Officials in the Obama administration have shown signs of discord in formulating national security policy. Different officials are approaching the government’s anti-terrorism policy from different angles, making it difficult for the Administration to find and maintain a consistent position.
The division over counterterrorism strategy flared up most recently when Administration officials struggled with articulating the government’s position on the Belkacem Bensayah detention case. Bensayah is an Algerian man arrested in Bosnia as a supporter of terrorism and is currently held in Guantanamo. The New York Times documented the debate between the State and Defense Departments’ top lawyers, Harold Koh and Jeh Johnson. While Koh argued that the laws of war did not support the U.S. government’s detention of Bensayah, Johnson argued for a more flexible interpretation of these laws. In the end, the government chose not to resolve the debate and instead pursued a different tactical approach.
Disagreement about what strategy to adopt in the Bensayah case was not the first indication of division over national security issues within the Obama administration. In April 2009, Attorney General Holder faced strong opposition from intelligence officials over whether to release the “torture memos” written by the Office of Legal Counsel during the Bush administration. Eventually, the government released four of the memos, which documented “increased pressure phase” interrogation techniques approved by the Justice Department under President Bush.
The long-term consequences of the Administration’s division over national security tactics are still unknown, but officials so far have been modest in changing the previous approach towards the war. It appears that disagreement has resulted in a general policy of moderation in counterterrorism tactics, with court briefs taking positions that are less broad than many Bush administration policies. At the same time, however, the Administration has been able to make united national security policy decisions in significant areas. For example, State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh recently argued that drone strikes in Pakistan were justified under the laws of war and were necessary to achieve important U.S. foreign policy goals.
The Obama administration’s division over key national security policy issues is consistent with the trends of previous administrations. The Bush administration’s conflict about interrogation tactics was well-documented by later books and articles. For example, Jack Goldsmith has described the vitriolic conflict among the White House, the Attorney General’s office, and the Office of Legal Counsel over the Bush administration’s wiretapping policy in The Terror Presidency.
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