ADVICE+DISSENT:Intelligence File Measure of Change

President Obama follows in the footsteps of Bush-era policies.

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." That declaration in President Obama's inaugural address was meant to put some distance between the policies of his administration and those of his predecessor. But nearly six months into the 44th president's term, how many of George W. Bush's most controversial counterterrorism and intelligence tactics has the new commander-in-chief changed?

Not many. While Obama has eschewed the more bellicose rhetoric of the Bush years, replacing the term "global war on terror" with the euphemistically superior "overseas contingency operations," Bush policies remain either in effect, unresolved or at the ready.

Obama has adhered most closely to Bush's program of electronic surveillance of terrorism suspects. For years, the Bush administration conducted that intelligence gathering outside the purview of a special court set up to grant surveillance warrants. As a senator, Obama opposed changes to law that would have brought the surveillance process under court review, but still effectively legalized much of what the Bush administration had done. But as the 2008 election drew nearer, Obama changed his stance. He eventually voted for expanded authorities and for legal immunity for any companies that assisted with post-Sept. 11 surveillance. Even after news reports in April revealed that the National Security Agency had collected information beyond what was allowed by law, Obama gave no signal that he'd stop massive surveillance or seek to change the law. Indeed, his attorney general, Eric Holder, reportedly made adjustments to keep the program in line and then asked a federal judge to recertify it.

Terrorist "rendition," the practice of capturing suspects and depositing them with other governments, is also still on the table for Obama. Indeed, his administration has assessed rendition as a valuable tool, despite the fact the CIA has sent innocent people to countries that use torture as a regular interrogation tactic.

To that point, shutting down prisons, on Obama's second full day in office he ordered the U.S.-run facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, closed within one year. That might prove easy enough. But deciding the fate of the more than 200 people held there hardly is. Obama convened a special panel to figure out how to deal with them-through the courts, perhaps, or by handing the suspects over to other countries. But make no mistake. If the government cannot come up with a way to process the detainees, they simply will be incarcerated in another place, possibly the United States.

Finally, no Bush policies have inspired more passionate debate than interrogation. The Obama administration has said the use of certain techniques such as suffocation by water, better known as waterboarding, was torture. Obama has banned waterboarding and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. Then he established a panel to review whether the tactics that are allowed, and that are enumerated in the Army Field Manual, are sufficient for dealing with suspected terrorists in custody. The CIA director also has said publicly that if he felt the only way to extract intelligence about a pending attack was to use harsh interrogation techniques on a prisoner, he would not hesitate to ask the president for permission.

In assessing the measure of change from Bush to Obama, it's worth remembering a broad truth: Presidents usually don't give up their authorities willingly. Obama has not bucked that trend. In that sense, he's not just acting like Bush. He's acting like the president.

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.