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In Selling Its Version of the "War on Terror," Obama Is Adopting Bush's Playbook

Under Obama's Justice Department, "change" means nothing more than turning "enemy combatants" to "Nobodies Formerly Known As Enemy Combatants."

This article was originally published at Future of Freedom Foundation.

Changing the names of things was a ploy that was used by the Bush administration in an attempt to justify some of its least palatable activities. In response to the 9/11 attacks, for instance, the nation was not involved in a limited pursuit of a group of criminals responsible for the attacks, but instead embarked on an open-ended “War on Terror.” In keeping with this “new paradigm,” prisoners seized in this “war” were referred to as “detainees,” and held neither as criminal suspects nor as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, but as “enemy combatants,” without any rights whatsoever. Later, when the administration sought new ways in which to interrogate some of these men, the techniques it endorsed were not referred to as torture -- even though many of them clearly were -- but were instead described as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

The Obama administration has clearly learned a trick or two from its predecessors. In its response to a court request for clarification of the meaning of the term “enemy combatant,” for use in the Guantánamo prisoners’ habeas corpus reviews (which were triggered by a momentous Supreme Court decision last June), the new government has responded to the challenge with a cunning sleight of hand. In a press release, the Department of Justice announced that it had dropped the use of the term “enemy combatant,” and that it had adjusted its definition of those who can be detained so that, instead of holding people who were “part of, or supporting, Taliban or al-Qaeda forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners,” individuals who supported al-Qaeda or the Taliban “are detainable only if the support was substantial.”

As benign-sounding propaganda, in contrast to the Bush administration’s arrogant version, which almost always manifested a tangible disdain for Congress and the judiciary, this announcement has the alluring veneer of the “change” that Barack Obama promised throughout his election campaign, but in practical terms nothing has actually changed. The prisoners are now nobodies, with no label whatsoever to define their peculiar extra-legal existence, and the entire rationale for holding them without charge or trial -- and the egregious errors made along the way -- remain unaddressed.

In its filing with the District Court ( PDF), delivered in response to a deadline of March 13, the government made clear that it was largely business as usual. In its opening salvo, the Justice Department claimed that the laws of war, which “include a series of prohibitions and obligations … developed over time,” and which “have periodically been codified in treaties such as the Geneva Conventions,” or have otherwise “become customary international law,” are nonetheless “less well-codified with respect to our current, novel type of armed conflict against armed groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban.”

With this “current, novel type of armed conflict” standing in as a more palatable version of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” the Justice Department proceeded to defend the President’s authority, under the terms of the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was passed by Congress within days of the attacks, “to detain persons who he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and persons who harbored those responsible” for the attacks, as well as “persons whose relationship to al-Qaeda or the Taliban would, in appropriately analogous circumstances in a traditional international armed conflict, render them detainable.”

This statement raises a second flag of alarm, as this horrendously open-ended piece of legislation may have been appropriate at the time, but it was used by the Bush administration as the foundation stone on which all its subsequent forays into illegal and unconstitutional actions were based (including, it should be noted, holding these “detained persons” without charge or trial at Guantánamo for seven years), and it is disconcerting to realize that a conversation we should be having -- which involves responding to the question, ”Is it justifiable, seven years and seven months after the 9/11 attacks, to claim that we are still involved in an open-ended and ill-defined ‘war’?” -- has, instead, been swept aside.