During the “Red Scare” that swept the United States in the wake of Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Justice Department launched a cycle of raids against radicals and leftists. The U.S. attorney general, a once-celebrated Progressive leader named A. Mitchell Palmer, gave his name to this unfolding series of attacks against civil liberities.
Though initially supported by Congress, the courts and the press, the 1919 Palmer raids revealed a darker side of the American psyche. They eventually provoked a national backlash, which inspired the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union; led to stirring free speech dissenting opinions from Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Louis Brandeis, and ignited a political counter-movement determined to prevent similar civil liberties abuses in the future.
President Barack Obama is far from resembling Palmer in terms of civil liberties abuse, but his conviction in his own progressive righteousness is an unfortunate trait when it comes to designing and overseeing surveillance programs. Obama has also continued to defend the current invasive National Security Agency surveillance programs – even while insisting he welcomes a national conversation about the appropriate balance between liberty and security.
It remains to be seen, though, whether this current crackdown on American civil liberties can spark a new period of backlash from American citizens and the courts. The Obama administration has consistently swatted down lawsuits that challenge it by saying that citizens who believe they have been victims of surveillance lack standing to bring them. It has also prosecuted the very whistleblowers whose leaks made possible the national debate the president says he welcomes.