Indefinite Detentions in the NDAA Don’t Exactly Betray George Washington’s Values

I haven’t been blogging, because I’m buried in finishing a book on founding-era taxes, public debt, tea parties, occupations, and other economic and financial struggles of that period, but an article entitled Betrayal of the Founders (sent to me this morning by Jerry Fresia because, I suspect, he knows what I’m going to say about it!) is so germane to the problems in founding history I’m exploring that I want to make hasty comment. The piece is on the “Counterpunch” site, the free online component to the dissenting political newsletter of the same name edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, and it’s by Ray McGovern, formerly a U.S. Army officer and CIA analyst, now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.

McGovern criticizes President Obama’s signing the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which he describes, I think rightly, as

affirming that the president has the authority to use to detain any person “who was part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” Under the law, the president also may lock up anyone who commits a “belligerent act” against the U.S. or its coalition allies “without trial, until the end of the hostilities.” The law embraces the notion that the U.S. military can be used even domestically to arrest an American citizen or anyone else who falls under such suspicion — and it is “suspicion” because a trial can be avoided indefinitely.

McGovern also trenchantly criticizes Obama’s reassuring us that we can take the act as more or less okay because Obama is committed to never using it to do anything wrong. The absurdity of that claim is so manifest, at least to me, and I think so damaging to the whole idea of the rule of law, that with McGovern, I wonder why there hasn’t been more coverage criticizing it. The Constitution isn’t clear on everything (originalists to the contrary), but it’s clear as a bell on habeas corpus. Liberals who excoriated Bush’s use of torture, detentions, signing statements, etc., have been strangely silent on Obama’s behavior here.

But McGovern fatally contradicts his own realism about Obama’s policies in this area with a completely unrealistic paean to none other than George Washington, presented by McGovern in typically glowing terms as our great and nearly godlike fighter for the individual liberties set out in the Bill of Rights.

I bring this up because this is what we always do: reach for “the founders”  to support an objection to current policies. And because in the case of Washington, that reach is a grope, at best, in the dark, and because McGovern uses his invocation of Washington as a call to what sounds like revolutionary action against Obama, I think it’s worth remembering Washington’s impatience with dissent and scorn for the civil rights of citizens he branded, without due process, enemies.

If we’re going to have a revolution on these issues — and I’m pretty sure we’re not — we won’t find any real inspiration for it in our founding president. He would have cracked our heads. And if we’re not going to have a revolution, but hope instead to take effective action against executive overreaching, we’d do better to stop living in fuzzy dream about the past.

Here’s some of McGovern on Washington:

The winter is getting cold and I am getting old. Still. Do I have enough integrity; do I have enough genuine love for my country to be a “winter soldier” and do what I can to stop this steady encroachment on liberties that many other soldiers fought so valiantly to establish and protect? . . . It is a challenge not wholly different from the cold reality faced 235 winters ago by George Washington’s army. . . . We may have to leave some “blood on the snow,” so to speak, but perhaps we owe that to the soldiers who had no shoes 235 Christmases ago. We are Washington’s foot soldiers now — facing the resurgent face of tyranny.  . . .

It’s simply weird how McGovern can turn on a dime from a probing, informed critique of the NDAA into this mode of empty heritage rhetoric.  Yet the same thing is common, I think, in more subtle forms, everywhere we look today.

To review the violent disregard with which Washington (and Hamilton, also invoked by McGovern!) treated the rights of uncharged, uninvolved citizens of western Pennsylvania in response to events called the Whiskey Rebellion, I refer readers to an earlier post  in which I sketch these darkest of matters in our founding moment. Readers who want to look further will readily find not only me but many other authors unpacking the issues in various articles, posts, books, etc. The facts in the case are not controversial. Excesses in using executive power started with the first executive — not so surprisingly, either.  I think the founders suspected the urge to excess was built into executive function and therefore needed to be restrained by law. Objecting to today’s excesses effectively would require going off — cold turkey! — the misty-eyed, muffled-drumbeat moods of phony history that Obama, too, has persistently indulged in. For McGovern, Cockburn, St. Clair, and “Counterpunch”  to engage in informed dissent, they’ll have to do better than this.

Details on Washington’s indefinite detentions of American citizens — citizens in no state of insurgency, citizens the government knew and privately admitted it had no evidence against — are readily available. What’s striking me this morning is the almost overwhelming degree to which everyone, across the political spectrum, from Occupy to the Tea Party, from establishment liberals to “values” conservatives to strict libertarians to neo-New Dealers — wants to distort our history to fit current agendas. To me that looks like a habit both totally counterproductive and apparently impossible to break.

[UPDATE:  Also, regarding McGovern’s rationale for appearing as a talking head on RT (Russia Today) TV and Iran’s PressTV: He says, rightly, that a lot of U.S. mainstream media don’t cover these matters thoroughly. I’m all for appearing more or less wherever one can to reflect on these things — I’ve been on Fox News — but to me there’s a real difference between the manifest rightist bias of a Fox News or the liberal or neoliberal or corporate-inspired biases of other outlets, on the one hand, whatever we think of them, and state-controlled media that exist to express the point of view of a government that restricts the press as a matter of policy and principle. I haven’t looked into Iran’s PressTV, so I probably shouldn’t say what I presume about it, but RT-TV looks to me like a full-on, high-end propaganda effort of Putin, carried out at supposedly public expense and masquerading as a newsgathering organization.]

3 thoughts on “Indefinite Detentions in the NDAA Don’t Exactly Betray George Washington’s Values

  1. My first impression of RT was similar to yours, only without the revulsion you express. I reject, in addition, the vast and supposedly public expense of NPR and PBS along with Fox and what little I have seen of MSNBC, masquerading as newsgathering organizations.

    I am resigned to receiving most news with a healthy serving of propaganda, and I find the coverage of stories such as that of Bradley Manning and Wikileaks refreshing and necessary; and more so, perhaps, on RT because of their absence in other media.


    I read your Whiskey Rebellion and was pleasantly surprised that a friend I recommended it to had just finished reading it when I spoke to him around the holidays. He has now started reading Taming Democracy.

    Jerry Fresia’s Toward an American Revolution: Exposing the Constitution and Other Illusions is another gem in my collection, also.

  2. America is now old enough to have its own myths, and those of the founders are the truly unbreakable ones. Thanks for taking the time to post.

  3. “It’s simply weird how McGovern can turn on a dime from a probing, informed critique of the NDAA into this mode of empty heritage rhetoric. Yet the same thing is common, I think, in more subtle forms, everywhere we look today.”
    Unfortunately there seems to be a propensity for “authorities” to validate your points of view in order to make your contention irrefutable, instead of letting the strength of the arguments be their own defense.
    Habeas Corpus is such an important right, that it can stand on it’s own.

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