Ron Radosh

Obama's Wiggle-Room on Counterterrorist Policy

In his inaugural address, Obama laid out his policy for dealing with terrorism.  He said, “We intend to win this fight. We are going to win it on our own terms.”  And on his first day in office, he issued Executive Orders rescinding Bush Administration policy on countering terrorism. This was, as a New York Times story noted, a declaration that “struck a powerful new tone and represented an important first step toward rewriting American rules for dealing with terrorism suspects.”

The executive orders he just signed both closed the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay within one year, and ended the CIA’s secret prisons and use of so-called “harsh interrogation methods;”  i.e., torture. According to the President’s order, all interrogations will have to follow the noncoercive methods outlined in the official U.S. Army Field Manual. Obama also issued an order for cessation of military trials already under way at Guantanamo.

But will these measures prove to be just symbolic?  Those who are complaining about Obama’s reversal of Bush Administration security policy have not paid attention to the wiggle-room he has left himself.  Certainly Obama does not want our nation hit again by a terrorist attack during his watch. What would the public say if one did occur, and it became clear that the United States had captured al-Qaeda or other terrorists who might have known about the operation before it took place, but that all efforts to get them to talk via Army Field Manual methods had produced only silence?

Should such a scenario occur, Americans would be up in arms about the Administration’s failure to do what was necessary to protect us. That is why, I think, Obama issued an Executive Order that can easily be replaced with another if he deems it necessary.  Two tasks forces have already been set up by the President. The first, led by the Attorney General and Secretary of Defense, will report to the President about detainee policy at Guantanamo.

The second task force will include both of the above men as well as the Director of National Intelligence, and will study whether or not the Field Manual will be the only standard to be adopted by interrogators.  Among other things, it will review the process of “extraordinary rendition,” in which captured terrorists are sent for interrogation to other countries such as Egypt, many of which are known to use torture as their primary method of questioning.

Obama said that “we can abide by a rule that says, We don’t torture, but we can effectively obtain the intelligence we need,” but in appointing two task forces, he makes it clear that he is covering all bases, so that if it is determined interrogators must go further, he can squeak out of his first Executive Order and do so by saying he is taking the advice of his trusted appointees who have studied the situation.

As Ben Johnson points out on, Admiral Michael McConnell has argued that the intelligence community needs “interrogation techniques beyond what’s in the Army Field Manual.”  And Lt. General Randall Schmidt testified in 2005 to the Senate Armed Services Committee that data from others who were tortured had provided “extremely valuable intelligence.” And outgoing CIA director Michael Hayden testified in February that two of the three al-Qaeda figures who had been waterboarded gave the Agency one-quarter of the information it got about al-Qaeda operations.

That is why Dennis C. Blair, who will soon be confirmed as the new Intelligence Director by the Senate Intelligence Committee, as the Times so gingerly put it, “left open the possibility that techniques beyond the 19 currently approved for military interrogators could be authorized.” And, he added, some of them would have to remain secret to be effective, and thus prevent potential captured terrorists from training to resist them. So, in reality, Mr. Blair seems to be saying, the Obama administration intelligence apparatus will be as secretive and careful in doing what is necessary as had the outgoing Bush Administration.

This, no doubt, will enrage people who were the fiercest Bush critics. That is why Senator Dianne Feinstein (D, Ca) announced that she would soon call for new legislation by Congress that would mandate one single standard for both military and CIA interrogators. As Feinstein acknowledged, an Executive Order can be rescinded by the President, and an actual law would make it harder to revert back to use of torture. As the newspaper report stated, liberal groups supported Feinstein’s call for a law, “because they were concerned about what the task forces might propose.” And an Amnesty International spokesman said “we view with concern some of the outstanding questions,” despite their approval of Obama’s new Executive Orders.

Clearly, since they know of the testimony by intelligence community leaders arguing against reliance solely on the Army Field Manual, they have good reason to be afraid that the task force established by President Obama will reach a more measured conclusion than that which he set forth in the first day’s Executive Order. And in the midst of a real crisis in which solid intelligence is needed, it is more than likely that President Barack Obama, who is smart, will listen closely to and adopt the recommendations made by his own commissioners.  Thus coming down the pike may be an important confrontation between Obama and Congress.