Defender of New York, and the New York Civilian Complaint Review Board.

legal fellowNadia recently graduated from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, where she served as Community Outreach Editor for the Hastings Race & Poverty Law Journal and the Matthew O. Tobriner Summer Social Justice Fellow, Nadia also won an award for Best Oral Argument and, far beyond campus, served as Student National Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild. Since graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 2008, Nadia’s experiences include work at the ACLU of Northern California, San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, Bay Area Legal Aid, San Francisco Tenant's Union, Common Ground Collective in New Orleans, and Occupylegal, where she supported Occupy activists at sites across the Bay Area.

Read the latest news & analysis from the People’s Blog for the Constitution

With staff, volunteers, and interns contributing compelling content on a daily basis, the People’s Blog for the Constitution continued to attract growing traffic last month, setting an all-time traffic record with nearly 20,000 hits over the month of July.

Whether you are a new reader, or a long time fan, we’ve made it even easier to get familiar with BORDC’s guiding principles and issues confronting our country. See our recent“Best of the Blog” highlight reel summarizing some of the topics you won’t hear about in the mainstream media.

Highlights from the past month include:

Grassroots organizers explain their passion for civil liberties

In May, BORDC brought together 25 activists from 15 cities and 11 states who are organizing Local Civil Rights Restoration campaigns in their communities. At the convening, several activists shared their reasons for participating in these campaigns in video interviews. BORDC released the latest videos this month.

Marianna Ballou is an activist who does it all. A native of Northampton, MA, she is an active member of the community on a wide variety of fronts. When asked about the issues she’s involved in, Ballou responded with a long list ranging from anti-NDAA work, to preventing housing injustice, to highlighting women’s rights. Whatever the cause, one thing is consistent in Marianna’s work: she is dedicated to keeping the issues accessible to everyone.

In Marianna’s view, activism should be all about participation. Although she recognizes that some of the issues she focuses on might be “uncomfortable to think about,” she still encourages everyone to get involved as much as they can.

I think my biggest advice would be to not feel intimidated by this work…[Even if] you might not feel as familiar with the issues as long-time activists or people who have spent a lot of time working with the issues, work through it. Be ready and excited to learn. Be ready to jump in and really get committed.

The parents of Carlos Roa made incredible sacrifices to ensure their son a better education by immigrating to the U.S. when he was young. Now, Carlos follows in their footsteps by making his own sacrifices for the education of others. An activist with years of experience, Roa focuses largely on immigrant rights and works with teenage immigrants who are making the transition from high school to college.

“These kids are struggling with the fact that they can’t go to college, they can’t drive legally, they can’t work legally…” To help confront such painful realities, Carlos dedicates his time to participating in youth mentorship programs. Although a busy student himself–a junior in college studying architecture–Roa realizes the importance of giving back. “It’s really important to maintain that mentorship and be able to serve as someone who can help build their [immigrant youths’] leadership within their communities.”

In an interview given at BORDC’s Civil Rights Organizer’s Convening, Roa sums up this way of thinking:

My message to activists would be that it’s really important to be continuously active. It can be a struggle for activists, especially ones in school, to continue being active during schooling and to keep being involved in the community – but it is more than achievable.


Grassroots News

Patriot Award: Denisa Jashari

Denisa JashariEvery month, BORDC honors an individual who has done outstanding work in support of civil liberties and the rule of law in his or her community. This month, the Patriot Award goes to Denisa Jashari for her invaluable service to the movement for civil liberties and human rights in the state of Connecticut.

Denisa has been involved in grassroots organizing in Connecticut since 2007, after she began studying at Trinity College in 2006. Co-founder of the college Anti-War Coalition, she believed that at a time when students in the US are overwhelmed with debt, funds for war should instead be used to address domestic needs. As a member of Stop the Raids, a student run group whose mission was to support immigrants on a local and national level, she stood in solidarity with undocumented immigrants to combat anti-immigrant bias and profiling.

Most recently, Denisa helped start the Connecticut Coalition to Stop Indefinite Detention in late 2011. Along with fellow Connecticut activists Mongi Dhaouadi (from CAIR-CT) and Chris Gauvreau (from the United National Antiwar Coalition), Denisa aimed to mobilize outrage at the indefinite domestic military detention powers of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Their first call to create a coalition yielded tremendous results: In February, more than 100 people from 30 different organizations convened to discuss how to mobilize in response to this most recent attack on civil liberties. The organizations included civil rights, anti-war, and interfaith organizations, Occupy, and others from throughout Connecticut. The coalition is mobilizing statewide resistance to the NDAA’s detention powers, while also standing in solidarity with allied groups, such as those confronting racial profiling by the NYPD and its abusive stop & frisk program.

As an organizer, Denisa has seen how vulnerable a community can become as its rights dissolve. In response, she has helped lead the coalition to take an educational tone. The coalition has sponsored events featuring speakers, such as former US Army Chaplain James Yee, whose service at Guantanamo Bay led him to grow disillusioned with the war on terror.

The coalition is also working to create grassroots support for a resolution opposing the NDAA in New Britain, CT to express the community’s condemnation of its potentially draconian detention provisions. Its current emphases are on engaging further allies, conducting public education events like its forum on November 17, in Hartford.

The coalition has also mobilized, marching on August 8, to show solidarity with activists raided by the FBI, as well as Sikhs and other South Asians targeted by hate crimes.

Denisa notes that we live in a “time period facing huge attacks on our civil liberties. We understood that.” While she recently moved to Indiana to pursue a PHD in Latin American Studies at the University of Indiana-Bloomington, she plans to continue organizing in her new community.

BORDC thanks Denisa for the remarkable contribution she has made to the struggle for civil liberties in Hartford and across Connecticut. She is truly a model citizen. BORDC is proud to honor her with the August 2012 Patriot Award.

Grassroots resistance stops San Francisco Mayor’s proposed stop & frisk plan

On August 7, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee reversed his plans for a proposed stop & frisk plan based on the abusive policies of the NYPD. “We will not be implementing the stop-and-frisk program, or variations of that, in San Francisco,” he said. Lee’s decision followed resistance across the city by diverse civil rights groups, including the Coalition for a Safe San Francisco.

The coalition participated in a rally on July 17th, after meeting with the Board of Supervisors and submitting a letter signed by over 50 organizations (including BORDC) and nearly 2,000 individuals collected in just over 10 days. A resolution opposing the Mayor’s “stop-and frisk” plans was then introduced by Supervisor Malia Cohen and supported by a majority of the Board of Supervisors, helping prompt the Mayor's reversal.

Bay Area mobilizes to resist indefinite detention under NDAA & AUMF

photo credit:  Art PersykoOn July 29 and July 31, grassroots allies led by the San Francisco 99 Percent Coalition hosted a series of events across the Bay Area to raise awareness about the NDAA’s detention provisions, and opportunities for grassroots resistance. BORDC’s Buttar spoke at each event, in between local press appearances.

The Sunday, July 29 event drew over 120 people to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, where a discussion featured BORDC’s Buttar, alongside Rev. Jeremiah Kalendae, Nancy Mancias from Code Pink, Grace Shimizu from Asian Americans for Peace & Justice, and Ashwak Hauter from the Arab Resource and Organizing Center. Shimizu’s comments about her family’s experience during the Japanese internment moved the audience, and also offered a concrete illustration of how domestic military detention has previously undermined our nation’s constitutional legacy. After the panel discussion and Q&A, participants broke into small groups to discuss strategies for mounting grassroots resistance to restore the right to trial and rule of law.

photo credit:  Art PersykoOn Tuesday, July 31, roughly 75 people attended “Our Vanishing Civil Liberties" at the Oakland Peace Center, where Buttar was joined by Lee Tien from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Deborah Small from Break the Chains, Mike Flynn from the National Lawyers Guild, civil rights lawyer Walter Riley, and sociology professor–and internment survivor–Ted Jitodai. Video from both events will be available in the coming weeks.

Later this month, on Monday, August 20 at 6pm, the coalition will host a discussion on "Our Surveillance Society” at the Women’s Building
(3542 18th St. in the Mission, between Valencia & Guerrero).

Local coalition launches civil rights campaign in Charlotte, NC

In January, the Charlotte city government cited the upcoming Democratic National Convention as cause to impose policies undermining civil liberties and civil rights. Like the legal regime imposed in Chicago leading up to this May’s NATO summit, however, the impacts on constitutional rights in both cities will last long beyond these events.

Organizers are preparing to launch a Local Civil Rights Restoration initiative at a community block party in East Charlotte on Saturday, August 18 beginning at 7PM.  Poetry, art, music, will help bring neighbors together and build community while also offering educational components. 

The Latin American Coalition will host the gathering, along with co-sponsors NC Action, and United for the Dream.  Building on community strengths, the coalition plans to begin cross community dialogue to highlight vulnerabilities shared in common and recruit new allies confronting similar concerns to address the policies enabling them. To learn more or get involved, contact the BORDC organizing team.

Connecticut mobilizes to challenge hate crimes and repression of dissent

The Connecticut Coalition to Stop Indefinite Detention held a rally in Hartford on Wednesday, August 8th to challenge repression of dissent and hate crimes. The protest was originally called in response to recent FBI raids targeting activists in Burlington, VT and Portland, OR, The rally shifted to also show support for the Sikh community following the August 5 massacre in Wisconsin, the 700th hate crime against the Sikh community since the “war on terror” began.

Coalition organizers are planning a teach-in on September 6 in New Britain, highlighting government internment and detention, from Japanese internment during World War II to the indefinite detention provisions of the 2011 NDAA and 2001 AUMF. They are also continuing to build towards a large civil liberties conference in mid-November. Stay tuned for more information, and contact the BORDC organizing team to get involved.

Law and Policy

Senate confirms nominees to long dormant Privacy & Civil Liberties Oversight Board

After years of delay in Washington under both major parties, the Senate finally confirmed all five nominees to the Privacy & Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), created by Congress nearly 10 years ago at the suggestion of the 9-11 Commission.  According to Techdirt:

In 2006, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) was created, in part as a counterweight to concerns over the Patriot Act. The PCLOB was staffed, but after the [Bush] White House tried to interfere and stifle some of its work, one member very publicly quit in 2007…. At times, both President Bush and President Obama have sent some nominations to the Senate, but nothing more had happened….

Until now….It's amazing that it's taken nearly five years to put this board in place (and that there wasn't more outrage over its absence). The real question now is how will the PCLOB wield its power. Hopefully it does some good and actually holds the government to account when it violates the civil liberties of the public.

The five nominees confirmed to the PCLOB include Elisebeth Cook, Rachel Brand, former judge Patricia Wald, and James X. Dempsey from the Center for Democracy & Technology, who served as a member of BORDC’s advisory board before his appointment to the PCLOB.

NSA seeking new powers, despite challenges from whistleblowers and Congress

Our government’s war on transparency took a new twist this month, with yet another government whistleblower appearing in court—not in defense of prosecution, but rather to sue the government for seizing her computer and refusing to clear her of wrongdoing.

whistleFormer House Intelligence Committee staffer Diane Roark said that she was aware, as early as 2002, of then-secret mass wiretapping policies by the National Security Agency (NSA) that, this fall, Congress will soon consider re-authorizing through a proposed FISA extension. Her home was raided by federal agents after the New York Times published Pulitzer-prize-winning stories revealing the program in late 2005. Roark joins other prominent NSA whistleblowers, including BORDC advisory board member Thomas Drake and William Binney, each of whom has spoken publicly about fraud, waste, and problematic secrecy at the NSA.

For its part, the NSA recently admitted having violated the Constitution, in response to repeated attempts by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) to shine a light on the Agency’s ongoing mass privacy abuses. Most recently, Sen. Wyden mobilized a bipartisan block of a dozen Senators to write to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper seeking information long withheld from Congress and the American public.

Meanwhile, the NSA is currently seeking even more powers through proposed legislation addressing cybersecurity. As our friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation have noted, however, “the NSA has proven it can’t be trusted with that responsibility. The NSA's dark history of repeated privacy violations, flouting of domestic law, and resistance to transparency makes it clear that the nation's cybersecurity should not be in its hands.”

Congress attempts overdue oversight of extrajudicial assassination

obama kill listThree years after CIA drones killed three Americans without trial or due process, Congress is finally asking the Obama administration to explain its legal reasoning justifying its authority to kill Americans abroad. Two proposed measures would oblige the Obama administration to show Congress internal memos that outline the legality for President Obama’s “kill doctrine.”

Attorney General Eric Holder defended the administration’s kill doctrine earlier this year, in a speech criticized by observers including BORDC’s Shahid Buttar and George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. Buttar's March 2012 address at Loyola University Chicago School of Law will appear in a forthcoming edition of the Loyola Public Interest Law Reporter. According to Turley:

Where due process once resided, Holder offered only an assurance that the president would kill citizens with care….

Holder's speech does not materially limit that claimed authority, but stressed that "our legal authority is not limited to the battlefields in Afghanistan." He might as well have stopped at "limited" because the administration has refused to accept any limitations on this claimed inherent power.

Now, Congress is considering two measures that would oblige the Obama administration to give Congress the internal memos that attempt to justify killing Americans overseas without due process. These new proposals are notably not requests, but rather congressional demands for long overdue disclosure and transparency also sought by a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights and ACLU.

Senator Jon Cornyn (R-TX) proposed a legislative measure requiring disclosure, arguing that “We’re not mere supplicants of the Executive Branch. It is insufficient to say, ‘Pretty please, Mr President, please tell us about the legal authorization.’” The Senate Judiciary Committee ultimately refused to move forward, prompting blogger Marcy Wheeler to write, “Democrats are using partisan obstruction to prevent the Judiciary Committee from learning enough to assess for themselves whether the targeted killing of a US citizen violates the Constitution.”

A section of a different intelligence bill would separately compel the administration to share all of the Justice Department’s legal opinions with members of the intelligence committees unless executive privilege is invoked. According to Adam Serwer of the American Prospect, “Now that legislators on both sides of the aisle are pushing for more disclosure, the chances the public will learn about the contents of the targeted killing memos has increased dramatically.”

NYPD expands unconstitutional surveillance & monitoring

NYPD - New York TripA new software system recently launched by the New York Police Department has been touted by supporters as a new way to “aid in the detection of preparations to conduct terrorist attacks.” Even in announcing the program, however, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly repeated false statements about the Department’s counter-terror record, casting doubt on whether the new tools will actually help advance public safety, or instead further undermine the rights New Yorkers and their neighbors across the region.

The NYPD has become notorious of late for its constitutional and human rights abuses. In response to the Occupy Wall Street movement, New Yorkers witnesses dozens of threats of violence and unprovoked attacks towards participants and observers alike. From unlawful arrests to violent threats to aggressive attacks, the NYPD’s behavior towards the people of New York has repeatedly undermined its mission to protect and serve them.

In addition to suppressing dissent and committing senseless violence, evidence has also emerged of institutional racism within the NYPD. Under its controversial “stop and frisk” initiative, New York police officers have stopped hundreds of thousands of pedestrians, 90% of them black or Latino, the vast majority of whom are proven to be innocent of any wrongdoing.

Unapologetic about such blatant racial profiling, the NYPD continues to target minority groups. Even before investing in its new high-tech surveillance system, the NYPD broke the law when infiltrating businesses and schools well beyond its jurisdiction with illegal support from the CIA. BORDC’s Shahid Buttar placed the NYPD’s documented violations in context earlier this year, asking “What other skeletons lurk in the NYPD’s closet?”

The NYPD’s ongoing abuses reach well beyond Muslims, and their sum is unfortunately even worse than its parts.

NYPD spying threatens not just the rights of Muslim New Yorkers, or Muslims outside of New York, or colleges and universities, or environmentalists, or peace activists, or Ron Paul supporters, or officials in neighboring jurisdictions—but all of these groups, as well as the very fabric of our democracy.

The new “Domain Awareness System” doubles down on this sad history, adding expensive high-tech tools to the Department’s well established refusal to abide by constitutional limits on its powers. The system combines law enforcement databases, NYPD-owned video surveillance systems, license plate readers, and other undisclosed “domain awareness devices” to monitor surveillance targets based on group supicion.

Chicago City Council approves police torture settlement

Last month, the Chicago City Council approved the latest settlement in a 30 year saga of police abuse, torture, and cover-up, bringing the city’s total expenditure to $53.6 million. Beginning in the early 1980s, former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and a gang of detectives tortured dozens of innocent African American men, forcing false confessions of crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder.

For nearly a decade, torture victims and their lawyers hare argued that former State’s Attorney (and later Mayor) Richard M. Daley knew of Burge’s action and willingly failed to stop them. While Burge is now serving four and a half years for perjury and obstruction of justice, Daley remains unaccountable for his role. The city’s settlement will ensure that he will not have to answer questions about it under oath.

Known as “the torture crew,” Burge and his men intimidated, beat, electrocuted, burned, and genitally mutilated men into falsely confessing crimes for which many spent decades in prison. Yet as case after case continues to be overturned, the City council, Mayor Ram Emanuel, and Richard Daley still refuse to apologize—or even accept responsibility for—these atrocities. When a special prosecutor finally concluded in 2006 that Burge and his men had indeed repeatedly tortured suspects, the statute of limitations had already expired, winning Burge amnesty.

While responsibility for the torture falls on Burge, the failure to prosecute him for the crime falls on Daley and the city. Had Daley acted in 1982, when he first learned of the torture; in 1987, when the first conviction was overturned; or even as late as 1992, when the internal Office of Professional Standards Report found a pattern of torture, then Burge could still have been prosecuted for his crimes.

As our broader nation continues to brush aside accountability for human rights abuses by our intelligence agencies, the Chicago settlement offers a poignant reminder of the ongoing legacy of torture, and startling lack of accountability for high-level crimes. Unlike Washington, Chicago is at least addressing its history, reminding the rest of us that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

New Resources and Opportunities

Book review: Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama: A Story of Poor Custodians by Samuel Walker

Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama: A Story of Poor Custodians by Samuel WalkerSamuel Walker’s latest book, Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama: A Story of Poor Custodians, details the untold story of our nation’s leaders in their cumulative failure to guard and advance our civil liberties. While often viewed as a recent development, Walker rebukes the notion of presidential neglect as a modern precept. Rather, Walker portrays the modern state of civil liberty in the context of presidential history, connecting contemporary excesses to the precedents of former administrations.

Walker crafts a linear account of presidential  action and dereliction across nearly a century, separating his analysis into four sections: (1) the early years, (2) civil liberties in the Cold War and civil rights era, (3) the post Watergate era, and (4) civil liberties in the age of terrorism. He examines a broad range of civil liberties issues, including First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, press, and assembly; due process; equal protection; privacy rights; and national security issues. In this context, Walker challenges the prevailing views of what makes a president great, as well as our assumptions of partisanship in the preservation of liberty.

While the last decade may seem to suggest that the “War on Terror” is responsible for our disappearing civil liberties, it is important to realize that post-9/11 offenses have their foundations in several administrations—Democratic and Republican alike. The excesses of the Bush and Obama administrations would not be possible without the prior precedents established by their predecessors, from FDR’s order to detain American citizens without due process to Truman’s first use of “State Secrets” protection; from Eisenhower’s creation of Executive Privilege to Ford’s assassination of government leaders; from Carter’s authorization of warrantless wiretapping to Reagan’s suspension of the “exclusionary rule” regarding illegal searches. In context, it becomes increasingly clear that the attack on civil liberties is no recent development. As Walker puts it, “The preference for security over liberty is almost inherent in the office of the presidency”. 

Moreover, beyond the realm of the Oval Office, Walker elucidates the development of intelligence agencies in brokering the abuse of liberty. Rejecting the long-accepted premise that intelligence agencies, i.e. CIA, FBI, NSA, operated as rogue entities, Walker suggests they generally acted on orders from the President. Whether it be Johnson’s directive for the CIA to spy on U.S. citizens or Clinton’s use of CIA rendition, Walker clearly demonstrates, how at the hands of the presidency, the intelligence community became the greatest threat to civil liberties.

Walker demonstrates that regardless of perceived presidential greatness, time period, political affiliation, or threat level, presidents have proven themselves to be poor guardians of constitutional principles. Whether due to self-interest or a misguided sense of national security, presidents are generally reluctant to support limits on their own powers, and have often undermined the civil liberties that once inspired our Republic.

Share your feedback to bring BORDC to a broader base

Has BORDC’s work to defend and protect civil liberties helped advance your grassroots activism? The BORDC Team has been “taking a stand when our government won’t,” by helping concerned Americans like you engage your communities, form diverse coalitions, and mobilize to restore civil liberties and civil rights in the face of abuses by police and intelligence agencies.

Today, you have an exciting opportunity to help us make an even bigger difference in our communities and expand our work nationwide. If you like BORDC’s work, please share your feedback with others at Great NonProfits, a review site like Amazon Book Reviews or Yelp that is currently rating the most effective non-profits. By writing a review of BORDC, you can help expose new audiences to our work and even enable our eligibility for an award.

Like voting for BORDC on CREDO’s online action ballot, or designating BORDC as your beneficiary when using GoodSearch as your online search engine, taking a few short moments to write a review of BORDC on Great NonProfits offers an opportunity to support the organization without needing to open your wallet.

August 2012: promote civil liberties during the congressional recess

Congress,,This August, grassroots constitutionalists enjoy a great opportunity to bring local voices to the federal debate. As our congressional representatives make their way home from Washington, we need to make sure they hear from We, the People. Sign up to help make sure civil liberties are in the debate.

To get involved, check out BORDC’s grassroots lobbying toolkit. It provides background information on the NDAA and FISA powers that Congress will consider later this year, as well as the opportunities to restrain those powers through ERPA and the JUSTICE Act.  It also includes talking points and tips on how to most effectively take action while your representatives are back home this summer.

BORDC recommends that you ask your representatives to:

  • Co-sponsor the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA)
  • Co-sponsor the JUSTICE Act, which would fix surveillance and other abuses under the PATRIOT Act, as well as the 2008 FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Amendments Act.
  • Repeal the indefinite detention provisions of the NDAA

Signing up will give you access to our August advocacy toolkit, which includes talking points, ideas and how-to-guides for actions, and more.

Together, we can put civil liberties at the forefront of our representatives’ minds – and at the forefront of the presidential debate this fall.



Help BORDC restore the rule of law

  • Take action! Volunteer, organize, raise your voice—we have an opportunity that's right for everyone.
  • Read our blog. We publish the latest civil liberties news, plus analysis beyond the headlines.
  • Support our work! Contribute securely online, call (413) 582-0110 to donate by phone, or mail a check or money order to:
    Bill of Rights Defense Committee
    8 Bridge St., Suite A
    Northampton, MA 01060


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Contributors: Shahid Buttar, Zoeth Flegenheimer, George Friday, Annette G. Macaluso, Samantha Peetros, Mackenzie Peterson, and Emma Roderick

Banner Photo Credit: Storm Front by Matthew Johnston

Bill of Rights Defense Committee
8 Bridge St., Suite A
Northampton, MA 01060
Telephone: (413) 582-0110
Fax: (413) 582-0116