Will Obama cave on Bush-Cheney terror policies?

Some early reasons to worry. Plus: Hillary Clinton wins "Hardball Award"?

By Joan Walsh

Published February 19, 2009 11:36AM (EST)

The New York Times' Charlie Savage is a great reporter, and those are worrisome revelations about the way the Obama administration may continue Bush policies on detaining and treating terror suspects in his Wednesday story. (As always, Glenn Greenwald has the best overview today.) But as I said on "Hardball" this afternoon, these moves are still in the realm of maybe.

Obama may continue extraordinary rendition. He may continue to indefinitely detain suspects accused of helping terrorists who are captured outside war zones, keeping them under so-called battlefield law -- even though they weren't war combatants. Savage surfaced some worrisome testimony from CIA Director Leon Panetta as well as Solicitor General Elena Kagan on all those issues. We also learned from Jane Mayer in the New Yorker this week that the administration may endorse a form of preventive detention in the troubling al-Marri case, where a terror suspect has been held without charges or trial, in isolation, for five years.

Again, though, these are all things that might happen; there have been no decisions yet. What's more worrisome, of course, are a couple of moves Obama has already made  -- his Department of Justice used the same Bush administration "State Secrets" defense in two important civil liberties cases, one having to do with warrantless spying and the other with five detainees who are trying to sue the U.S. claiming they were tortured. In both cases, the DOJ is arguing the trials shouldn't proceed because they would reveal state secrets that would damage national security. I don't think that's the sort of change Obama-supporting civil libertarians expected. The president campaigned to restore the rule of law, and to diminish the expanded and dangerous executive powers claimed by Bush and Cheney. Now he seems to be embracing some of them. It's disturbing.

It's worth remembering the good things Obama has already done: pledging to close Guantánamo, banning the CIA's black sites, halting military commission trials, guaranteeing the Red Cross access to detainees, and limiting CIA interrogation techniques. With enough pressure, these possible cave-ins on extraordinary rendition and indefinite detention without charges or trial may never occur. But Obama's FISA betrayal last summer was a signal that he isn't the civil liberties warrior many of us hoped this constitutional law professor would be.

Obama has also appeared to resist any kind of formal investigation into Bush-era interrogation and detention policies, saying he prefers to look forward, not backward. But Abu Ghraib investigator Gen. Anthony Taguba, former FBI Director William Sessions, Amnesty International and the National Institute of  Military Justice, along with other diverse groups, have banded together to call for a commission to investigate those abuses. No word from Obama yet on the Taguba proposal.

It's hard to know exactly why Obama and his team are sending such mixed signals on these crucial issues. Democrats always worry about looking soft on terror and defense, but Obama can make a clear case about the way our abusive detention and interrogation policies have in fact made the U.S. less safe. In Tom Ricks' book "The Gamble," I was struck by the way Gen. David Petraeus and his colleagues came to believe that the asshole-cowboy approach to Iraq -- from Abu Ghraib to the Haditha massacre to detentions for no apparent reason, husbands and fathers and sons who simply disappeared one night -- helped our enemies, not our troops. Ricks quotes insurgents who cited those abuses as the reason they began killing Americans. So returning to the rule of law, in the way we run the war in Iraq and elsewhere, contributes to national security, it doesn't weaken it. Obama's smart enough to know that. Isn't he?

In other only vaguely related news, I enjoyed watching Chris Matthews give Hillary Clinton his "Hardball Award" today. Just a few days late for Valentine's Day! She deserves it, he said, for her "moxie, savvy, basic street smarts" and for her fast start picking a stellar State Department team, "no more letting the world drift toward division." Matthews confessed the award was "long overdue," adding, "I never gave Hillary Clinton the credit she deserved to run for the Senate." He finished, "I salute you!"

I wonder if that will get Clinton in the hot seat on "Hardball" any time soon?


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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