ONCE IN OFFICE, PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA MAY SEE THINGS CHENEY’S WAY
OBAMA NOT LIKELY TO REVERSE BUSH AND CHENEY’S EFFORTS,
BUT WILL TRY TO FIND A MIDDLE ROAD ON NATIONAL SECURITY POLICY
President-elect Barack Obama was elected partly to reverse Vice President Dick Cheney’s efforts to seize power for the White House in the war on terror, but it may not be so simple, and Obama may soon find some virtue in Cheney’s way of thinking. In the January 19 Newsweek cover, “What Would Dick Do?” (on newsstands Monday, January 12), Contributing Editor Stuart Taylor Jr. and Editor-At-Large Evan Thomas argue that reversing Cheney’s efforts in the war on terror and national security may leave the country in a weakened position.
In the view of many intelligence professionals, the get-tough measures encouraged or permitted by George W. Bush’s administration-including “waterboarding” self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed-kept America safe. Cheney himself has been underscoring the point in a round of farewell interviews. “If I had advice to give it would be, before you start to implement your campaign rhetoric, you need to sit down and find out precisely what it is we did and how we did it, because it is going to be vital to keeping the nation safe and secure in the years ahead,” he told CBS Radio.
Obama, who has been receiving intelligence briefings for weeks, is unlikely to wildly overcorrect for the Bush administration’s abuses. A very senior incoming official, who refused to be quoted discussing internal policy debates, indicated that the new administration will try to find a middle road that will protect civil liberties without leaving the nation defenseless. But Obama’s team has some strong critics of the old order, including his choice for director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, who has spoken out strongly against coercive interrogation methods. Obama’s administration would do well to listen to Jack Goldsmith, formerly a Bush Justice Department official. Goldsmith worries about the pendulum swinging too far, as it often does in American democracy. “The presidency has already been diminished in ways that would be hard to reverse” and may be losing its capability to fight terrorism, he says. Goldsmith argues that Americans should now be “less worried about an out-of-control presidency than an enfeebled one.”
Soon after taking office Obama will face some difficult choices, such as what to do about the detention of suspected terrorists such as Ali al-Marri, a Qatari graduate student who had legally entered the United States and settled in Peoria, Ill., with his wife and five children. He was seized in 2001 as a suspected terrorist-the long-feared Qaeda sleeper agent, sent to the United States to conduct a suicide attack when given the signal by his terrorist controllers. Al-Marri was charged with credit-card fraud and lying to the Feds, but the charges were dropped when he was put in military detention. His case has become a cause célèbre among civil libertarians, who argue that the government can’t just lock you up indefinitely on suspicion of terrorism. Obama must decide: Will he enrage many of his supporters by adopting Bush’s claim of sweeping power to grab legal residents-and perhaps even citizens-and jail them forever? Or will he let a possibly very dangerous man go, and thereby concede that any Qaeda terrorist who can get into the United States legally is free to roam the country unless (and until) he commits a crime? Both options would be political nightmares.
Dealing with the issue of torture will also be complicated. Waterboarding is a brutal interrogation method, but by some (disputed) accounts, it was CIA waterboarding that got Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to talk. It is a liberal shibboleth that torture doesn’t work-that suspects will say anything, including lies, to stop the pain. But the reality is perhaps less clear. Last summer, the U.S. Senate (with Obama absent) voted to require the CIA to use no interrogation methods other than those permitted in the Army Field Manual. These are extremely restrictive: strictly speaking, the interrogator cannot ever threaten bodily harm or even put a prisoner on cold rations until he talks. Bush vetoed this measure, not unwisely. As president, Obama may want to preserve some flexibility. Obama may want to urge Congress to outlaw “humiliating and degrading” treatment of prisoners. But he might also want to carve out an exception for extreme cases, outlining coercive methods, like sleep deprivation, that could be used on specified detainees. To provide political accountability, the president should be required to sign any such orders, share them with the congressional intelligence committees and publicly disclose their number.