Once a beacon, Barack Obama under fire over civil liberties

Barack ObamaWhile Barack Obama has long presented himself as a progressive Democrat, he has not been known as a fiery civil libertarian. (AP)

He may have been the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. He may have written a book extolling constitutional values in a democracy. And he may have run for president on a civil liberties banner, pledging to reverse the legacy of George W. Bush.

But as U.S. president for the last 4-1/2 years, Barack Obama has faced accusation after accusation of impinging on civil liberties, disappointing his liberal Democratic base and providing fodder for rival Republicans as he deals with the realities of office.

News in the past week of the federal seizure of phone records from the Associated Press news agency and the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative Tea Party groups, has intensified criticism already simmering over the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and aerial drone strikes abroad.

Asked at a news conference on Tuesday why the administration had not done more for civil liberties, Attorney General Eric Holder said: "I'm proud of what we have done" and emphasized the administration's shift from Bush era harsh interrogation practices of terrorism suspects that had drawn international criticism.

When he took office in 2009, Obama promised to close the Guantanamo camp for foreign terrorism suspects, but it remains open with 166 detainees, many on hunger strikes in protest at indefinite detentions. Obama said last month he would revisit that pledge and blamed Congress for blocking his plan to close the camp, partly through restrictions on transfers of detainees.

The administration has defended its aerial drone strikes abroad, which have included targeting a U.S.-born terrorism suspect, as essential to the fight against al Qaeda and other militants in places such as Pakistan and Yemen.

On Tuesday, Holder defended the seizure of journalists' records, saying it was part of an investigation into a leak that he called "very, very serious." A law enforcement official said the probe is related to information in a May 2012 AP story on a foiled Yemen-based al Qaeda plot.

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