Liberal in domestic issues, Obama a hawk on war

Sunday - 2/10/2013, 2:02pm EST

LARA JAKES
AP National Security Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- For all of his liberal positions on the environment, taxes and health care, President Barack Obama has proved to be a hawk when it comes to fighting terrorism.

From deadly drones and secret interrogations to withholding evidence in terrorism lawsuits, the Democrat has followed the path of his predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush. The U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains open despite Obama's pledge to close it, and his administration has pursued leaks of classified information to reporters even more aggressively than did Bush's.

"They have maintained momentum in a lot of important areas that we were focused on, and they've continued to build in those areas," said Ken Wainstein, the White House homeland security adviser and a top Justice Department lawyer under Bush. "You can see an appreciation for the severity of the threat, the need to stand up to it, and the need to go on offense at times."

This past week's confirmation hearing for Obama's nominee to lead the CIA showed just how much Washington -- Democrats especially -- has come to accept the same counterterrorism policies that drew such furor in the first years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, refused to say that waterboarding was a form of torture but he called it "reprehensible" and said he would not allow it if he were CIA director. He also said he didn't know whether any valuable information was gathered as a result. His testimony was received by a mostly friendly panel of senators, and his confirmation is expected to move forward soon.

In October 2007, by contrast, Bush's nominee for attorney general, Michael Mukasey, called waterboarding "repugnant" but also refused to say whether it was torture. His confirmation was delayed for three weeks and nearly derailed.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Obama has stopped or softened a number of Bush's security tactics, including ending harsh interrogations, closing secret prisons and, overall, trying to be more transparent about counterterrorism policy. But he noted that Obama has delivered on his campaign promises to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, take the battle to al-Qaida in Pakistan and Yemen before its members can attack the U.S., and to end the war in Iraq.

"Yes, we're still fighting al-Qaida, but I think there are very few people who would take issue with that," Vietor said Friday. "This president does what he says he's going to do, and I think that's noticed around the world."

Obama's embrace of many of Bush's counterterrorism policies did not hurt him in his re-election bid last year. In one key rejection of Bush's legacy, Obama repeatedly has said he believes waterboarding -- the interrogation tactic that simulates drowning -- is torture and illegal and that it will not be used under his watch.

But Brennan, a career CIA officer who has been Obama's counterterrorism adviser since 2009, told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday that because he was not a lawyer he could not answer whether he personally believes waterboarding is torture. The CIA waterboarded at least three al-Qaida detainees before the tactic was banned in 2006.

The parallels between Obama's and Bush's security policies were on sharp display in the run-up to Brennan's hearing, At issue was the use of unmanned drones to kill suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens, overseas.

A newly surfaced Justice Department memo from 2012 outlined the Obama administration's decision to kill al-Qaida suspects without evidence that specific and imminent plots were being planned against the United States. At Thursday's hearing, Brennan defended the missile strikes by the drones, saying they are used only against people who are considered active threats to the U.S. -- and never as retribution for earlier attacks.

In a way that Bush did not, Obama has sought congressional approval of laws that he then uses as the basis of many of the counterterrorism policies he has carried over from his Republican predecessor. He successfully lobbied Congress three times to renew the USA Patriot Act, the 2001 law that lets the government put roving wiretaps on U.S. citizens' phones with a secret court order and obtain other personal and financial records with no judicial approval at all.

White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the strikes as legal under a 2001 law authorizing the use of military force against al-Qaida. CIA drones also have been used in attacks, including the 2011 killing in Yemen of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric with suspected ties to at least three attacks planned or carried out on U.S. soil: the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting that claimed 13 lives in 2009, a failed attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner the same year and a thwarted plot to bomb cargo planes in 2010.