So Like Bush
- Has increased the Bush practice of using drones to kill terrorists
- Signed an executive order in 2009 to shut down Guantanamo Bay, set up by Bush, but it’s still running
- Disavowed torture, but continues Bush practice of extraordinary rendition—the extrajudicial transfer of a prisoner from US to another country
- Signed a four-year extension of the Patriot Act, brought in by Bush to give government powers to conduct roving wiretaps and search business records in pursuit of terrorists.
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama ran as the anti-Bush, fuelling expectations with his catchy campaign slogans of hope and change. But as the 44th President of the United States, Obama has embraced and even expanded some of his predecessor’s controversial national security policies, disappointing supporters and prompting critics to accuse him of morphing into the man he had sought to replace.
“We had very high expectations when President Obama took office,” says Delphine Halgand, director of the Washington office of Reporters Without Borders. “For the moment, we have been pretty disappointed.”
That disappointment acquired an even sharper edge by what Obama, a former professor of constitutional law, said earlier this month. After a thorough assessment of Bush’s policies and expanded oversight, he had reached the conclusion that they help prevent terrorist attacks.
It only goes to show one thing, say civil libertarians. Candidates, unfettered by the realities of governance, often make bold pronouncements only to quietly brush them under the carpet when they actually assume office. And Barack Obama is no exception.
“President Obama has embraced policies that Candidate Obama denounced because President Obama understands what Candidate Obama did not: to deal adequately with the threats to the United States, the US government must combat terrorist networks with a full toolbox, one that includes not just the tools of peacetime law enforcement but also the tools of wartime intelligence and military assets,” says Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, Durham. “Candidate Obama’s critique was also based on a caricature of what the Bush administration was doing rather than on reality. Candidates can talk in caricatures, but presidents must govern in reality.”
This bit of hell broke loose for Obama early this June when Britain’s Guardian newspaper splashed whistleblower Edward Snowden’s account of how the Obama administration, through a secret court order, collected the phone records of millions of wireless customers in the US and gained access to even more detailed information from major internet firms like Google and Yahoo (see box).
“As a candidate, President Obama distanced himself from many of the national security policies of President Bush. When it comes to surveillance policy, it seems there has been no change at all,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ project on government secrecy, which works to reduce the scope of government secrecy in practice. The New York Times, which twice endorsed Obama for president, said in an editorial that he had lost all credibility on this issue. Members of the US Congress, however, who have been regularly briefed on the surveillance programme, defended the practice, despite the uproar.
The Obama administration itself has gone to great lengths to explain that its policy has much stricter oversight than the Bush administration’s. “But for people who worry about these things,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, “distinctions are not very significant.”
For, when it comes to counter-terrorism, Obama seems to have lifted a page straight out of Bush’s playbook. He has ratcheted up the use of drones to kill terrorist suspects outside the US. Despite signing an executive order on January 22, 2009, to shut down the controversial military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, he has been unable to do so. This is due to a combination of a lack of cooperation from US allies, obstructionist tactics from the Congress, a lack of urgency from the courts, and a lack of real willpower on the part of the president himself, says Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law. “But the real problem here is not whether or not to close Guantanamo; the problem is whether or not to end our programme of military detention without trial in general,” he added. “And until and unless the president and Congress are committed to ending that policy, we’ll have a Guantanamo—it just might be somewhere else,” he added.
In 54 other nations perhaps, as a scathing report this February by the national security and counter-terrorism programme of Open Society Justice Initiative in New York pointed out. Titled ‘Globalising Terror’, the report followed the case of 136 terror suspects at the CIA’s own detention centres or ‘black sites’ and 54 other countries which use torture for interrogation. This despite Obama signing an executive order early in his presidency disavowing torture. “But the executive order did not repudiate extraordinary rendition, and was crafted to preserve the CIA’s authority to detain terrorist suspects on a short-term transitory basis prior to rendering them to another country for interrogation or trial,” says Amrit Singh, a senior legal officer at Open Society Justice Initiative and the author of the report. Daughter of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Amrit, unlike her father, has been a vocal critic of the Bush and Obama administrations’ counter-terrorism policies. She did not respond to a request for an interview, but her report outlines how the Obama administration had failed to effectively investigate secret detentions and has not ended the practice of extraordinary rendition—the illegal detention and transfer of terrorist suspects. Instead, she writes, it has chosen to “rely on anti-torture diplomatic assurances from recipient countries and post-transfer monitoring of detainee treatment.” Torture continues despite assurances.
Even the media seems to have fallen prey to this excessive preoccupation of the Obama administration’s with national security, with its elements of overcorrection. The Justice Department had seized the records of Associated Press journalists, it was revealed this May, and accused a Fox News reporter of engaging in a conspiracy to commit treason for doing his job. The administration has also initiated a record six prosecutions against alleged whistleblowers accused of leaking national security secrets. Only three whistleblowers have ever been prosecuted before.
“This is a real war atmosphere against whistleblowers, which has a huge, chilling impact on potential whistleblowers in general but also on reporters covering national security issues in particular,” says Halgand. “It seems that the administration is more interested in defending national security interests than the freedom of the press.” Obama’s critics can’t stop gloating over the comparisons to Bush—it’s like something come full circle. “Drone strikes. Wiretaps. Gitmo. O is carrying out Bush’s 4th term,” Ari Fleischer, who served as Bush’s spokesman, wrote on Twitter.
To others, the comparisons are unfair. “In some respects, it’s certainly true that some of the counter-terrorism policies of the Obama administration bear at least a superficial resemblance to those of the Bush administration. But there’s a critical difference in the legal justifications,” said Vladeck. “Part of what was so unprecedented about the claims of the Bush administration was the extent to which it claimed the power to act unilaterally, not just without Congress, but often in outright defiance of statutory limits on the president. Here, by contrast, the Obama administration’s policies are virtually all grounded in specific legislative authorisation. That certainly does not make them any better from a privacy or civil liberties perspective, but it’s an important philosophical difference in the basis for these policies.”
Obama officials rubbish any comparison. “In every case, this president’s policy has been different,” Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney told media. Didn’t he pull out of the war in Iraq?
Also, disappointed they maybe, but Americans haven’t given up on Obama yet. “We hope this series of scandals could be an opportunity to translate promises into action,” says Halgand.
By Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington