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No More 'Enemy Combatants' -- But Is Obama Merely Rebranding Bush's 'War on Terror'?

Words matter, as Obama said on the campaign trail. But when it comes to his detention and counterterrorism policies, his actions are speaking louder.

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So, aside from discarding the term "enemy combatant," what is the real difference between the Obama administration's policy on indefinite detention and Bush's?

Not much.

"This seems fundamentally consistent with the positions of the prior administration," Steven A. Engel, a lawyer in Bush's Office of Legal Counsel told the Times.

"Mr. Engel added that the term 'enemy combatant' was not the issue. 'The important point is that they recognize that we can detain members of the enemy' during a war, he said."

This position has been articulated by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who nonetheless issued a statement on Friday saying: "As we work toward developing a new policy to govern detainees, it is essential that we operate in a manner that strengthens our national security, is consistent with our values and is governed by law."

But, especially as it remains unclear what, exactly, is "new" in its detention policies, it is long past the point where Americans should take the words of the Obama administration at face value. This may be a challenge in a time when people still camp out to hear Obama speak and marvel that their president has a basic command of the English language. But, as with the announcement that Guantanamo will close (but the U.S. still has the right to keep prisoners there), that the Iraq war will end (except for tens of thousands of "residual forces"), that torture will not occur on his watch (but renditions will continue), as a news headline, the retirement of the phrase "enemy combatant" conceals the most crucial part of the story.

Glenn Greenwald reminded readers on Sunday: "Bush's asserted power to detain as 'enemy combatants' even those people who were detained outside of a traditional 'battlefield' -- rather than charge them with crimes -- was one of the most controversial of the last eight years. Yet the Obama administration, when called upon to state their position, makes only the most cosmetic and inconsequential changes -- designed to generate headlines misleadingly depicting a significant reversal ("Obama drops 'enemy combatant' label") -- while, in fact, retaining the crux of Bush's extremist detention theory."

So is this "a case of old wine in new bottles," as the Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement released Friday?

For those who spent the Bush years raising hell over the razing of civil liberties, such a declaration is so depressing as to be intolerable. As Greenwald wrote, "the last thing most people want to do is conclude that the Obama administration is continuing the core of that extremism."

"That was why the flurry of executive orders in the first week produced such praise: those who are devoted to civil liberties were, from the start, eager to believe that things would be different, and most want to do everything but conclude that the only improvements that will be made by Obama will be cosmetic ones.

"But it's becoming increasingly difficult for honest commentators to do anything else but conclude that."