After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bush waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have forged a military so skilled that it carried out a complicated covert raid with only a minor complication. Public tolerance for military operations over the past decade has shifted to the degree that a mission carried out deep inside a sovereign country has raised little domestic protest.
In bin Laden victory, echoes of the Bush years
And a detention and interrogation system that Obama once condemned as contrary to American values produced one early lead that, years later, brought U.S. forces to the high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and a fatal encounter with an unarmed Osama bin Laden.
But the bridge connecting the two administrations has also led Obama to the same contested legal terrain over how to fight against stateless enemies and whether values should be sacrificed in the pursuit of security.
“We in the Obama administration absolutely benefitted from an enormous body of work and effort that went into understanding al-Qaeda and pursuing bin Laden,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
“There’s also a broader set of legal questions that we’ve been wrestling with, and some have not been resolved,” Rhodes said, such as the closing of the military brig at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where some of the al-Qaeda leaders who provided the early clues that led to bin Laden’s hideout were held. “The reason is that there’s is no consensus in this country for how to do so.”
Obama invited Bush to join him Thursday at the former site of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, where the president plans to lay a wreath and meet with families of those who lost relatives in the attacks. Bush declined the invitation.
Obama campaigned against the ends-justify-the-means legal system adopted by the Bush administration to capture, detain, question and try terrorist suspects, including those at the center of bin Laden’s pursuit.
After pledging to close Guantanamo within a year of taking office, Obama has failed to do so, and he has chosen to alter, rather than scrap, the Bush-era military commission system to try terrorist suspects. Human rights groups have called the changes improvements.
Obama has abolished the use of harsh interrogation techniques, which some Bush administration officials say produced essential intelligence in the hunt for bin Laden.
As former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Sean Hannity on Tuesday, “I think that anyone who suggests the enhanced techniques, let’s be blunt, waterboarding, did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence just isn’t facing the truth.”
Benjamin Wittes, the research director in public law at the Brookings Institution, said that “the executive branch does not fundamentally alter its nature when a presidency changes.”
“It’s very easy to focus on changes in interrogation guidance or standing detention authority,” Wittes said. “But the truth is three successive administrations have really made a priority out of capturing, finding and killing Osama bin Laden, and there’s a lot of continuity in that.”