Rethinking nation’s anti-terror policies

Oliphant is a writer in our Washington bureau.

It’s called the president’s daily brief, or, more informally, the “threat matrix.” And it could change the way President-elect Barack Obama views the world and the dangers that exist.

Obama began receiving daily intelligence reports -- the ones given to President Bush -- after the election. They provide a far more detailed look at terrorist threats than he received as a senator or presidential candidate.

“If ever there were proof of the existence of evil in the world, it is in the pages of these reports,” former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft once said about the briefings.

Obama and his national security advisors will probably keep those reports in mind as they consider changes to the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism policies. Civil liberties groups and others have compiled a wish list of sorts, seeking the repudiation of controversial tactics such as domestic surveillance, extended detention, “enhanced” interrogation and “extraordinary rendition.”


“This administration got a chance to make all its own rules,” said Annemarie Brennan of Amnesty International USA.

Now it’s Obama’s turn. But tempering his desire to close the book on an administration that has been accused of violating domestic and international law will be the need to ensure the nation remains protected.

Obama must decide whether to dismantle the legal framework that the Bush administration created after the Sept. 11 attacks, when the White House, Pentagon and Justice Department determined that existing legal processes, both civilian and military, were inadequate to meet the threat posed by terrorism.

Specifically, human rights and civil liberties groups are pushing for the Obama administration to do the following:

* Close the prison at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama has repeatedly expressed his desire to do so. But before that can happen, his administration must review the basis for holding each of the remaining 250 detainees, and decide who should be released, who should be transferred to the U.S. for trial, or whether to continue to hold some indefinitely.

* Dismantle the military commission process for trying accused terrorists and try them in U.S. federal courts. That would present formidable legal issues involving the use of classified information, as well as evidence obtained through possibly illegal interrogation techniques.

* Issue an executive order that ends so-called extraordinary rendition -- the practice of sending an alleged terrorist to another country to be held and questioned -- and revokes a 2007 order that reauthorized the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

* Issue an order that a single standard be used in interrogating terrorism suspects. The military is bound by restrictions that forbid coercive and extreme methods, but the intelligence services are not.


* Scale back amendments passed this year to the federal law that governs the surveillance of foreign agents, and which provided retroactive immunity from lawsuits to the nation’s largest telecommunications companies. Obama supported the amendments but also opposed granting immunity. Until now, he probably did not know the extent to which the surveillance program has provided valuable information.

* Conduct a formal review of Bush administration legal policy and decisions made on interrogation and detention. The White House has been reluctant to make public memos and other papers documenting its conclusions that all of its anti-terrorism programs were within the law.