Sunday, January 25, 2009


On Thursday, January 22, Pres. Obama signed several executive orders signaling an apparent change in policy for the war on terror, at least as most of the media is portraying it. The president signed an order shutting down the Guantanamo Bay detainee center supposedly within one year, and also acted to close all overseas CIA terrorist detention facilities, and ban harsh interrogation methods in favor of what is provided in the Army Field Manual. The president created a special task force to spend the next six months reviewing interrogation techniques. The new administration already has suspended detainee trials at Gitmo for 120 days pending a review of the military tribunals. The full text of these executive orders can be found here.

But is there more, and less, to all this? The Associated Press notes that...
A task force will study whether other interrogation guidelines — beyond what's spelled out in the Army manual — are necessary for intelligence professionals in dealing with terror suspects. But an Obama administration official said that provision should not be considered a loophole that will allow controversial "enhanced interrogation techniques" to be re-introduced. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the administration's thinking.
Back in November, the Wall Street Journal reported the following: "Upon review, Mr. Obama may decide he wants to keep the road open in certain cases for the CIA to use techniques not approved by the military, but with much greater oversight."

If these measures are based on sound public policy--good. If it is merely symbolism to curry favor with certain constituency groups and media opinion leaders, not so good. Keeping America safe should guide the administration's decisions, not symbolism or media hype.

As far as Gitmo is concerned, complicating matters is that no country has agreed to take these detainees off our hands, so the logistics of the shutdown--if at all--have yet to be worked out. And again, not everyone swept off the battlefield and jailed there is an innocent victim of circumstance. The day after Obama signed off on the executive order, the Associated Press reported the following:
A released Guantanamo Bay terror detainee has reemerged as an al-Qaida commander in Yemen, highlighting the dilemma facing President Barack Obama in shaping plans to close the detention facility and decide the fates of U.S. captives. A U.S. counterterror official confirmed Friday that Said Ali al-Shihri, who was jailed in Guantanamo for six years after his capture in Pakistan, has resurfaced as a leader of a Yemeni branch of al-Qaida.
And the AFP is reporting that two former Gitmo inmates have appeared in a video posted on a jihadist website.

Yet media coverage of all things Obama continues to be fawning. In a sense, this is consistent, since since Obama's candidacy was largely media created and driven. Given the events of the election cycle and the subsequent inaugural hoopla, has there even been a politician with such an extremely thin resume that benefited from this degree of unabashed media cheerleading? Former CBS newsman Bernard Goldberg, who just came out with a new book on this subject, said in an interview that "In my whole life I have never seen the media get on board for one candidate the way they did this time around and -- this is very important -- they did it without even a hint of embarrassment...The media who were on Obama's team, they didn't just put a thumb on the scale; this time they sat on the scale." A similar critique of media behavior is expressed here.

It is not a positive step for our democracy when the press engages in a wholly one-sided presentation. No candidate for high office, regardless of political party or ideology, should ever get a free ride. To suggest that the mainstream news media kept its objectivity and impartiality in the election campaign and its aftermath is like saying the referees in pro wrestling are on the level. But as someone said, in the 2008 election cycle, the Fourth Estate went into foreclosure, and not just because of the ongoing financial difficulties in America's newsrooms.

The former president received (and continues to receive) far different treatment in the press to say the least. And as the media postmortems of the Bush administration continue, it might be useful to review this 2006 special report from the Media Research Center about the mainstream media's war on terror coverage. Whether you agree or not with its premise, the report raises a host of interesting issues.

Oddly enough, apparently the Bush and Obama administrations have found some common ground on one contentious national security issue:
The Obama administration fell in line with the Bush administration Thursday when it urged a federal judge to set aside a ruling in a closely watched spy case weighing whether a U.S. president may bypass Congress and establish a program of eavesdropping on Americans without warrants. In a filing in San Francisco federal court, President Barack Obama adopted the same position as his predecessor. With just hours left in office, President George W. Bush late Monday asked U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker to stay enforcement of an important Jan. 5 ruling admitting key evidence into the case.
UPDATE: The Washington Times reported this "exclusive" on Wednesday, January 28:
President Obama's executive order closing CIA "black sites" contains a little-noticed exception that allows the spy agency to continue to operate temporary detention facilities abroad. The provision illustrates that the president's order to shutter foreign-based prisons, known as black sites, is not airtight and that the Central Intelligence Agency still has options if it wants to hold terrorist suspects for several days at a time. Current and former U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition that they aren't identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said such temporary facilities around the world will remain open, giving the administration the opportunity to seize and hold assumed terrorists.