Magna Carta’s Anniversary and Civil Liberties in the Time of Obama

Orwell, Vermont: Bandstand on Town Green 6/3/11

          In what is now a dreary part of Surrey, 896 years ago today, June 15, King John signed the Magna Carta.  To it Americans trace their system of government and laws – and most importantly their civil liberties.

           That system, of course, didn’t emerge immediately or steadily or predictably.  King John signed the charter with the swords of the Northern Barons pointed at him.  Great civil wars in the 15th, 17th and 19th centuries and Revolutions in the 17th and 18th punctuated its evolution.

           This history is not hidden.  Its lessons one can read in learned volumes and ‘bodice busters’.  But the struggles in this constitutional and institutional development happened ages ago.  Their relevance is not obvious to many.  This I can understand.

           But for an administration of my persuasion to ignore the lessons of my lifetime, I find disheartening.  Two stories I read on Monday, juxtaposed, added to my growing despair.

 Johnson Tapes:  The FBI & the Civil Rights Movement

           The first was Jason Sokol’s ‘The Power Broker’s Other Voice’ in Slate.  He reported on the release of tapes of meetings and phone calls while President Lyndon Johnson negotiated the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. [1]

           Johnson chose the early summer of 1964 – ‘Freedom Summer’, civil rights campaigners had dubbed it – to drive the bill through Congress.  The presidential nominating conventions would take place in late August and the election in November.  Meanwhile, the Old Confederacy was in turmoil over northern ‘agitators’ come south to work for voting rights.

           On June 21, three civil rights workers disappeared in Neshoba County outside Philadelphia, Mississippi.  A few days later, their torched car was found.  Here’s Sokol:

 The families of Schwerner and Goodman asked for audiences with the president….  On the evening of June 23, [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover notified Johnson that the burned car contained no dead bodies. The men might have survived after all. Johnson called the parents to relay this hopeful news. [Mickey Schwerner’s mother] Anne Schwerner wept as she thanked Johnson for his call. [Andrew Goodman’s father] Robert Goodman fought through sobs and said, “Mr. President, I can’t express my words to thank you for what you’re doing: for these boys and us”….

 Unfortunately, Johnson had not done very much. The FBI maintained a weak presence in Mississippi—this despite the recent murders of black leaders like Medgar Evers. And after the disappearances in Neshoba County, Johnson pursued a cautious course of action:  He sent [then former CIA Director] Allen Dulles to Mississippi as an “impartial” observer.

 Johnson trusted J. Edgar Hoover too much. On June 29, Johnson met with Mickey Schwerner’s wife. Hoover then got on the phone and told Johnson: “She’s a Communist, you know. … She’s an actual member.” Johnson quickly repeated this information to Lee White, his chief civil rights aide, describing Schwerner as “some little scrubby woman that’s a Communist.” White laughed “heartily.” [2] [Links added.]

           As the 60s progressed, it became clear the Hoover’s FBI had even less fondness for – and accurate information about – the anti-Vietnam War movement.  What most war opponents suspected about FBI surveillance, harassment, provocation and intelligence gathering Congressional hearings in the 70s proved to be true.

           (In a sobering echo of the 60s, the June 14 Washington Post’s ‘Activists cry foul over FBI probe’ by Peter Wallsten reports on FBI home searches and federal grand jury hearings centered on peace and justice advocates.  On the informant sent to infiltrate one group, said her targets: ‘“They were smart sending a 40-year-old lesbian,” said Meredith Aby, 38, a high school civics teacher and longtime organizer. “A good match,” added Jess Sundin, a university clerical worker.’)

 Obama Loosens FBI Search Controls

           Also on June 13, the N.Y. Times Pulitzer Prize winner, Charlie Savage, reported on its front page:

 The Federal Bureau of Investigation is giving significant new powers to its roughly 14,000 agents, allowing them more leeway to search databases, go through household trash or use surveillance teams to scrutinize the lives of people who have attracted their attention.

The F.B.I. soon plans to issue a new edition of its manual, called the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, according to an official who has worked on the draft document and several others who have been briefed on its contents. The new rules add to several measures taken over the past decade to give agents more latitude as they search for signs of criminal or terrorist activity.  [Links in original.]

           One hoped – even expected – in 2008 that the incoming Obama administration would clean up the abuses of the Bush II Department of Justice.  At worst I, for one, did not expect them to reward and encourage the authors of those abuses.

           Wrong on all counts!

           Take the infamous US Attorney scandal of 2006 when the Bush Administration demanded political help from their 90-odd top prosecutors.  A handful resigned or were fired for not co-operating.  More than 90 percent stayed and presumably went along. [3]

           The most notorious of the Bush prosecutors was Laura Canary, US Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama.  Using abusive tactics and ‘crimes’ inconceivable to reasonable minds, she destroyed the Democratic Party in Alabama, and with it the lives of people like Gov. Don Siegelman.  But she continued in office until May 27 – of this year!

 Barack Obama:  No Affirmative Action Law Student

           No slur on Pres. Obama is more silly than that ‘affirmative action’ brought him to Harvard Law School and yielded him the editorship of the Harvard Law Review.  That position is the highest academic honor – and toughest job – a law student can receive in the United States.

           Thus, the President’s competence as a student of law is beyond question.  Why then has he done so little to reform the Department of Justice?  Why did he push through reauthorization of the Patriot Act, abuses and all?  Why have his appointments, such as FBI Director Robert Mueller’s, signaled continuity — with rare exceptions as in the DOJ Civil Rights Division — with his immediate predecessor’s? [4]

           Were the answers less clear, it would be easier to support his re-election on a ground other than his party affiliation.


 [1] No matter what one thinks of Johnson, the war president, or makes of his unwillingness to embrace more liberal civil rights campaigners, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, he did not have to push what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  He knew what he was doing and he was fully aware of its costs for his party – and possibly for himself.  A profile in courage, if ever there was one.

 [2] The linked story on Rita Schwerner Bender and her later career is well worth reading.

 [3] One of the ‘good guys’ amongst the Bush US Attorneys was supposed to be Patrick Fitzgerald.  He was chosen to investigate the scandal.  He produced no notable results.  The Washington Post reports he is spearheading the investigation of dissenters.  He is also prosecuting former Democratic Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich on what appear to be very tenuous grounds, ones very similar to those Laura Canary used on Gov. Siegelman.

[4] For more on why the Department of Justice needs reform, if not abolition, see Harvey Silverglate’s website and books.  A noted civil liberties lawyer for nearly 50 years, Silverglate has courtroom experience with the abuses he cites – most of which I haven’t referenced.