June 1, 2009
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.
June 1, 2009