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Obama Tries To Shift Perceptions Of Terrorism Policy

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Obama Tries To Shift Perceptions Of Terrorism Policy

National Security

Obama Tries To Shift Perceptions Of Terrorism Policy

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Lawyers for the Obama administration argue in court today that detainees at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan should not have the same court access as those held at Guantanamo. That turns out to be the same position the Bush administration lawyers took. We have more this morning from NPRs Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO: As soon as President Obama took office, he sent a strong public message that it was a new day for Americas national security policy.

President BARACK OBAMA: This morning I signed three executive orders. First, I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture.

(Soundbite of applause)

SHAPIRO: The second executive order was to close Guantanamo. And the third set up task forces on detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects.

Ken Gude of the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress says President Obama had no choice.

Mr. KEN GUDE (Center for American Progress): It was vital. In fact, America's global leadership depended, and the credibility of America's political leadership depended on demonstrating a significant change from the Bush administration.

SHAPIRO: Almost immediately, Republicans accused the Obama administration of making Americans less safe. In May, former Vice President Dick Cheney put it this way...

Vice President DICK CHENEY: You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event - coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort.

SHAPIRO: Both characterizations of dramatic change may be false, according to Juan Zarate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was a counter-terrorism advisor to President Bush.

Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Center for Strategic and International Studies): I don't think the administration has helped themselves, or frankly helped the country, by trying so hard to paint their policies as being so radically different from the past, when in fact they're not, and for the sake of the country they shouldn't be.

SHAPIRO: And in the days since the Christmas bombing attempt, the rhetoric has shifted. The administration is suddenly emphasizing continuity rather than change.

On CNN, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan pointed out that President Bush released many more Guantanamo detainees than President Obama.

Mr. JOHN BRENNAN (White House Counterterrorism Advisor): And let me put some facts out here. The last administration released 532 detainees from Guantanamo. During this administration we have transferred, in fact, 42 of these individuals overseas.

SHAPIRO: And when Republicans criticized President Obama for indicting the alleged Christmas Day bomber rather than sending him to a military trial, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs pointed to a similar incident from the Bush years. In a briefing yesterday, Gibbs mentioned Richard Reid, who tried to blow up an airplane in 2001.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Spokesman): Decisions were made by the previous administration, after looking at all of the factors involved, to enter Richard Reid into our civil justice system.

SHAPIRO: This heightened emphasis on similarities to the Bush administration should not be a surprise, says Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress.

Mr. GUDE: The Obama administration is just facing withering attacks from the right. It's quite reasonable that the Obama administration says, hey, wait a minute - yes, we've made some changes, but here are some areas where we're doing things in similar ways from the previous administration.

SHAPIRO: But this is all about optics and spin. The question remains: how similar is the Obama administration's national security policy to that of the Bush administration?

Kate Martin, who directs the Center for National Security Studies, says that's the wrong focus. She says when you emphasize similarities and differences, you fall into a political trap that misses whether a policy is fundamentally good or bad.

Ms. KATE MARTIN (Center for National Security Studies): And it makes it, I think, very difficult to have the kind of public conversation we need to have about is this a wise policy, is it working, you know, in what direction does the United States want to move, because it's been so politicized.

SHAPIRO: Besides, says Martin, there's no such thing as the country's national security policy. There are thousands of specific policy decisions.

Ms. MARTIN: You know, the world is very complex, and in order to deal with the world we have to understand the complexities of it.

SHAPIRO: But she says, for politicians and journalists, sometimes it's easier to smooth over the complexities.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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