Nick Baumann

Nick Baumann

Senior Editor

Nick is based in our DC bureau, where he covers national politics and civil liberties issues. Nick has also written for The Economist, The Atlantic, The Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Facebook.

Get my RSS |

The New Civil Liberties Fight

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 2:30 AM PDT
Gulet Mohamed, a 19-year-old Virginian, behind bars in a Kuwaiti deportation facility. His family and lawyer allege that he was detained and beaten at the behest of the United States government—a charge the government denies.

Kevin is on vacation this week, so Andy Kroll and I will be filling in.

During the Bush years, America's chattering classes were engaged in a grand argument: should the people we had captured in the war on terror be handled by the courts, or by some other process? Civil libertarians argued that terrorist suspects who were not US citizens should have meaningful access to trials in federal courts.

Civil libertarians have lost that argument. The defeat is total: in the White House, on Capitol Hill, in the courts, and, crucially, in the court of public opinion. Indefinite detention of non-citizen terrorist suspects without charge or trial remains the official policy of the United States, and none of the most infamous non-citizen terrorist suspects will be tried in federal court.

President Barack Obama's administration hasn't added any new prisoners to Guantanamo, but as things stand, it's only a matter of time before that happens. Eventually, there will be another Republican president, and the GOP's position is clear: Mitch McConnell, the party's leader in the Senate, took to the Washington Post op-ed page on Tuesday to call for two Iraqi nationals captured in his home state of Kentucky to be transferred to Gitmo. "Guantanamo is the place to try terrorists," the headline blared.

Some liberals defend the Obama administration's record on civil liberties by arguing that standing up for the rights of terrorist suspects would be political poison for the White House. Perhaps they're right. But it would be foolish to assume that the battle lines on this issue are static, or that hardliners see a bright line between how we should treat non-citizen terrorist suspects and how we should treat terrorist suspects who are American citizens.

The Joe Liebermans of the world see no such bright line. If we as a society have decided that non-citizen terrorist suspects shouldn't have the right to a real trial before we lock them away indefinitely, it's only a short leap to the idea that all terrorist suspects should have fewer rights.

Why shouldn't we be consistent? Why are non-citizen terrorist suspects captured abroad "unprivileged belligerents" while those captured in the US are simply criminals? Why are American-born terrorists criminals and not unprivileged belligerents? Does the difference between committing a crime and being illegally at war with the United States really just depend on where you are captured or where you are born? The Obama administration does not have compelling answers to these questions. Its compromises and cave-ins on civil liberties have left its counterterrorism policy an inconsistent mishmash of Miranda warnings for foreigners and proxy detention and Hellfire missiles for Americans.

But forget foreigners—they're screwed. The rights of US citizens are at the heart of today's fight over civil liberties in the war on terror. And, not coincidentally, the rights of US citizens suspected of terrorism are on retreat on a whole host of fronts.

The family of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen who is reportedly on a list of people the military is authorized to kill without charge or trial, lost their court case to force the government to explain why it believes it has the legal right to order his death. Young Muslim American men travel overseas only to discover that they're on the no-fly list when they try to return—and that they can't go home unless they answer the FBI's questions. Americans with dark skin tones and "suspicious" names find US-government-owned GPS devices on their cars. The PATRIOT Act gets renewed while everyone is busy talking about how great it is that the SEALS killed Osama bin Laden. And senior members of Congress call for US citizens suspected of terrorism to be stripped of their citizenship and sent to—where else—Guantanamo.

The rights of all people accused of terrorism have been dramatically rolled back over the past ten years. So don't expect that American citizenship will protect you when the government decides that you might be a terrorist, too.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Yemen Is Not A Good Place To Imprison Terrorist Suspects

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 8:56 PM PDT

Kevin is on vacation this week, so Andy Kroll and I are filling in a bit.

The Washington Post reports on a massive jailbreak of Islamic militants from one of Yemen's largest prisons:

Among the escapees Wednesday were members of an al-Qaeda cell that has killed foreign tourists and tried to attack the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and other Western targets, according to Yemeni officials. [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] was behind the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound commercial flight on Christmas Day 2009 and the mailing of bombs on cargo planes destined for the United States....

...The prison break Wednesday, though far from the first in Yemen, came at a moment of political crisis in the country and seemed likely to heighten fears among U.S. counterterrorism officials that AQAP is gathering strength as the authority of the central government weakens.

Even in the best of times, Yemen was not a great place to imprison radical Islamists. The prisons there have always been leaky at best, and the central government's authority didn't extend very far past the capital. Now the country is even more wracked by chaos and intranational violence than usual, and AQAP has scored some successes—the latest being this prison break. The Obama administration has apparently decided, in the wake of the Christmas Day and cargo bomb attacks, that this is a threat worthy of a semi-secret drone war but not, well, an "actual" war.

In a "real" war, we'd go in and detain these guys ourselves, rather than relying on incompetent and potentially backstabbing proxies. That doesn't, thankfully, seem to be on the table right now. (I don't think America can afford another land war in Asia.) But the war on terror does produce some odd paradoxes. In today's world, it's easier, politically and legally, for America to vaporize a foreigner it suspects of terrorism than it is to keep that person in prison. That's pretty weird.

On Jose Antonio Vargas, Undocumented Immigrant

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 10:16 AM PDT
Jose Antonio Vargas.

Kevin is on vacation, so Andy Kroll and I are filling in for a few days.

In April 2008, Jose Antonio Vargas, then a reporter at the Washington Post, shared a Pulitzer prize for the paper's coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. Last September, he published a 6,200-word profile of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg in the New Yorker—the result of what he later called his "dream assignment." By any yardstick of traditional journalism, Vargas had made it.

This morning, the New York Times published Vargas' confession: he's an undocumented immigrant, and he's apparently committed a number of fraud-related crimes in order to obtain the documents he needed to stay in the country and keep working. It's hard to summarize Vargas' story—he didn't even know he was undocumented until, at 16, he applied for a learner's permit—so you should read the whole thing.

I'm sympathetic to Matt Yglesias' view that we should empathize with all people who come to the United States in search of a better life, even if, unlike Vargas, they do so knowing that what they're doing is illegal. But I've also worked with foreign-born journalists who've paid thousands or tens of thousands of dollars and waded through miles of red tape and seemingly senseless regulations—including, sometimes, returning to their home countries for a period—in order to work in this country.* (This applies outside of journalism, too, of course.) I wonder how they're feeling about Jose Antonio Vargas this morning.

*UPDATE: As discussed in the comments, these senseless hurdles are a central part of the problem.

New Warning Labels: Ruining Smokers' Days?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 8:58 AM PDT
New warning labels issued by the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday carry graphic depictions of the potential consequences of cigarette smoking.

On Tuesday morning, the Food and Drug Administration issued its new warning labels for cigarette packages. They're pretty gross:

Among the images to appear on cigarette packs are rotting and diseased teeth and gums and a man with a tracheotomy smoking.

Also included among the labels are: the corpse of a smoker, diseased lungs, and a mother holding her baby with smoke swirling around them. They include phrases like "Smoking can kill you" and "Cigarettes cause cancer" and feature graphic images to convey the dangers of tobacco, which is responsible for about 443,000 deaths in the U.S. a year.

Cigarette makers have until the fall of 2012 to introduce the new labels (I'm going to go ahead and bet you won't see them until right around then), which must cover the top half of every pack of cigarettes.

Now, if you're a smoker, I can see how this might bother you. You probably feel like you know the health risks of smoking, and you've made an informed decision. (In fact, that's the exact same argument the tobacco companies made for years in court as they successfully smacked down one cancer lawsuit after another.) Why should the FDA ruin your day by putting disgusting photos and disturbing warnings on your cigarette pack?

But here's the thing: it's not just you who is paying for the health consequences of your decision. If you live past 65, the taxpayers are footing the bill, just like we would for anyone else. So if the government isn't going to make a habit that is a massive public health risk illegal (and I think the drug war shows why that might be a bad idea), the least it can do is strongly discourage the habit. (The FDA is actually behind many first-world public health agencies in mandating really explicit anti-smoking labels on cigarette packs.)

I recently finished Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies, an awesome "biography" of cancer that everyone should read. I was especially struck by the contrast between Mukherjee's willingness to, if not forgive, at least understand the horrible mistakes that were made in early cancer treatment (e.g., radical mastectomies for everyone!) and his barely suppressed rage at the "range and depth of devastation" caused by cigarette smoking:

It remains an astonishing, disturbing fact that in America—a nation where nearly every new drug is subjected to rigorous scrutiny as a potential carcinogen, and even the bare hint of a substance's link to cancer ignites a firestorm of public hysteria and media anxiety-one of the most potent and common carcinogens known to humans can be freely bought and sold at every corner store for a few dollars.

Why Did Facebook Block UK Strike Site?

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 3:05 PM PDT
UK Prime Minister David Cameron videochats with Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, in July 2010.

Did Facebook intentionally block the website of UK-based labor protest organizers? The company denies the allegation, but UK activists aren't convinced.

Labor unions and student activists in the United Kingdom are organizing a massive strike of public workers to protest cuts planned by Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative-led government. They're hoping to draw tens or even hundreds of thousands of supporters into the streets to join the workers in an across-the-pond version of the Wisconsin demonstrations that captured national attention n March.

But over the past few days, as activists worked to promote their plan, they ran into a problem: Facebook, the social networking site that has helped activists across the Arab world organize pro-Democracy protests in recent months, was blocking the strike organizers' website, www.j30strike.org. Here's one message received by people who attempted to share the site on their walls:

Screenshot of the error message received by people (including several Mother Jones staffers) who attempted to share the website promoting a strike planned for June 30 in the UK.Screenshot of the error message received by people (including several Mother Jones staffers) who attempted to use Facebook to share a website promoting a strike planned for June 30 in the UK.UK-based activists had been receiving the error message for days before a US-based tipster contacted Mother Jones with the news via our scoop [at] motherjones [dot] com tip line. After confirming that my coworkers and I had the same problem, I contacted Facebook by phone and email around  noon Eastern time on Monday. Sharing of the site was enabled almost immediately after my inquiries, but by 1:30 p.m., the site was blocked again. Around 3 p.m., I heard from Andrew Noyes, a Facebook spokesman in the company's DC office. "The site was blocked in error," he wrote in an email. "We've now unblocked it and apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused." I emailed back to report that the site had been blocked again. I have yet to hear back, but the site was unblocked again by 5:30 p.m, and seems to be working now.

The UK activists, meanwhile, believe something sinister may be afoot. They note that Facebook also seems to be blocking sharing of a post by Chris Peterson, a blogger who first wrote about this problem. Several activists sent me links to a Guardian article reporting on claims that Facebook had conducted a "purge" of accounts run by UK student activists. The activists also noted that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has encouraged Britons to use Facebook to submit ideas about government funding cuts to Cameron's government, and that Cameron and Zuckerberg conducted a video chat to promote the idea last summer.

All that said, Facebook is now on the record saying this was an error. But as an increasingly important means of communication and social and political organizing, it's important—for Facebook and its users—that the company be seen as a neutral party in debates over political issues. Ensuring that both sides of a debate have equal access to Facebook's impressive organizing powers is part of that equation. If blocking the June 30th strike website really was an error, Facebook should make sure it stays unblocked—and take steps to prevent similar errors in the future.

UPDATE: Chris Peterson, the blogger mentioned above, has written a follow-up post on this controversy. Check it out.

Mon Feb. 4, 2013 8:23 AM PST
Tue Nov. 6, 2012 6:47 PM PST
Fri Sep. 21, 2012 2:40 PM PDT
Sun Aug. 19, 2012 3:21 PM PDT
Mon Jul. 30, 2012 8:16 AM PDT
Mon Jul. 9, 2012 7:04 AM PDT
Thu Jun. 28, 2012 9:40 AM PDT
Wed Jun. 20, 2012 4:30 AM PDT
Mon Jun. 11, 2012 7:32 AM PDT
Mon Jun. 4, 2012 6:43 AM PDT
Wed May. 9, 2012 12:01 AM PDT
Tue Mar. 20, 2012 8:15 AM PDT
Fri Feb. 10, 2012 10:56 AM PST
Mon Jan. 23, 2012 8:08 PM PST