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Obama continues, extends some Bush terrorism policies

President Barack Obama has continued to pursue some of the same anti-terrorism policies as the Bush administration, and, in at least one instance, expanded upon them.  

In the clearest example, Obama has authorized more than 300 overseas drone strikes against suspected terrorists as president – that’s compared to an estimate of roughly 50 such strikes under President George W. Bush – even as Obama has proposed new restrictions governing the policy.  

And on Wednesday, it was revealed that the Obama administration has requested wholesale collection of data from Verizon related to routine phone calls many Americans make, a continuation of the FISA program passed under the Bush administration. 

On those issues and in his inability to make changes he wants in other policies – most notably the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detainee facility – the president’s record in fighting terrorism has in ways reflected the same approach he previously campaigned against. 

After pledging in 2008 to deliver change from Bush and his policies on fighting terrorism, Obama has changed policies in some important ways. His administration has repudiated enhanced interrogation techniques of suspected terrorists that were criticized as torture, ended the war in Iraq and is drawing down the American commitment to Afghanistan. 

And as recently as last month in speech at the National Defense University, Obama all but declared an end to Bush’s war on terror.  Under Bush’s presidency, he said, “I believe we compromised our basic values – by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.” 

Still, there has been continuity in the policies between the two presidents.  

In overseas operations, both Bush and Obama have relied on power as commander in chief and the 2001 congressional authorization to use force.  

Harvard University law professor Jack Goldsmith – who served as a key Justice Department official in the Bush administration – said last year that Obama’s first term began with high expectations of a break with Bush terrorism policies.

But, Goldsmith said, Obama continued many of Bush’s policies, partly because once he became president, he was no longer merely a critic but now the person entirely responsible for ensuring the safety of the nation and saw the threats differently.

Goldsmith also said that as a candidate in 2008 Obama had campaigned against the Bush policies of 2003 and 2004, but those policies – such as conduct of military commissions -- had been reformed by the time Bush finished his term in January 2009.

“The late Bush administration policies were dramatically different from than the early Bush administration policies and Barack Obama admitted this… in March of 2009,” Goldsmith said.

The most visible continuation and expansion of Bush’s strategy has been in his use of unmanned aerial weapons, or drones, to kill suspected terrorists in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. 

According to testimony in April before the Senate Judiciary Committee by Peter Bergen, the director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, the CIA drone program began under Bush “with one strike in Yemen in 2002, and then a smattering of strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2007 before a more sustained campaign in 2008. During his two terms in office, Bush authorized a total of 48 strikes in Pakistan.” 

But Bergen said that upon taking office in 2009, Obama “almost immediately made drones one of his key national security tools. By mid-April 2013, he had already authorized 307 strikes in Pakistan, six times more than the number of strikes carried out during President Bush's entire eight years in office.” 

During the Bush administration, Bergen said, “the drone campaign appeared to put emphasis on killing significant members of al Qaeda but under Obama, it underwent a quiet and largely unheralded shift to focus increasingly on killing Taliban foot soldiers.” 

On searches of telecommunications data, Obama as a candidate in 2008 disappointed some of his supporters by voting for an addition to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which revised surveillance rules in terrorism cases and granted immunity to telecommunications companies that participated in Bush’s warrantless surveillance program.

In a statement to supporters in 2008, Obama acknowledged that the legal immunity for telecom firms “potentially weakens the deterrent effect of the law and removes an important tool for the American people to demand accountability for past abuses.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein discusses reports that the NSA has been keeping records of cellular phone numbers.

But he said under the circumstances, the bill was the best available and “makes it clear to any president or telecommunications company that no law supersedes the authority of the FISA court.”

He said the FISA court would “watch the watchers to prevent abuses and to protect the civil liberties of the American people.”

American University law professor Stephen Vladeck said “The FISA Court order here is troubling, but it’s on a very different level from the (Bush era) warrantless wiretapping program” for two reasons.

First, Vladeck said, “nothing in these orders allows the government to eavesdrop — to actually listen in or otherwise obtain the content of our phone calls. Instead, the order is about the ‘metadata’ — basically everything about the call other than its content.”

He added, “That’s still problematic from a privacy perspective in my view, but it’s not a difference in kind from information to which the government already had theoretical access; it’s just a mind-boggling difference in degree.”

He said that “although it’s tempting to see this as President Obama continuing the legally problematic surveillance practices of his predecessor, it’s important to understand the very real differences, too. That doesn’t make this development any less distressing from a civil liberties perspective, but from a separation of powers perspective, to compare the two administrations is to compare apples to oranges.”

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