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The Candidates on Homeland and National Security

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Updated: October 31, 2012

Protection of the homeland, whether through counterterrorism or cybersecurity or border control, will be the paramount duty of the next U.S. president. A vast constellation of threats, both foreign and domestic, ensure that homeland security issues, while understated on the campaign trail, will continue to make national headlines in the years to come. Of central concern to the next administration will be forging policies that strike a balance between enhanced security and a defense of individual liberty.

As chief executives--Barack Obama as president and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney as governor of Massachusetts--both candidates have had to make tough political decisions on matters of homeland security. While the Obama White House repealed several controversial Bush-era counterterrorism policies, such as waterboarding, it has expanded on others, as in the case of targeted killings. Romney promoted increases in domestic intelligence gathering that likewise drew the censure of civil liberties advocates.

Barack Obama

Democratic Incumbent, Running Mate Joe Biden

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During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-senator Barack Obama lambasted many of the Bush administration's controversial counterterrorism policies and vowed to rescind them once in office. Executive Order 13491, issued by Obama in 2009, banned the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, on terrorism suspects and ordered the CIA to close its secret "black site" prisons.

Executive Order 13492, also issued in 2009, called for the closure of the detention facility at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and established a task force to review the legal disposition of detainees. However, a series of political developments have since stymied the administration's efforts to shutter the prison, and it remains open. The White House says it remains committed to closing the prison and has implemented subsequent policies, such as a March 2011 executive order, in an effort to maintain a "lawful, sustainable, and principled regime" for long-term detention until the facility can finally be shut down.

The president approved an extension of major provisions of the Patriot Act in March 2011, including court-approved roving wiretaps and the so-called "lone wolf" provision that permits surveillance of persons unaffiliated with known terrorist groups.

One Bush-era counterterrorism policy the Obama administration has expanded on significantly is the controversial practice of targeted killing, often through drone strikes. The Pentagon and CIA have used drone strikes with greater frequency in recent years, both as part of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

In May 2011, President Obama authorized a U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Obama has called bin Laden's death "the most significant achievement to date" in the U.S. effort to defeat al-Qaeda. In a high-profile address from Afghanistan on the anniversary of the lethal raid, the president said the defeat of al-Qaeda is "within our reach."

The Obama administration's "guiding principles" with regard to Homeland Security include defeating terrorism worldwide, strengthening bio and nuclear security, improving intelligence capacity, ensuring cybersecurity, promoting resilient infrastructure, pursuing transborder security, and ensuring effective incident management.

Specific progress the White House cites in these areas include the strategy to fight transnational organized crime, the National Strategy for Counterterrorism, and the Surface Transportation Security Priority Assessment (PDF).

In 2009, the Obama administration conducted a Cyberspace Policy Review and has since supported legislation that mandates minimum cybersecurity standards for companies operating U.S. critical infrastructure, such as the power grid, water systems, and financial markets. However, this legislation has stalled in Congress thus far.

In the third presidential debate held in Boca Raton, Florida on October 22, Obama said that his budget is driven by strategy not politics. He emphasized emerging areas of concern like cyber security and outer space, while also underscoring the need for the defense budget to be constructed in a way that helps to reduce the deficit, because, "we've got to make sure that our economy is strong at home so that we can project military power overseas."

Mitt Romney

Republican Candidate, Running Mate Paul Ryan

Homeland security was a central focus for Mitt Romney in both his stewardship of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and in his Massachusetts governorship (2003-2007). And in many ways, he has positioned himself as an expert in the field. He was the lead governor for homeland security at the National Governors Association and a member of the Department of Homeland Security's Advisory Council.

Held just five months after the 9/11 attacks, analysts say the Salt Lake City Games presented would-be terrorists with an attractive target. The events, of course, passed without incident, and many experts credit Romney for his adroit leadership as president of the Games' organizing committee (HuffPost).

"Of all the governors that we worked with, he was by far one of the most proactive and engaged in the country," said Joshua Filler, former Homeland Security director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination (2003-2005). "The Olympics experience exposed him to some of the very real threats faced by the United States in a post 9/11 world. It was clear that experience played a role in his involvement and thinking on homeland security issues," he said.

As governor, Romney pushed for a national network of intelligence fusion centers (Boston Globe) and established two in the state of Massachusetts. These anti-terrorism hubs, of which there are now seventy-seven countrywide, are designed to support information sharing across local, state, and federal agencies as well as the private sector. Some civil liberties advocacy groups, including the ACLU, have been critical of the centers.

In a 2004 Homeland Security presentation, Romney stressed the importance of intelligence gathering (NYT) and the need to catch "bad guys" before they act. "The eyes and ears which gather intelligence need to be as developed in our country as they were in foreign countries during the Cold War," he said. "Meter readers, E.M.S. drivers, law enforcement, private sector personnel need to be on the lookout for information which may be as useful."

In a 2005 speech at the Heritage Foundation, the GOP nominee once again called for heightened domestic intelligence gathering and broached the prospect of wiretapping mosques and tracking university students from foreign nations. He suggested the United States transition from a homeland security approach based on response to one focused on prevention. "'The key to a multilayered strategy begins with effective prevention, and, for me, prevention begins with intelligence and counterterror activity," Romney said. The comments drew criticism from several faith groups, who claimed the governor was advocating "guilt by association."

If elected president in 2012, Romney has said his homeland security priorities would be cybersecurity and counterradicalization in Muslim communities. Cybersecurity is, in fact, one of eight issues the candidate has vowed to tackle in his first 100 days in office. According to a 2011 white paper, he would "order a full interagency initiative to formulate a unified national strategy to deter and defend against the growing threats of militarized cyber-attacks, cyber-terrorism, cyber-espionage, and private-sector intellectual property theft."

In a speech on foreign policy in October, Romney said despite Osama bin Laden's death al-Qaeda remains a threat. "But al-Qaeda remains a strong force in Yemen and Somalia, in Libya and other parts of North Africa, in Iraq, and now in Syria," he said. "And other extremists have gained ground across the region. Drones and the modern instruments of war are important tools in our fight, but they are no substitute for a national security strategy for the Middle East."

In the third presidential debate held in Boca Raton, Florida on October 22, Romney said "we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world," in reference to his support of the Obama administration's use of drones.

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