Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold has not had much to celebrate when it comes to the actions of the executive branch since he came to the Senate almost two decades ago.
The maverick Democrat was a frequent critic of the Clinton administration — he was the only member of his party to support continuing the impeachment trial of his party’s previous president — and a steady critic of the Bush administration.
But Feingold, the chair of the Constitution subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he is seeing some change he can believe in.
Noting President Barack Obama’s decision to issue executive orders to end abusive interrogation tactics, close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and end the Bush Administration program of CIA detentions, as well as executive orders to increase transparency and err on the side of governmental openness rather than secrecy, Feingold says, “President Obama’s first days in office have been a triumph for the rule of law. His executive orders yesterday to reverse the secretive practices of the previous administration and the ones he signed today to end abusive interrogation tactics, bring detentions within the law, and close Guantanamo within a year are all critical steps toward undoing the damage done over the last eight years.”
Feingold’s a realist about the daunting tasks that remain. He knows that, even as he and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union press Obama to adopt a pro-Constitution path, there will be pressures from others — including some Democrats — to retain some elements of the unitary-executive approach of the Bush-Cheney years.
But, the Wisconsin Democrat says, “While this is a great start to restoring our Constitution, there is still much to be done. I look forward to working with President Obama to put our country back on the right path.”
To that end, even as Feingold hailed Obama’s initial moves, the senator renewed his call — first outlined in a December 10 letter to Obama — for the president to take unilateral steps to to restore the rule of law.
An unreasonable demand? Not at all.
Indeed, Feingold notes, Obama has already done a number of the things the senator proposed in the December 10 letter/
· Commit to enforcing the ban on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and revoke all existing orders and legal opinions authorizing cruel interrogations. President Obama’s order today requires all agencies of the U.S. government, including the CIA, to abide by the Army Field Manual’s guidance concerning interrogations.
· Close the facility at Guantanamo Bay as President Obama had pledged to do during the campaign. President Obama today ordered that Guantanamo will be closed within a year.
· Reject the flawed military commission trial system being used at Guantanamo Bay. President Obama issued an executive order yesterday suspending all trials at Guantanamo Bay for 120 days.
· Commit to providing timely notification of and access to the International Committee of the Red Cross for any and all detainees held in U.S. custody anywhere in the world. Today, President Obama issued an executive order ending illegal CIA detentions and allowing ICRC access to anyone held in custody by the U.S. government. In addition, the executive order on Guantanamo provides that the treatment of prisoners must conform to all applicable laws, including the Geneva Conventions.
· Reinstate the presumption of disclosure established by the Clinton administration to defend an agency’s decision to withhold a document only if the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would be harmful to an interest protected by one of the Freedom of Information Act’s exemptions. President Obama accepted that recommendation in his announcement yesterday concerning transparency and disclosure.
Feingold is right to say that is not enough.
But he is also right to celebrate what looks to be a very good start at restoring the rule of law.