Monday, 8 September 2008
Obama, McCain, and draft registration ("Selective Service")
In an interview yesterday, Barack Obama said that, "I had to sign up for Selective Service when I graduated from high school."
That has prompted many questions about Selective Service and the draft registration requirements for men Obama's age.
Since I maintain a Web site about the draft, draft registration, and their history since 1980, it seems appropriate to clear up some of the confusion:
Draft registration ended after U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 (when Obama was 14), and resumed with great fanfare and intense controversy in 1980 (just before his 19th birthday).
No registration requirement was in effect when Obama graduated from high school or turned 18 in 1979. Reinstatement of registration was proposed by President Carter during his State of the Union address in Januray 1980, debated by Congress that spring, and enacted in early summer.
To "jump-start" the Selective Service System and provide an initial pool of potential draftees, there were three mass registration weeks in July-August 1980 and January 1981.
All male U.S. citizens born in 1960 (such as myself) were supposed to register the week of 21-26 July 1980. All those born in 1961 (such as Obama) were supposed to register the following week, 28 July-2 August 1980. All those born in 1962 were supposed to register during the first week of January 1981. Since then, those born in 1963 and after have been supposed to register on a rolling basis, within 30 days of their 18th birthday.
Registrations during the mass registration weeks in 1980 were accepted in person at all Post Offices. Registration forms were accepted at any Post Office, regardless of the registrant's address or place of residence. (Not until years later was registration made possible online, in conjunction with drivers license applications, or at high schools and other locations.)
While some commntators have questioned whether Obama would have been required to show a birth certificate or ID in order to register, Selective Service registrants were not then (and still are not today, although the procedures have changed) required to show any evidence of ID in order to submit their information to the Selective Service for registration.
During the mass registration weeks, there were pickets and draft counselors outside thousands of Post Offices throughout the country. Anti-draft activists removed the forms from many Post Offices, in some cases substituting anti-draft and informational literature printed to resemble registration forms. (Several variations of these were widely distributed by national anti-draft netwroks, as well as being produced by local groups and individuals.) Registration was in the news almost every day. Draft registration was a major topic of conversation amongst registration-age men and women, and between them and their parents, families, and older friends, throughout that time.
Since the government abandoned the proseuction of nonregistrants in 1987, draft registration has been a low-profile affair. Today's 18-year olds have grown up with registration (without enforcement or visible controversy), and many of them take it for granted or decide whether or not to register without really thinking about it. Some aren't even certain if they registered, and many wouldn't remember exactly where, when, or why they registered.
It wasn't like that at all during those initial mass registration weeks. For those in Obama's and my age group, registration wasn't something we had grown up to expect. Few, if any, of us could take it for granted, or decide what to do about it without having to think about it.
I've been waiting to hear what Obama would have to say about registration and the draft.
I don't know what Obama thought about suddenly being told he was supposed to register for the draft, but I have little doubt that someone like him would have thought about it, and would remember some of that thinking. Registration in 1980 was not likely to have been a casual or automatic choice for a politically active college student born in 1961. If Obama registered, I'd like to know why. And I'd like to know whether, if elected President, he would continue draft registration, or whether he would (a) end draft registration (which could be done with the stroke of a pen, by Presidential Procalamation), and (b) propose legislation to repeal the Military Selective Service Act, end Presidential authority to order draft registration, and defund and abolish the Selective Service System.
Did Obama register with the Selective Service System? And if so, when did he do it? I don't know. One blogger claims to have received confirmation from the Selective Service System that Obama registered at a Post Office in Hawaii on 4 September 1980. I have no independent knowledge of whether this is true, or whether such confirmation of registration status to a third party is consistent with SSS policies. (If, but only if, you know someone's Social Security number and date of birth, anyone can verify their Selective Service registration status on the SSS Web site.)
What's odd is the reported date of Obama's registration:
If Obama registered 4 September 1980, he did so a month after he was supposed to. He wouldn't have been alone: about a quarter of the 4 million prospective registrants (2 million born in 1960 and 2 million in 1961) sat out the initial registration weeks for their cohorts. This was first reported in the Boston Globe, based on their own surveys of Post Offices, with a front-page banner headline on Wednesday, 27 August 1980, to the effect of MILLION SNUB DRAFT , and picked up and publicized around the country in the following days.
Many young men who had taken a "wait and see" attitude toward registration decided to stay away from registration for good once they realized how much safety there was in the numbers of nonregistrants. I don't know why Obama would have chosen the next week to register; it was almost certainly a low ebb in the rate of registrations following the publicity about the level of noncompliance (vastly exceeding the wildest hopes of anti-draft activists) to the initial registration weeks. And it wouldn't be until several years later that the first of the "Solomon Amendments" denying Federal student aid, jobs, and other benefits were passed, in an effort to punish the nonregistrants whose mass noncompliance had rendered registration unenforceable.
Some people registered then, as some still do, in response to family pressure. Others registered later during the govenrment's brief, unsuccessful attempt at intimidation through selective prosecutions of 20 (those whom they believed to be the "most vocal") of the millions of nonregistrants. Still others register years late, in order to protect their eligibility for Federal jobs and other benefits, after they figure they are old enough to be at low risk even if a draft were reinstated.
The Selective Service System accepts late registrations until the registrant's 26th birthday. Knowingly and willfully registering late, or failing to advise the SSS of each address change until your 26th birthday (compliance with the address update requirment is essentially zero) is a Federal felony, the same as not registering at all. But the government's burden of proving knowledge and "specific intent" makes it almost impossible to prosecute. No one has been prosecuted for late registration (or failure to send the SSS notice of a a change of address) since registration was reinstated in 1980. Even during the brief wave of show trials in 1982-1987, those vocal nonregistrants like me who were threatened with prosecution were allowed and officially encouraged to register late, without penalty, up to the time of their indictment. (I didn't choose to do so, but could have.)
Obama almost certainly violated the law by failing to report each of his changes of address to the SSS -- as did almost all of his male peers. But like almost everyone who did so, he probably did so unwittingly, and anyway the statute of limitations has long since expired. (The statute of limitations for nonregistration, late registration, or failure to advise the SSS of address changes expires on your 31st birthday.)
Resistance to draft registration continues today: according to the Selective Service System's Annual Report for 2007 , last year 158,935 names of possible nonregistrants were identified by the SSS (based on data matching) and turned over to the Department of Justice for "investigation and possible prosecution" after they failed to respnd to threatening letters from the SSS. None were prosecuted or, so far as I can tell, contacted in any way by the DoJ. If they had been contacted, they would undoubtedly have been offered another chance to register late.
For more details about both the histoiry and the current status of the draft, draft registration, draft resistance, and the health care workers draft, see my Resisters.info Web site.
[Addendum, 13 September 2008: At a forum on national service at Columbia University on 11 September 2008, both McCain and Obama talked about, although mostly around, the possibility of a draft. But the transcript shows that neither of the two candidates was asked about, or volunteered any comment on, the current draft registration requirement, Selective Service System, or current SSS contingency plans for a general draft or a draft of health care workers.
Meanwhile, VoteVets.org , a political action committee whose sources of funding are unknown but which describes itself as a "pro-military organization founded by Veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan to be the voice of the 21st century patriot' (and with no apparent connection to the better-known Iraq Veterans Against the War ), is buying McCain Means the Draft television ads in an attempt to channel fear of the draft into votes for Obama (rather than into resistance to draft registration, preparations to resist any draft, repeal of draft registration and abolition of the Selective Service System, and/or other anti-war organizing and activism). These ads are very similar to the ads about the draft that were run by other PAC's during the 2004 Presidential campaign, and my opinion of them is similar. VoteVets.org has posted this ad on YouTube com, along with additional background video on McCain and the draft. But the ad is conspicuously absent from the page on the VoteVets.org Web site with the rest of their TV ads.]
[Update, 10 November 2008: The plausibly deniable draft - Obama's very modern take on national service (by J.D. Tuccille, The Examiner, 17 September 2008); Before blogs caught it, Obama site told of requiring students to serve (WorldNetDaily, 8 November 2008); Obama's chief of staff choice favors compulsory universal service (by J.D. Tuccille, The Examiner, 6 November 2008).]
[Further addendum, 19 November 2008: Yet another blogger has posted what they claim is a copy of Obama's Selective Service registration form and registration record, which they claim a third party received in response to a FOIA request. After reading the article and the extremely long thread of comments, I've very skeptical as to those claims, especially as to whether such records would be released without Obama's consent, since to do so would appear to violate the Privacy Act. (Remember the debate over the access by unauthorized government employees, even without public release, of Obama's and McCain's passport records.) FOIA officers have been known to make mistakes, but his one doesn't seem very likely. I have been unable to find any evidence that the purported "FOIA response" or "registration record" actually came from the Selective Service System. Before one gets to the question some are asking, "Was Obama's Selective Service registration record genuine or forged", one would first have to address the question of whether that purported "record', as posted by a conservative blogger, was actually released by the Selective Service System in response to a FOIA request, or whether (as I personally believe was more likely) that document was itself forged to discredit Obama. Some commentators have further claimed that Obama's registration status might affect his eligibility to serve as president, but that's nonsense: even if he had, within the statute of limitations, been convicted of knowing and wilful late registration or failure to advise the SSS of address changes (for neither of which has anyone been prosecuted since 1980), nothing in the Constitution disqualifies criminals from the Presidency. At the end of the day, the real issue is what Obama will do, as President, about the draft, draft registration, and Selective Service.]Link | Posted by Edward on Monday, 8 September 2008, 08:35 ( 8:35 AM) | TrackBack (0)