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There is an often-repeated phrase that I’ve been hearing lately in the debate over the actions of the Bush administration, and in relation to the closing of Guantanamo and what to do with the people being held there. President Obama repeated it in his speech on national security Thursday.

Former Vice-President Cheney has used it several times as his justification for the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” It was the priority of the administration and the aim of it’s policies after 9/11, according to Mr. Cheney.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs included it in his press briefing on Wednesday, citing it as “the most important job” of President Obama. The president himself said in his speech it is his “single most important responsibility.”

That phrase is “keeping Americans safe.”

I would argue that Mr. Gibbs,  Mr. Cheney, and President Obama are mistaken. In my opinion, the most important job of the President of the United States, and what should guide every president and their administration, is to fulfill to the presidential oath of office, which is:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Nothing there about keeping the people safe.

In his inaugural address, President Obama spoke of not sacrificing our principles for safety:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.

Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

Preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution that includes the protection from unreasonable search and seizure, and the rights of due process, trial by jury, and of the accused to be “informed of the nature and cause of the accusation.”

But in his otherwise excellent speech on Thursday, President Obama included something that was unsettling to me and should be to anyone who holds these protections dear. That is the notion of “preventive detention”–indefinite imprisonment of those whose crimes can’t be proven in a court of law but who are deemed “dangerous” because of what they might do if released.

In Glen Greenwald’s piece for Salon, he explained it this way:

It’s important to be clear about what “preventive detention” authorizes.  It does not merely allow the U.S. Government to imprison people alleged to have committed Terrorist acts yet who are unable to be convicted in a civilian court proceeding.  That class is merely a subset, perhaps a small subset, of who the Government can detain.  Far more significant, “preventive detention” allows indefinite imprisonment not based on proven crimes or past violations of law, but of those deemed generally “dangerous” by the Government for various reasons.

…After all, once you accept the rationale on which this proposal is based — namely, that the U.S. Government must, in order to keep us safe, preventively detain “dangerous” people even when they can’t prove they violated any laws — there’s no coherent reason whatsoever to limit that power to people already at Guantanamo, as opposed to indefinitely imprisoning with no trials all allegedly “dangerous” combatants, whether located in Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, Western countries and even the U.S.”

Not a road I think we want to start down in the name of “keeping us safe.”

To be clear, this isn’t about my not trusting President Obama to do what he thinks is best for our country, which I do. But that trust is not absolute and without limits. It is about trusting government, no matter who the president happens to be, with this kind of power.

The government may keep us safe from the terrorists, our Constitutional protections are there to keep us safe from the government. To me, the second protection is more important than the first.

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