Is Obama creating "an American Gulag?"

A system of preventive detention isn't consistent with his promise to restore the rule of law

By Joan Walsh
Published May 22, 2009 1:22PM (EDT)

In my Dick Cheney post I was too quick to gloss over my concerns about Obama's planned program of prolonged, preventive detention, by saying I wasn’t “fully reassured” by Obama’s promise it would be reviewed by courts and the Congress. I’m not reassured at all. Hearing it again, Obama’s assertion that he will “develop an appropriate legal regime” – what does that mean? – to make sure “our efforts are consistent with our values and our Constitution” is chilling, not reassuring.

I also paid insufficient attention to the categories of people Obama said would be subject to prolonged detention: “people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States. Examples of that threat include people who have received extensive explosives training at al Qaeda training camps, commanded Taliban troops in battle, expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States.” Obama suggested such people could be detained for the entirety of our war against al Qaeda, which could last “10 years or more.”

That’s disturbing. Is Obama saying the people who will be indefinitely detained will have to meet all those criteria, or would expressing allegiance to bin Laden, without taking action to harm Americans, be enough? What will constitute evidence that detainees have “made it clear” they want to kill Americans -- if it's so "clear," why can't they be charged with crimes connected to whatever they've done to make it clear?

“They’re creating, essentially, an American Gulag,” the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Vincent Warren told Rachel Maddow Thursday night. The Philadelphia Daily News' invaluable Will Bunch compares Obama's approach to Orwell's "Thought Police."

Cheney’s all-out crusade against Obama’s comparatively modest moves on restoring the rule of law show what is at stake here, and I thought the big story on Thursday was the former vice president’s assault on the new president, and on the truth. But gratitude that Obama isn’t Dick Cheney can’t blind us to the ways he’s not living up to his promises to restore the rule of law.


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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Barack Obama Dick Cheney Torture