by Glynn Wilson
Editor and Publisher
Michael W. Macleod-Ball, an attorney who has worked from one end of the country to another from Maine to Alaska, now a legislative policy counsel lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, made a swing around Alabama Tuesday to update activists on where their rights stand under the new Obama administration.
|Michael W. Macleod-Ball of the ACLU speaks to a Birmingham crowd about civil liberties|
At his stop in Birmingham at a Unitarian church near Homewood after an appearance in Huntsville, he did a quick rundown on the top 10 issues facing Americans after eight long years of George W. Bush in the White House, and graded President Barack Obama on some counts.
On Day One of the new presidency, the group, dedicated to fighting for the Constitutional rights of all Americans, including the free speech rights of racists, wanted to see Obama officially end torture of detainees. He did. Blue star.
They wanted to see Obama close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He said he would, well, sort of. Maybe half a star.
They wanted to see Obama end the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” a practice used by the Bush-Cheney CIA to abduct and transport anyone, so-called “terror suspects,” to secret prisons around the globe without due process. So far, no star for Obama here either, although he and his staff are “looking at it” and less likely to abuse it as Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld did.
Now at the top of the list for Obama’s First 100 Days, high on the group’s agenda is to fight the “warrantless spying” of “U.S. persons,” meaning American citizens and residents not being called on the phone or e-mailed by al Queda, like peace groups, environmental groups, and well, ACLU activists.
“Things are a lot better under Obama,” he said, although it is not clear yet where the lines will be drawn.
His attorney general, Eric Holder, has made statements supporting the Patriot Act, and Obama and his Harvard cohort here in Alabama, Artur Davis, both voted for the FISA bill, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act used by the Bush administration to justify sweeping up ALL telephone and e-mail communications and Web traffic of ANYONE on the record in opposition to Bush’s policies, including people simply involved in the American political process — even journalists and bloggers.
The group is also highly concerned about routine FBI monitoring of all activists, and they are trying to make some headway with the Obama administration on that, hoping to re-insert the “reasonable suspicion” test into law enforcement.
The problem is Obama will want to retain a high amount of police intelligence due to the resurgence of the militant right.
Next on the ACLU’s list was fighting the “watch lists,” which are riddled with innaccurate information and almost impossible to challenge or change, he said.
“One third of the names are wrong. And there’s no way to get off.”
So far, no action by the Obama administration here, although the group is hopeful.
Freedom of information is also on the list, and the Obama administration gets a blue star here. They immediately reversed the John Ashcroft policy of turning down FOIA requests on the slightest reason, often not even national security. Obama so far has shown a real effort to be transparent, recently releasing many of the Bush administration’s torture memos.
Mr. Macleod-Ball told the crowd of maybe 50 to expect “a sea change” coming in the Department of Justice, especially the Civil Rights Division, although it’s too early to award any stars. Obama has certainly not won anything yet for any work cleaning up the rest of the Justice Department, so polluted by Bush that it will take many moons to fix.
“It takes a long time for those appointments to go through,” Mr. Macleod-Ball said.
This is an especially key issue in Alabama, where the supporters of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman are still waiting to see some justice here in the Southland from the Man, The Obama.
U.S. attorneys Alice Martin and Laure Canary are still around, and Chief U.S. Justice Mark E. Fuller in Montgomery is going to get another crack at sentencing Siegelman soon. The Bush prosecutors are asking for 20 years this time, even though the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta dropped a couple of counts on appeal.
Macleod-Ball said the group is also working on the Real ID Act, an abortion gag rule, working against workplace discrimination against “sexual minorities,” religious discrimination in housing, and still fighting the death penalty. The group is hoping Obama will at the very least place a moratorium on the practice until the legislative bodies can research and ban it forever from the American legal landscape and bring the U.S. in line with every other civilized, industrialized democracy in the West.
Although Obama did end the funding for the sham “abstinence only” programs, which distributed misleading information and did not work on any level, one of the biggest disappointments so far in Obama’s first 100 days is his weak position on “faith-based initiatives.”
“We are disappointed,” he said, “in Obama’s continued funding of religious organizations set up by Bush.”
On the group’s legislative agenda, there is still no judicial review in place for the Patriot Act, although there is glimmering hope that the Democratic Congress will let it expire. Also the way national security letters are issued to banks, libraries and Internet Service Providers should be stopped. The way it is, no one is allowed to challenge in court or even be told they are under investigation.
He indicated the most severe abuses already seem to be stopped under Obama, but the problem is law enforcement used the tools not to fight terrorists, but “for routine law enforcement.”
Obama’s stance so far on “state secrets” is also disappointing.
One of the major issues ahead for the group and this news organization is the fight for legal rights of free speech and press on the Web, including Net Neutrality. The group is also working toward a Shield Act for journalists, although they tend to be in the middle between reporters who want to protect sources and prosecutors who want information about defendants. Key to our legal future is a liberal establishment on who constitutes a journalist, although the experience and education behind this project well qualify.
Macleod-Ball passed through Birmingham on invitation from the Alabama ACLU chapter headed by Olivia Turner, who also gave a rundown on issues the state chapter has been working on, including rights for prisoners, including those with HIV, mental health patients and those in the foster care system, as well as low income women. They also work on voting rights and church-state divide issues, including advocating the removal of the Ten Commandments Judge Roy Moore’s granite rock from the state Supreme Court building.
She said the chapter was started in 1965, “and immediately infiltrated by the FBI.”
Neither the state group or the national group knew much about one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties in American history started right here in Alabama. That would be the Google Earth-Virtual Alabama spying system set up by Governor Bob Riley. But both groups seemed interested in the issue and open to a briefing, which we will provide soon.
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