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Obama Tries To Shift Perceptions Of Terrorism Policy

Over the past year, both the Obama administration and conservative critics have sought to shape public perceptions of the president's national security policies.

U.S. President Barack Obama walks up to the podium to speak about security enhancements in the wake of the attempted airline bombing on Christmas day, at the White House on January 5, 2010 in Washington, DC.
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Above: U.S. President Barack Obama walks up to the podium to speak about security enhancements in the wake of the attempted airline bombing on Christmas day, at the White House on January 5, 2010 in Washington, DC.

As soon as President Obama took office, he sent a strong public message that it was a new day for America's national security posture. In one of his earliest public appearances as president, he announced, "This morning I signed three executive orders. First, I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture."

The second order, he said, was to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the third would establish task forces on detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects.

That break from the past "was vital," says Ken Gude of the liberal Center for American Progress.

"America's global leadership depended, and the credibility of America's political leadership depended, on demonstrating a significant change from the Bush administration," Gude says.

Soon, Republicans such as former Vice President Dick Cheney accused the Obama administration of making Americans less safe by undermining the country's national security infrastructure.

"You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever," Cheney said in a May speech, "or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event ... and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort."

Both characterizations — Obama's and Cheney's — may be false, according to Juan Zarate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"I don't think the administration has helped themselves, or frankly helped the country, by trying so hard to paint their policies as being so radically different from the past," says Zarate, who was a counterterrorism adviser to President Bush. "They're not, and for the sake of the country they shouldn't be."

Since the attempted bombing of an airplane on Christmas, the Obama administration's public statements have done more to emphasize similarities with the Bush administration.

On CNN, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan pointed out that "the last administration released 532 detainees from Guantanamo. During this administration we have transferred 42 of these individuals overseas."

And when Republicans criticized President Obama for moving to try the alleged Christmas Day bomber in criminal court rather than sending him to a military trial, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs compared the alleged bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to so-called shoe bomber Richard Reid, who tried to blow up an airplane in 2001.

"Decisions were made by the previous administration, after looking at all of the factors involved, to enter Richard Reid into our civilian justice system," Gibbs said in a briefing Wednesday.

This new emphasis should not be a surprise, says Gude.

"The Obama administration is just facing withering attacks from the right," he says. "It's quite reasonable that the administration says, 'Wait a minute; we've made some changes, but here are some ways in which we're doing things in similar ways [to] the previous administration.' "

So how similar are the Obama administration's national security policies to those of the Bush administration?

That question is beside the point, says Kate Martin, who directs the Center for National Security Studies.

"The issue of course is, is this a good policy?" Martin says. "It makes it very difficult to have the kind of public conversation we need to have, about is this a wise policy, is it working, in what direction does the United States want to move, because [the debate] has been so politicized."

Besides, Martin says, there's no such thing as the country's national security policy. She says there are thousands of individual policy decisions that politicians and journalists try to combine and smooth out for the American public.

"The world is very complex," Martin says, "and in order to deal with the world we have to understand the complexities of it."

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