Feature

No more ‘enemy combatants’

The Obama administration plans to drop the term “enemy combatants” to describe detainees held at the Guantánamo Bay prison, but claimed the right to detain without charge suspects who provided “substan

In a symbolic break with the Bush era, the Obama administration has disclosed in a court filing that it would drop the term “enemy combatants” to describe detainees held at the Guantánamo Bay prison. At the same time, the administration asserted that it had the right to detain without charge suspects who provided “substantial” support to al Qaida or its allies—claiming that Congress gave it that power when it authorized the use of force after 9/11. President Bush had argued that the right to detain terrorists wasn’t Congress’ to give, but was inherent in the president’s powers.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the change in terminology was intended to make administration policy conform with international law. But some civil-liberties activists complained that the administration was essentially maintaining the same policy and merely changing the terminology.

Obama is, in fact, playing semantic games, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. The “new standard for detaining terrorists is identical to the old one,” only without the pesky “enemy combatants” label. It’s just the latest example of Obama as president adopting the very policies he attacked as a candidate. “Maybe the problem with President Bush’s policies was that they were President Bush’s policies.”

The problem with Bush’s policies was that they were “dictatorial, illegal, and unconstitutional,” said Andrew Sullivan in TheAtlantic.com. The Obama administration has acknowledged that the president does not have “the inherent power to ignore the Constitution.” After an administration that condoned gulags, torture, and illegal wiretaps, “this is a huge difference.”

How I wish it were, said Glenn Greenwald in Salon.com. “It is becoming undeniably clear that—at least in the realm of civil liberties, executive power, and core constitutional rights”—Obama has embraced many of his predecessor’s bad practices. Until Obama renounces the notion that the executive branch has the right to detain people without filing criminal charges, the changes he is making to Bush’s policies can be dismissed as “cosmetic.”

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