Points Of Friction: Obama Meets With Civil Libertarians, Human Rights Activists


Yesterday morning President Obama met with representatives of several human rights and civil liberties groups in the White House’s cabinet room. Joining him were his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, senior adviser David Axelrod, as well as Attorney General Eric Holder. They sat down with representatives of the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Human Rights Watch, among others.

Last night on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow reported that one of the attendees warned the President he was letting George Bush’s policies become his own–and that Obama was not pleased by that characterization.

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Tom Malinowski, Human Rights Watch advocacy director, declined to discuss specific points of order, but agreed to speak about the atmospherics of the meeting.

“It was very robust and it was a real conversation,” he said. “There’s a lot of agreement and there’s some disagreement on some issues.”

Malinowski said the President is aware that in recent weeks, civil libertarians and human rights groups have grown frustrated with some of his policies, and that he’s attuned to those frustrations.

The unresolved question, though, is what purpose the meeting served–was it a forum for Obama to brief the critics to his left on his intentions going forward? Or was he providing them information, and seeking counsel–a sign, perhaps, that he’s mindful of their criticisms and may yet move in their direction? “We’ll have to see,” Malinowski said. “One doesn’t expect in the President to say, ‘Gosh that was a great point i never thought of and I have to revisit my decision in light of what you just said.’ The president heard a lot there that he can take back to the privacy of the oval office and think about.”

On at least one issue, though, Obama seems to have made up his mind. Isikoff reports that Obama announced his opposition to torture prosecutions–an unsurprising admission, perhaps, but one that must have disappointed many in attendance. Previously he had said that the question of investigation and prosecuting Bush administration officials was one for Holder to answer. But with Holder sitting right beside him, there’s no doubt he’s feeling pressure to, as they say, look forward, not backward.

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