The “Disposition Matrix”

The worst part of the presidential campaign is its stifling, two-party narrowness on certain issues. The foreign policy debate of recent days showed just how similarly the two would approach foreign policy (well, apparently, if they are to be believed). There are clear differences that make me deeply oppose a Romney presidency, but then there’s an issue that’s gone pretty much entirely undebated: civil liberties.

I like many things about Obama, but I have steadfastly opposed his approach to issues of civil liberties, which is to quietly expand the odious policies of his odious predecessor from the other party. Here’s Glenn Greenwald ranting to great effect about the latest Obama plan to insitutionalize both the extrajudicial “kill list” and the wholesale collection and retention of data about all Americans. The kill list codification is called the “disposition matrix.” (Where’s Philip K. Dick when you need him?)

Both, of course, undermine the Constitution in blatant and dangerous ways, ways that we all should have a say in. And the only thing more dangerous than a president you mostly like claiming such dictatorial rights is a president you fear claiming the same ones.


What has been created here – permanently institutionalized – is a highly secretive executive branch agency that simultaneously engages in two functions: (1) it collects and analyzes massive amounts of surveillance data about all Americans without any judicial review let alone search warrants, and (2) creates and implements a “matrix” that determines the “disposition” of suspects, up to and including execution, without a whiff of due process or oversight. It is simultaneously a surveillance state and secretive, unaccountable judicial body that analyzes who you are and then decrees what should be done with you, how you should be “disposed” of, beyond the reach of any minimal accountability or transparency.

The pragmatic inanity of the mentality driving this is self-evident: as I discussed yesterday (and many other times), continuous killing does not eliminate violence aimed at the US but rather guarantees its permanent expansion. As a result, wrote Miller, “officials said no clear end is in sight” when it comes to the war against “terrorists” because, said one official, “we can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us” but trying is “a necessary part of what we do”. Of course, the more the US kills and kills and kills, the more people there are who “want to harm us”. That’s the logic that has resulted in a permanent war on terror.

But even more significant is the truly radical vision of government in which this is all grounded. The core guarantee of western justice since the Magna Carta was codified in the US by the fifth amendment to the constitution: “No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” You simply cannot have a free society, a worthwhile political system, without that guarantee, that constraint on the ultimate abusive state power, being honored.

And yet what the Post is describing, what we have had for years, is a system of government that – without hyperbole – is the very antithesis of that liberty. It is literally impossible to imagine a more violent repudiation of the basic blueprint of the republic than the development of a secretive, totally unaccountable executive branch agency that simultaneously collects information about all citizens and then applies a “disposition matrix” to determine what punishment should be meted out. This is classic political dystopia brought to reality (despite how compelled such a conclusion is by these indisputable facts, many Americans will view such a claim as an exaggeration, paranoia, or worse because of this psychological dynamic I described here which leads many good passive westerners to believe that true oppression, by definition, is something that happens only elsewhere).

Chris Hayes, Greenwald points out, asked the right question: “If you have a ‘kill list’, but the list keeps growing, are you succeeding?”

But what are you going to do? Vote for Romney?

There seems to be little to stop our slide into a faux democracy in which civil liberties are the quaint stuff of yesteryear. Good thing voting makes so much difference.

James Heflin

Author: James Heflin

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