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How Different Is Obama from Bush on Terrorism?

Author: Noah Feldman
September 3, 2010
Foreign Policy


After five years of waiting, Omar Khadr was finally slated to go on trial in Guantánamo Bay this summer--and then suddenly, the gears ground to a halt. The problem was not that Khadr was just 15 years old when, according to the charges, he threw a grenade in a 2002 firefight in Afghanistan and killed a U.S. soldier. Nor was Barack Obama's administration having second thoughts about restarting the military tribunals that had been stopped when he took office. Instead, the problem lay in the criminal charge against Khadr: fighting without a uniform. According to news reports, Harold Koh, the legal advisor to the State Department, pointed out that CIA agents and private contractors who fire missiles from U.S. drones are civilians too. By charging Khadr with a war crime, the United States might be opening its own operators to the same charge.

This week, a judge set a new and theoretically final date for Khadr's trial, Oct. 18. But the defendant's long journey to the courtroom perfectly encapsulates the difficulties facing the Obama administration when it comes to the legal war on terror. First there are holdover problems from the previous administration: Guantánamo itself, the detainees held there, and some aggressive but not always well-thought-out legal theories. These are troubling to advocates of international law -- some of whom, like Koh, a longtime human rights champion, now work for the government and cannot possibly be happy about, for example, life imprisonment for a crime committed by a 15-year-old child soldier. Then there are new legal challenges associated with the administration's own national defense strategies--especially the use of drones, which has increased substantially in recent years.

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