Civil Liberties

A Bit of Change

He's closing Gitmo, but will Obama fight a Bush-like "war on terror"?

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Grilled by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the incoming Director of National Intelligence ducked and weaved and, much to the consternation of left-leaning bloggers, refused to say that waterboarding constituted torture. The following day, a CIA drone launched missile strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan, a nominal U.S. ally, killing 20 people. A pre-inauguration story in The Washington Times reminded readers that the new head of the CIA was involved with the "rendition" of suspected terrorists to countries with abysmal human rights records during the Clinton administration. And the president, as he had on the campaign trail, demanded a doubling of troops to Afghanistan, while his vice president warned of "an uptick" in American battlefield causalities.

One could be forgiven in thinking that the above description was written in 2004, during the darkest days of the Bush administration's "war on terror." But it is, rather, a brief summation of President Barack Obama's first week of adventures in the infinitely complex world of American foreign policy. It should come as little surprise that in his uncharacteristically tepid inaugural address, Obama didn't relegate his vision of American power to vague platitudes, but rather declared that American is still "at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." Indeed, although opposed to the war in Iraq (though not a senator at the time of the vote), his appointment of the hawkish Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and his stated desire to "incapacitate" and "kill" jihadists suggests that it isn't foreign wars that he is opposed to—it was that particular war.

This muscular approach to foreign policy will displease few Americans, as the country tends to support an aggressive stance towards terrorism. But amongst segments of the intelligentsia—those who have uncritically celebrated the prospect of "hope" and "change"—one can only expect silent disappointment.

The Obama administration wooed anti-war voters and the left flank of the Democratic Party with promises of shutting down Guantanamo Bay, CIA "black" prisons, and prohibiting "coercive interrogation" against Al Qaeda suspects—and has, within his first week in office, fulfilled these promises. But as is often the case with Obama, who disappointed supporters after flip-flopping on granting immunity to telecom companies involved in NSA wiretapping programs, things aren't exactly how they seem.

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times pointed out that "Under executive orders issued by Obama recently, the CIA still has authority to carry out what are known as renditions, secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries that cooperate with the United States." On black sites, echoing earlier reporting by the Washington Times, the paper further noted that an Obama executive order "appears to preserve the CIA's ability to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects as long as they are not held long-term. The little-noticed provision states that the instructions to close the CIA's secret prison sites 'do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.'"

(Reacting to the story, blogger and Obama supporter Andrew Sullivan complained that "The LA Times got rolled by the usual suspects, who seem not to understand how the program changed under Bush-Cheney." It is unclear just who the usual suspects are, but according to Brookings Institution scholar Benjamin Wittes, in his book Law and the Long War: The Future of Justice in the Age of Terror, the Clinton operations "were not pretty, and they were not all that different—except in frequency—from the ones the Bush administration undertook after the advent of the war on terrorism.")

Keenly aware of the public relations problems Guantanamo created for America in Europe and America's "standing in the world," the Obama administration is now confronting the difficult issue of just what to do with those remaining Gitmo inmates—and just what effect releasing them will have on American public opinion. For instance, just two days after Obama took office, The New York Times ran a front page story on Said Ali al-Shihri, a former prisoner at Guantanamo, that had been released into the care of the Saudi government. He later materialized, with another former inmate, as a leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen, a group that claimed credit for the November 2008 bombing of the American embassy. According to the Department of Defense, 61 detainees have returned to the battlefield after being released as no longer threats to American security. As Obama told reporters last week, preemptively responding to critics on his left, the Guantanamo situation "is more difficult than people realize."

When I asked a reporter with contacts in the intelligence community what the planned closing of Guantanamo meant in practical terms, he was blunt: "If a group of dangerous terrorists are held without public trial in an American prison or military base, as opposed to an American military base in Cuba, have the underlying legal issues changed?" We will, he said, "have to wait and see, as many of the hardest questions on detention and interrogation have been put off for later."

So far, Obama partisans have rushed to the president's defense, claiming that the anti-terror policies held over from the Bush years will be greatly modified, conform with existing law, and safeguard American civil liberties. It is, they are correct to argue, far too early to make such judgments. But one thing is for sure: This is not the rhetoric of the Code Pink candidate, but rather of a leader willing to sidle up to unsavory allies in a war against extremism. And it seems likely that, as journalist Eli Lake argued in The New Republic, anti-war voters might soon discover that rather than electing Jimmy Carter, they might very well have elected Ronald Reagan.

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason magazine.