A recent Supreme Court filing from Obama's lawyers included a section about the state-secrets privilege, arguing that it was rooted in the Constitution in much the same way that Bush-era lawyers had once done. The passage was not an important part of the filing itself, but it reflected the position of Obama administration lawyers and was troubling for many liberals. “On the campaign trail and in more recent statements, President Obama has indicated that he wants to limit the use of the state secrets privilege,” wrote Adam Liptak in today’s New York Times. In courtrooms, however, there has been little evidence of a new approach.” Liberals have a right to be concerned.
As anyone in Washington knows, the rules change, but bureaucracies remain the same. Obama is so different from his predecessor that it is hard to imagine that he would do the kinds of things in office, yet many of the people working for him either worked for Bush or do not see the need for change. Earlier this year, Obama’s advisers from the Office of Management and Budget, for example, recommended a program in which soldiers would rely on private insurance companies to help pay for the care of their war wounds, a continuation of the Bush administration’s aggressive attempt to privatize the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans’ advocates flipped out, and Obama agreed to meet with them: He was not interested in hearing about core principles behind veterans’ care, and instead wanted to know whether or not the plan would work. (It was dropped.) He was impatient with the sweeping rhetoric that often characterizes White House meetings, and his remarks reflected a more pragmatic approach than was shown by Bush.
It seems like a positive change, but it can also be misinterpreted or misused by his advisers. Many of them may be so intent on short-term goals, whether saving money or withholding embarrassing documents by using the state-secrets privilege or having the Defense Department -- rather than the State Department -- handle public diplomacy (as Matt Armstrong pointed out), that they are convincing Obama to continue Bush’s policies. In other words, the advisers are quietly garnering support for some of the more disturbing policies of the Bush administration, in the realm of secrecy and in other areas, too.