Bush policies he reviled are crux of Obama’s arsenal

Guantanamo trials highlight what he’s kept

This month’s revival of terrorism trials at Guantanamo Bay underscores President Obama’s reliance on counterterrorism tools he inherited from George W. Bush.

While Mr. Obama has been a frequent critic of Mr. Bush as a war president, the record shows he has embraced, and even expanded, groundbreaking policies and operational techniques — from increased government surveillance to enhanced special operations — left by his predecessor.

Bush administration alumni are arguing that the anti-terror measures they created in the hectic first years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have stood the test of time.

“President Obama and members of his team criticized severely a number of aspects of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism that they have since found it necessary and useful to embrace,” said Douglas Feith, the Pentagon’s top policymaker in those early war years.

Mr. Feith said one of the most important concepts came as the Pentagon and World Trade Center still smoldered.

Mr. Bush’s declaration that “this is war” — not a law enforcement exercise — has been employed in key Obama strategy documents and is used as a legal basis to assassinate terror suspects via airstrikes and to hold them indefinitely.

At first, the Obama administration shunned the terms “war,” “war on terrorism” and “global war.” John Brennan, the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser, said in Mr. Obama’s first year in office that the word “war” only applied to al Qaeda and its allies.

The Washington Post unearthed an internal memo that asked agencies to refrain from using the terms “long war” or “global war on terror.” “Please use ‘overseas contingency operation,’ ” the memo said.

But that distinction seems to be missing from subsequent declarations. When Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. justified assassinating Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen in Yemen, he said: “We are at war with a stateless enemy, prone to shifting operations from country to country.”

The ‘at war’ distinction

Mr. Obama’s first extensive military strategy, the Pentagon’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, states in the opening paragraph: “We are a nation at war.”

“The most significant thing Bush did in reaction to 9/11 was saying this cannot be handled as we handled previous terrorists attacks, as a law enforcement matter,” Mr. Feith said.

“He launched what he called the ‘war on terrorism,’ and as we know, that idea [that] we were at war was intensely criticized. But this administration, [in] their statement of defense strategy, they start off saying, ‘We are a nation at war.’ So it’s very interesting that Obama has not only endorsed it but highlighted the idea we’re at war.”

P.J. Crowley, a National Security Council aide to President Clinton and former spokesman for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said Mr. Obama has made “very real” changes in how Mr. Bush approached the war.

“Tiger Woods and I play the same game, but we don’t play it the same way,” Mr. Crowley said. “We are not at war with terrorists. We are at war with a specific network, al Qaeda.

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