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Torture with the Stars, Part 1: Obama's "thought police"

I guess if I wanted to get into the sequel of Eric Boehlert's "Bloggers on the Bus," I'd be a little more obsessive and sit in front of two TVs and blog and tweet and Facebook and whatever else what TV, Drudge, and everyone of that ilk is now calling "The Great Debate" (personally, I prefer "Torture With the Stars") between sitting president Barack Obama and recently discovered ex-Vice President Dick Cheney as it happened.

Now, I've had a half a day to digest this rather extraordinary -- if not exactly for the reasons that Charlie Gibson & Co. thought so -- day, and a couple things leap out. Enough that I'm going to take the unusal step of dividing this into two parts.

First, Obama. He sure talks pretty. It was hard to listen to his speech and not be moved by some of condemnations of the atrocities of the Bush years, such as when he said that waterboarding and similar tactics "did not advance our war and counterterrorism efforts -- they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all." The problem, of course, is that while Obama is scoring a 98 on the rhetoric front, he gets a 50 on the policy -- and I stopped dead in my tracks when he started making the case for something called "preventive detention," not so different from what George Orwell called "the Thought Police."


Now, finally, there remains the question of detainees at Guantanamo who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people. And I have to be honest here -- this is the toughest single issue that we will face. We're going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States.

Michael Ratner, from the Center for Constitutional Rights, nails it, I think:

Even more troubling for Ratner, however, was the notion of preventive detention -- which he called "the real road to hell," and compared to something from the movie Minority Report. "[Obama] said some people are just too dangerous to let go and that we have to keep them," said Ratner. "Though we'd do it differently then Bush. We will set up rules. Well no matter how you repackage Guantanamo, with all kinds of rules on top of it -- that is what he is doing, he is re-wrapping a preventive detention scheme and giving it some more due process. In the end, it still comes down to holding people -- much like Minority Report or pre-crime stuff -- for being dangerous, and that is not something that I think is constitutional or this country should be engaged in.

No matter how much Obama tries to blame this on the Cheney torture policies (which created that inadmissible evidence), two wrongs don't make a right. What he's proposing is against one of this country's core principles, which is habeas corpus. No matter how many guidelines that Obama and his administration try to impose, there is nothing in the Constitution that would permit the indefinite jailing of people "who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes" but who "nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States" -- nor should their be. Not even if we ever do develop the mind-reading powers of a "thought police."

This is why people need to keep the pressure on Obama -- even those inclined to view his presidency favorably. Because while clearly his overall approach to torture and detention issues are "on the right track" as opposed to the very "wrong track" of Cheney and Bush, it is so easy inside the Beltway to start veering off the rails. Making people accountable for the torture and Guantanamo debacles of the Bush years requires the American people constantly holding our new president accountable, too.

Part II, coming up.