Not-So Epic Differences Between Obama and Bush-Cheney
By Paul Street at May 21, 2009
Tonight on the Evening News and Propaganda at the Disney division of American State-Capitalist Television, Big Brother Charles Gibson (ABC) dedicated the first 10 minutes or so to the day's supposed "epic battle" between Empire’s New Clothes Barack Obama and the recently deposed messianic militarist Darth Cheney on torture, civil liberties, "counterterrorism," and America’s inherently (under received imperial doctrine) wonderful "values." The point of this spectacular news extravaganza over Obama and Cheney’s dueling same-day speeches today was (among other things) to propagate the false belief that U.S. citizens enjoy a wide spectrum of political and policy choices when it comes to differences between the two wings (Democrat and Republican) of their ruling U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Pentagon Party. We enjoy no such broad spectrum under the current conditions of corporate-managed democracy, but the dominant ideology says we do and if there's one thing corporate media news producers do it is disseminate received doctrine.
Interestingly enough, Obama and Cheney aren’t really all that far apart on torture, civil liberties, and other core issues related to state repression, the national security state, and “America’s [inherently wonderful and noble] values and mission.” Don’t take it just from me a radical lefty like me. Listen to Harvard Law professor and former Bush OLC lawyer Jack Goldsmith, who recently criticized what he calls “The Cheney Fallacy” in the pages of the centrist journal The New Republic.
The “Cheney fallacy” is the inaccurate belief that (in Goldsmith's words) “the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies.” According to Goldsmith, a Republican, “The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric.”
Here (below and in italics) is Goldsmith’s run-down of how similar Bush II and Obama’s so-called “counterterrorism” policies actually are (it is quite unintentionally consistent with radical-left notions of basic imperial and repressive convergence between the two factions of
The Bush approach to counterterrorism policy included eleven essential elements. Here is the Obama position to date on each.
1. War v. Crime
A bedrock Bush principle was that the threat posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates required the president to assert military war powers. The legality of controversial policies like military detention, military commissions, and targeted killings depends in the first instance on the
President Obama has announced that he is closing the detention facility at
3. Military detention
Many Obama supporters thought he would oppose the detention of terrorist suspects without trial. But not so. Last month Secretary of Defense Gates hinted that up to 100 suspected terrorists would be detained without trial. And a few weeks ago the Obama Justice Department filed a legal brief arguing that the president can detain indefinitely, without charge or trial, members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, "associated forces," and those who "substantially support" these groups, no matter where in the world they are captured. Federal district court judge Reggie Walton correctly noted that the Obama administration refinements drew "metaphysical distinctions" with the Bush position that seemed to be "of a minimal if not ephemeral character." The Obama refinements might preclude detention of some suspected terrorists who would be detainable under the Bush regime, but only at the margin. The core Bush legal position remains in place.
4. Habeas Corpus
During the campaign former professor Obama spoke eloquently about the importance of habeas corpus review of executive detentions of enemy soldiers. Habeas corpus is "the foundation of Anglo-American law" and "the essence of who we are," he said. But his administration has applied this principle in the same narrow fashion as the late Bush administration. It has argued that
5. Military Commissions
On his first day in office, President Obama sought a 120-day suspension of military commissions that many viewed as their death knell. But last week the Obama administration said it would revive military commissions. The main impetus for this decision, according to The Washington Post, is that the new administration, like its predecessor, concluded that its cases "would fail in federal courts or in standard military legal settings." The new commissions rules have not been published but they will apparently disallow evidence obtained from coercion, admit hearsay only if it is reliable, and give detainees more freedom to choose their attorneys. These are not large changes from the Bush rules as they stood in 2008. Under the Bush regime military judges could and did suppress evidence obtained from coercive interrogations (though not to the same degree as they will be able to do under Obama) and declined to admit unreliable hearsay. And the Obama alteration on defense lawyers does not appear substantial. So, if we map the distance between the rights that suspected terrorists would receive under Bush military commissions and the rights they would receive in civilian trials, suspects tried in Obama military commissions gain relatively little from the Bush baseline.
6. Targeted Killing
Targeted killing is another Bush administration policy being continued, and indeed ramped up, by President Obama. The new administration has used unmanned predator drones to kill suspected al Qaeda targets in
The Obama administration has said that it will continue renditions--the practice, dating back at least to the
8. Secret Prisons
While the Obama administration has not rejected rendition to third countries, it has dismantled the Bush system of secret overseas prisons (so-called "black sites") and thus has eliminated rendition to and detention in these prisons. Although the Bush administration used these facilities little in recent years, this seems like a departure from the Bush era. But even here the Obama practice may be closer to the late Bush practice than meets the eye. President Obama's executive order barring the CIA from using "detention facilities" contained a loophole for "facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis." The degree to which the Obama policy is a true departure from the late Bush practice thus depends on the administration's (probably secret) interpretation of what it means to detain someone on a "short-term, transitory basis."
In the summer of 2008, candidate Obama voted to put President Bush's unilateral warrantless wiretapping program, which he had opposed as an abuse of presidential power, on a legally more defensible statutory basis. Obama supported the bill even though it gave telecommunication firms that cooperated with President Bush immunity from lawsuits, a provision Obama disliked. In office, President Obama has not renounced or sought to narrow any of the surveillance powers used by the late Bush administration, and has not sought legislation to reverse the telecom's immunity. Nor has he yet acted to fulfill his campaign pledge to significantly strengthen the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board that oversees and protects civil liberties in intelligence gathering. The Obama surveillance program appears to be identical to the late Bush era program.
10. State Secrets
The state secrets doctrine allows the government to prevent the disclosure of evidence in court based on its view that the disclosure would endanger national security. Candidate Obama criticized the Bush administration's use of this doctrine. But in at least three lawsuits growing out of Bush-era surveillance and rendition practices, the Obama Justice Department endorsed the same broad view of the state secrets privilege as the Bush administration. President Obama said last month that "the state secret doctrine should be modified" to make it a less "blunt instrument," and his lawyers are seeking ways to narrow the doctrine in some cases. But it is unclear how far this initiative will go, and in any event for now the Obama position is the Bush position.
On his first day in office President Obama signed an executive order requiring the CIA to use only the relatively benign techniques approved by the military field manual. He later released and rejected Department of Justice legal interpretations of the Torture statute and related laws. This is a large change in announced policy from the Bush administration, and the change that the former Vice President seems to like least. But it is less of a departure from the late Bush practice than meets the eye. Several reports suggest that a 2006 Supreme Court ruling, legislation concerning interrogation that same year, and growing public opprobrium led the Bush team, by 2007, to narrow the range of CIA-approved interrogation techniques, especially as compared to 2002-2003. Moreover, the Obama executive order established a task force to study whether the CIA should be able to use different interrogation techniques than the military, and CIA Director Panetta supports tougher interrogation techniques for his agency in some circumstances. As a result, the jury is still out on the differences between CIA interrogation techniques used during the late Bush administration and those ultimately used by Obama's CIA.