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Obama Hasn't Entirely Abandoned the Bush Playbook

Is President Obama adopting some of his predecessor's signature anti-terror tactics?

A New York Times story this morning says it looks that way. And there have, indeed, been a few instances lately in which Obama has gravely disappointed civil libertarians, who thought he could be relied upon to make a clearer and more immediate break with Bush across the whole range of terror-related issues -- especially after he declared in his inaugural address that he would "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."

Charlie Savage writes: "Even as it pulls back from harsh interrogations and other sharply debated aspects of George W. Bush's 'war on terrorism,' the Obama administration is quietly signaling continued support for other major elements of its predecessor's approach to fighting Al Qaeda."

His evidence includes:

"In little-noticed confirmation testimony recently, Obama nominees endorsed continuing the C.I.A.'s program of transferring prisoners to other countries without legal rights, and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without trials even if they were arrested far from a war zone.

"The administration has also embraced the Bush legal team's arguments that a lawsuit by former C.I.A. detainees should be shut down based on the 'state secrets' doctrine. It has also left the door open to resuming military commission trials.

"And earlier this month, after a British court cited pressure by the United States in declining to release information about the alleged torture of a detainee in American custody, the Obama administration issued a statement thanking the British government 'for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information.'

"These and other signs suggest that the administration's changes may turn out to be less sweeping than many had hoped or feared — prompting growing worry among civil liberties groups and a sense of vindication among supporters of Bush-era policies."

The notion that Obama would endorse any of Bush's most extreme claims of extra-legal authority is certainly alarming. And his administration's decision to press ahead with a ridiculously broad interpretation of the state secrets privilege last week was nothing less than shocking.

Savage, incidentally, writes that wasn't an accident: White House Counsel Greg Craig told him that Attorney General Eric Holder and others "reviewed the case and 'came to the conclusion that it was justified and necessary for national security' to maintain their predecessor's stance." Although, Savage adds: "Mr. Holder has also begun a review of every open Bush-era case involving state secrets, Mr. Craig said, so people should not read too much into one case."

I also think there is a definite possibility that -- in the name of conciliation, or even protecting presidential power -- Obama will end up aiding and abetting those who want to keep Bush's darkest deeds secret.

And that he is keeping some options open -- for instance when it comes to potentially going beyond the Army Field Manual's interrogation techniques in specific cases or holding terror suspects indefinitely -- is worrisome and should make journalists and advocates approach his final decisions with skepticism.

But it's also important not to forget how much of the Bush legacy Obama has rejected. He has clearly ruled out any sort of interrogation techniques that violate torture statutes and international agreements. He has clearly ruled out scooping people off the streets and whisking them to secret prisons or countries that will torture them. He has announced that he will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Craig insisted to Savage "that the administration was not embracing Mr. Bush's approach to the world" and "urged patience as the administration reviewed the programs it inherited from Mr. Bush."

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon that "while believing that Savage's article is of great value in sounding the right alarm bells, I think that he paints a slightly more pessimistic picture on the civil liberties front than is warranted by the evidence thus far (though only slightly)."

Greenwald concludes: "[W]ho and what Barack Obama is when it comes to the restoration of our core civil liberties and Constitutional protections remains to be seen."

Meanwhile, Jane Mayer writes in the New Yorker that the case of alleged al Qaeda sleeper agent Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri -- who has been held in isolation in a Navy brig for more than five years without standing trial -- is emerging as a major test for Obama.

"No matter how Obama responds to the case, his decision is likely to arouse controversy. [Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union,] says, 'If President Obama is serious about restoring the rule of law in America, they can't defend what's been done to Marri. They would be completely buying into the Bush Administration's war on terror.' This view is widely held by Obama's political base. Yet the political risks of change are obvious." The Bush administration theorized that Marri came to America in order to help carry out a second wave of terrorist attacks.

"[A] compromise idea has also emerged, which the Obama Administration is weighing. A number of national-security lawyers in both parties favor the creation of some new form of preventive detention. They do not believe that it is the President's prerogative to lock 'enemy combatants' up indefinitely, yet they fear that neither the criminal courts nor the military system is suited for the handling of transnational terrorists, whom they do not consider to be ordinary criminals or conventional soldiers. Instead, they suggest that Obama should work with Congress to write new laws, possibly creating a 'national-security court,' which could order certain suspects to be held without a trial....

"[S]uch a compromise is sure to alarm many human-rights advocates and civil libertarians, who regard indefinite detention as antithetical to the American legal system's most basic tenets."

Mayer quotes former Bush attorney general John Ashcroft predicting that "in the end, President Obama's approach to handling terror suspects would closely mirror his own: 'How will he be different? The main difference is going to be that he spells his name "O-b-a-m-a," not "B-u-s-h." '"

But consider what Craig, the White House Counsel, told Mayer about the issue of indefinite detention: "'It's possible but hard to imagine Barack Obama as the first President of the United States to introduce a preventive-detention law,' Craig said. 'Our presumption is that there is no need to create a whole new system. Our system is very capable.'...

"Obama's legal team is aware that every step it takes will be seen as an indication of core convictions. Craig, who will coördinate the revamping of the Bush Administration's legal policies on terrorism, said, 'One way we've looked at this is that we own the solution. We don't own the problem — it was created by the previous Administration. But we'll be held accountable for how we handle this.'"

And in a somewhat related story, R. Jeffrey Smith and Joby Warrick write in The Washington Post that although Obama "endorsed new protections for national security officers who blow the whistle on abusive, corrupt or illegal behavior, by offering them the right to sue for damages and challenge denials of their security clearances," finding the path to a new policy on federal whistleblowing has become much more complicated because he kept on "a Republican-appointed secretary of defense strongly opposed to those changes."

By Dan Froomkin  |  February 18, 2009; 12:23 PM ET
Categories:  Bush Rollback , Looking Backward  
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So it appears we will have a kinder, gentler, elected Monarch then we had in the Bush regime. I feel better already.

Posted by: Bushy | February 18, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

I would welcome a death by Al Qaida. I think the chances of that are as good as a snowball's chance in hell, but it would be a welcome relief to the Capitalistic terrorism that Bush fueled. That slow, methodical torture that we are feeling from our own domestic capitalistic terrorists, is much more painful than any swift AQ beheading could possibly be.

Posted by: jfern03 | February 18, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

The Republicans get elected and implement right wing extremists policies. Democrats take over and undo some of them, but not all of them because that's just rude and we all want to play nicely together. Republicans regain control and steamroll government more extremist policies. Dems undo some of the damage.

Repeat ad nauseum until your country is unrecognizable.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | February 18, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

"entirely" is a pretty weak word

obama has embraced most of the bush playbook

when was the last time an elected official warned us about a "catastrophe" in order to effectuate controversial policy in a divisive way?

Posted by: dummypants | February 18, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

BHO's approach to anti-terrorist tactics appears to be another example (such as his touted commitment to bipartisanship) of an inexperienced Commander-in-Chief smashing his vehicle of idealistic expectations into a real world 18-wheeler. The depth and complexity of the problems he faces (not just national security) will require a fast learning curve, lots of flexibility, and plenty of self confidence. I hope he does not become a victim of self inflicted wounds resulting from too many rosy promises made to a impatient American public.

Posted by: MillPond2 | February 18, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

This is just more of the usual media habit of trying to create something out of nothing to get the next big scoop.

Obama throughout the campaign has demonstrated that he was not prone to knee-jerk reactions and he carefully though about issues. Given that the Bush administration refused to disclose many of the details of their anti-terror policies until people were sworn in on inauguration day it's hardly surprising that they haven't reviewed everything.

Eric Holder has been AG for only a week and Leon Panetta has only been head of CIA for a few days.

People should not expect the past 8 years to be undone in a couple of weeks with knee-jerk rejections of everything Bush has done. Its simply not the way Obama rolls. He's going to get careful input from all sides and then he's going to make a decision.

If we're here a year from now and nothing has changed then we can worry. Otherwise stop hyperventilating, because the press has been known to make incorrect predictions from time to time.

Posted by: troyd2009 | February 18, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

While it's important for Democrats to insist on better policy, it's also important we recognize the value of even moderate change, and not fall into the trap of the false equivalency between Obama and Bush.

Believe me, Republicans would like nothing more than to sow brand confusion at this point.

Posted by: kszimmerman | February 18, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Couldn't we just turn over Comrade Bush for his War Crimes while he's in Canada, and allow Canada to hold the suspected Chinese al-Qaeda for us?

After all, what are friends for?

Posted by: WillSeattle | February 18, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

They forgot to mention that the "illegal eavesdropping on americans" is being continued also.

The Obama administration will likely use the FISA court ruling as justification

So would the media outlets and other people who used these security measures like international phone tapping apologize?

Posted by: Cryos | February 18, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

'Couldn't we just turn over Comrade Bush for his War Crimes while he's in Canada, and allow Canada to hold the suspected Chinese al-Qaeda for us?

After all, what are friends for?

Posted by: WillSeattle | February 18, 2009 3:04 PM"
Canada wouldn't let Bill Ayers into the country recently. He was turned away at Toronto LOL.

Posted by: Cryos | February 18, 2009 4:37 PM | Report abuse

What a shock! The annointed one hasn't been completely truthful with his loyal subjects. Better start getting used to it.

Posted by: AkCoyote | February 18, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

So now the media and the left (but I repeat myself) are shocked, shocked! that Obama has discovered that, gosh, the world is a dangerous place and that there are those who *really want to kill us.*

Why, it's almost as though Obama was reminded that his number-one job is to ensure the safety of the United States -- and that he'd be a fool to discard useful *and legal* tools and methods to do so.

Or would you prefer to discover, after a successful terrorist attack, that Obama had the power to prevent it -- but decided not to use that power?

Posted by: PaulinNJ | February 18, 2009 5:52 PM | Report abuse

I agree with troyd2009 and kszimmerman. We aren't even a month into this administration and the expectations of change are unrealistic (or just plain nuts). I am willing to give it a year or more for changes to national security and two years or more for an economic turnaround. These things take time. Also, the expectations of change from the extreme left were never realistic - just misinformed fantasy incubated in their deep hatred of all things Bushco. I hope Obamaco doesn't swing the pendulum hard to the left and can end the vicious cycle that BigTunaTim so aptly described. Hope, man, but keep a close watch anyway.

Posted by: mraymond10 | February 18, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

When Bush was first elected, the whining liberals never gave an inch and the insults and ridicule started before he was ever sworn in. Now we have Obama the fraud. He has NO experience running anything and spent so little time in the senate that he doesn't even know all the stages a bill must go through to get passed. He's clueless when it comes to economics (to get out of a hole he just keeps digging) and he still thinks he can reason with people who cut off heads for fun. Funny how he could ridicule the 'failed policies of the Bush administration' but when he doesn't know what to do, he adopts those very same policies. This guy should be a comedian.

Posted by: AkCoyote | February 18, 2009 6:37 PM | Report abuse

in a year we can look back and thankfully recognize that obama at his worst is better than the bush/cheney mafia were at their the missing lord of antigua
clearing brush in crawford or hunting with cheney?

Posted by: wofat | February 18, 2009 7:05 PM | Report abuse

Right, Obama is just like Bush. Say it again. There's no difference between Bush and Obama. Bush and Obama are the same. With one exception. One inherited more than a 100 billion bucks surplus and one inherited an eviscerated economy. No, but really, they're exactly the same. Republicans should have nothing to complain about.

Posted by: thebobbob | February 18, 2009 7:44 PM | Report abuse

So Chaney was right when he predicted that the Obama adm will or should keep most of the programs of the past 8 years with reference to counter-terrorism. Which president will want to be blamed for not doing enough to prevent another terrorist attack even if it meant subverting your cherished Bill of Rights. As Cheney may flippantly say: "Deal with it"

Posted by: pingchen | February 18, 2009 8:35 PM | Report abuse

"One inherited more than a 100 billion bucks surplus and one inherited an eviscerated economy."

So you believe that the president directly controls the economy, and you further seem to think that Bush deliberately trashed it. Well, there's no reasoning with some people.

Posted by: PaulinNJ | February 19, 2009 7:26 AM | Report abuse

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