The Obama administration can be expected to execute homeland security and counterterrorism policy in a substantially different framework than the Bush Administration. Multilateralism rather than unilateralism and efforts to work within U.S. and international law, rather than rise above it, are likely to be priorities. Unlike Bush, Obama is not inclined to make a battle against global terrorism the focal point of his presidency or the primary measure of his success. At the same time, underlying trends that preexisted the Bush administration will not be undercut, at least not in the short term. These trends include the growth of a more substantial security architecture in the United States, and a greater focus on terrorist and other irregular threats in the defense arena. Below, find 5 areas where some change will likely be visible.
1. Setting the Tone: Less Martial, More Conciliatory
The role that terrorism plays as a symbolic and practical issue will be different. Terrorism, the 'war on terror' and the idea of a 'wartime president' provided the centripetal focus of the Bush presidency, from the September 11, 2001 attacks onward. Obama focused on the economy in the months leading up to the election, rather than on security. In this, he mirrored not only American, but global, concern about the plunging economic situation. Obama will not replicate Bush's sweeping, holistic approach to terrorism, nor use the rhetoric of a "global war on terror." In practice, his foreign policy approaches are unlikely to homogenize distinct regional conflicts as versions of the same "terrorism."
2. Homeland Security: Slow Changes in Emphasis over Time
Though it may roll off the American tongue with ease at this point, "homeland security" is a neologism coined by the Bush Administration. The symbolism of a "homeland," and its connotation of an ethnically exclusive territory, is likely here to stay. Whoever heads the Department of Homeland Security is less likely to institute dramatic changes than to seek to manage inherited issues, while refining the mandate of the youngest government department. These inherited issues will include developing systems to manage the department's huge acquisitions and contracting needs, which were critiqued in a November 2008 GAO report. Long term shifts in national priorities could include a reduction in the resources expended in the name of homeland security, or allocations could shift away from technological solutions to presumed problems toward more analysis, in the interest of understanding and assessing national security needs.
Obama's pick for the head of Department of Homeland Security is Arizona governor Janet Napolitano. Her experience with immigration issues, as the leader of a border state, is a signal to many observers that Obama intends to pursue Napolito's centrist approach. Immigration standards were tightened considerably in the name of terrorist threat under the Bush administration.
3. Treatment of Terrorism Suspects: Less Irrational, More Constitutional and Attentive to Due Process
Objections to the current treatment of terrorism suspects stem largely from the 2006 Military Commissions Act. This act legalized interrogation practices that amount to torture, stripped defendants of their right to challenge their accusers (habeas corpus), and established special military tribunals to try suspects. Obama opposed the bill at the time, and is consistently on record as opposed to torture. However, it is unclear at this juncture what steps he will take to refine these, with the exception of closing down Guantanamo Bay. He may move to repeal the Military Commissions Act, which has been urged from various quarters.
News reports citing Obama advisors suggest that there is almost no chance that Obama will seek to bring war crimes or other charges against those who authorized torture in the Bush Administration.
4. Civil Liberties in the United States: Trend toward Surveillance Will Contine with Better Governmental Oversight, Attention to Citizens' Rights
By all accounts, Americans' civil liberties were reduced in the name of terrorism during the Bush Administration --there are only differences of opinion on whether this was a good or bad occurence. The PATRIOT Act, passed by Congress in October 2001, expanded the ability of the government to watch private Americans' activities and collect information about them, and strengthened barriers against aliens' entry to the country, including through indefinite detentions.
The PATRIOT Act as a whole will remain in place. Obama has promised to review the constitutionality of such legislation as soon as he gets into office. Many find his selection of Eric Holder reassuring, since Holder has spoken out against such excesses. An Obama administration might reinstate or insert oversight requirements into legislation that has the capacity to threaten individual privacy. Bush routinely disregarded or circumvented requirements for Congressional oversight.
A certain degree of increased government and private sector cooperation on sharing information about private individuals, and increased government surveillance of its citizens, is here to stay, however. No government will roll back trends in surveillance technology, and government surveillance habits, that began well before 2001. The September 11, 2001 attacks helped make intrusions palatable that were not when, for example, they were proposed in counterterrorism legislation during the Clinton administration.
5. Bioterrorism and Nuclear Terrorism: Greater Focus
Nuclear, biological and cyberterrorism will receive priority attention under Obama. He made combating the potential of nuclear terrorism part of his campaign platform. A few months before the election, he charged the Bush administration with failing to adequately confront nuclear terrorism. A report issued immediately following by the election, by Harvard's Belfer Center and sponsored by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, urged the president in dramatic terms to take immediate steps to forestall the chances of a nuclear weapon falling into terrorist hands. Obama leveled similar charges against Bush regarding bioterrorism and nuclear terrorism.