ACLU: Bush Anti-Terrorism Practices Persist

An American Civil Liberties Union study says President Obama has "enshrined" many of the anti-terrorism practices of the Bush administration — from surveillance to Guantanamo to targeted killings.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

A new study of President Obama's national security policies finds that he has adopted much of his predecessor's approach to fighting terror. The report by the American Civil Liberties Union says President Obama is creating a lasting legal architecture to support policies that were considered controversial, even extreme, under President George W. Bush.

NPR's Ari Shapiro charted the rise of those policies under the Bush administration, and he has this report on where things stand today.

ARI SHAPIRO: The counterterrorism umbrella is large. It covers targeted killing by unmanned drones in Pakistan and warrantless spying in the U.S., prisoners still at Guantanamo, and the defense of CIA interrogators who have been sued.

Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU says in many of these areas, President Obama is enshrining practices created by the previous president.

Mr. JAMEEL JAFFER (Director, National Security Project, ACLU): I don't think that the Obama administration has the same ideological commitment to a global war on terror, or an ideological commitment to an expansion of executive power. But if you look at what's actually happening to the law as a result of the Obama administration's arguments, what you see is a continuation of a pattern that started in the last administration.

SHAPIRO: It's not hard to find examples. Like President Bush, President Obama has locked up some terrorism detainees indefinitely without trial. He has greatly expanded the CIA program that kills people with unmanned drones.

In 2008, before he was attorney general, Eric Holder said this about President Bush's warrantless domestic spying program.

Mr. ERIC HOLDER (Lawyer): These steps were wrong when they were initiated and they are wrong today. We owe the American people a reckoning.

SHAPIRO: Once it became President Obama's spying program and after Congress signed off on it, Holder was more circumspect. Here he is answering a senator who asked whether he still believed that the spying program was illegal.

Mr. HOLDER: The warrantless wiretapping program, as it existed at the point, was certainly unwise in that it was put together without the approval of Congress, and as a result did not have all the protections, all the strength that it might have had.

Mr. PATRICK ROWAN (Lawyer): So much of what they've done is the same set of policies with some tweaks around the margins.

SHAPIRO: This is Patrick Rowan. He served in the Justice Department for years before taking charge of its National Security Division at the end of the Bush administration.

Mr. ROWAN: I don't fault them for continuing most of these policies. I think that they've probably done a pretty good job of marketing their tweaks as something more significant perhaps than they are, and that's a good thing because it tends to garner more support, both internationally and nationally, for the policies.

SHAPIRO: Most senior National Security officials from the Bush administration share this view; they see continuity. But former White House counsel Greg Craig does not. He was the president's top lawyer for the first year of the Obama administration, and he calls this ACLU report disappointing.

Mr. GREG CRAIG (Lawyer): Because it does not adequately take into account the extraordinary progress that the Obama administration has made in changing course from the Bush administration, reestablishing the balance between protecting our national security and protecting our citizens, at the same time remaining true to the rule of law.

SHAPIRO: For example, while the ACLU criticizes the Obama administration for continuing with military trials for some terrorism detainees, Craig points out that the Obama administration changed the rules for those trials.

Mr. CRAIG: The military commissions were radically reformed. There was enormous amount of additional process added and there was a bipartisan majority in the Senate and the House. I can't say that for many pieces of legislation, but that piece of legislation strengthened due process. It shows a break with the Bush administration policy rather than a continuity.

SHAPIRO: This may ultimately be a question of perspective. The same Obama policy changes that Craig calls a strong break may look like tweaks around the edges to members of the Bush team and still amount to continuation of the past in the eyes of the ACLU.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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