Half a dozen former Bush administration anti-terrorism officials have told the New York Times that they support President Barack Obama’s approach to fighting terrorists, but won’t go on the record for political reasons.
According to an article by Peter Baker, published at the New York Times Magazine Monday, some of the unnamed former Bush officials say they fear reprisals from former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has been relentlessly attacking elements of the Obama administration’s foreign policy since the president’s inauguration.
Others said that calling attention to the “continuity” between Bush-era policies and current policies would only make it harder for Obama to stay the course. And yet others are reportedly staying quiet because they don’t want to help a president who has severely criticized their former boss.
In the piece published Monday, Baker reported that these former officials weren’t concerned about the direction of counter-terrorism strategy under Obama — only about the repercussions of saying so on record.
A half-dozen former senior Bush officials involved in counterterrorism told me before the Christmas Day incident that for the most part, they were comfortable with Obama’s policies, although they were reluctant to say so on the record. Some worried they would draw the ire of Cheney’s circle if they did, while others calculated that calling attention to the similarities to Bush would only make it harder for Obama to stay the course. And they generally resent Obama’s anti-Bush rhetoric and are unwilling to give him political cover by defending him.
That revelation has some political bloggers bemused.
“It’s really staggering what this says about the ethical caliber of the people we’re talking about,” writes Matthew Yglesias at ThinkProgress. “Obama is, they think, doing the right thing. But some of them don’t want to say he’s doing the right thing because that might make Dick Cheney mad and they’re timid, gutless careerists? And others don’t want to say he’s doing the right thing because their feelings are hurt that a Democrat said bad things about his grossly unpopular Republican predecessor? For this they’re going to undermine support for policies that they themselves believe are keeping the country safe?”
OBAMA POLICY A CONTINUATION OF BUSH ERA?
Baker’s NYT Magazine piece fleshes out the debate over whether Obama’s terrorism strategy marks a significant break with the policies of the previous Republican administration, or whether it represents a continuation and entrenchment of those policies.
Baker points out that numerous senior officials in the Obama administration are hold-overs from the Bush years, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and Deputy Defense Secretary Michael Vickers. Gen. David Petraeus remains the commander overseeing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But Baker notes that the people who remain from the Bush era are mostly regarded as moderates who opposed some of the more extreme policies and ideas of the Bush administration.
Michael Hayden, the last CIA director under Bush, was willing to say publicly what others would not. “There is a continuum from the Bush administration, particularly as it changed in the second administration as circumstances changed, and the Obama administration,” Hayden told me. James Jay Carafano, a homeland-security expert at the Heritage Foundation, was blunter. “I don’t think it’s even fair to call it Bush Lite,” he said. “It’s Bush. It’s really, really hard to find a difference that’s meaningful and not atmospheric. You see a lot of straining on things trying to make things look repackaged, but they’re really not that different.”
And Baker also notes that the counter-terrorism policies Obama inherited when he took office were already significantly altered from the frantic years immediately after the 9/11 attacks.
The battle with terrorists evolved significantly over the course of the Bush presidency, and when Obama took office, the course he set was more about accelerating that evolution than about restarting it. Under pressure from Supreme Court rulings, Congressional legislation and disclosures in the news media, Bush in his second term trimmed back some of his most expansive programs and claims to executive power. Two years before leaving office, he told advisers he wanted to use his remaining time to institutionalize what was left so that his successor, even a Democrat, would not feel compelled to reverse direction.
Yet that idea seems to be politically unappetizing to the White House. Baker notes that, despite the record of continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations, White House insiders are loathe to be seen as maintaining Bush-era polices — perhaps the reason Obama made shutting down the Guantanamo detention facility his first executive order.
“A senior Obama adviser scoffed at the idea that Bush advisers see continuity, arguing that they are trying to launder their reputations by claiming validation,” Baker wrote.
But perhaps one of the most poignant points in the article comes from White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan, who argued that the political argument over terrorism policy being played out in the news media is creating the sort of internal political conflict that groups like al-Qaeda want to see.
“A lot of the knuckleheads I’ve been listening to out there on the network shows don’t know what they’re talking about,” he told me after the Christmas Day attempt. Some Republicans, including Cheney, were blatantly mischaracterizing the record, he fumed. “When they say the administration’s not at war with Al Qaeda, that is just complete hogwash.” It was the angriest I had heard him during months of conversations. “What they’re doing is just playing into Al Qaeda’s strategic effort, which is to get us to battle among ourselves instead of focusing on them,” he said.