Obama Lawyers Split on Detentions

President Obama was expected to quickly turn the page on President Bush’s detention policies, and yet, over a year into his presidency, we’re still finding that the page is stuck: The New York Times looks at the schism within the Obama administration over counterterrorism powers. Administration lawyers, particularly within the State Department and the Pentagon, are split over the extent of the White House’s power. The Times recounts several internal White House battles. Early on, the Obama team said it would revise Bush’s sweeping detention policies by limiting its detentions of people without trials to members and “substantial supporters” of al Qaeda. But last summer, some lawyers argued that an Algerian “supporter” who helped al Qaeda recruits travel to Afghanistan was not as detainable as actual al-Qaeda fighters. In a secret memo, Harold Koh, the State Department’s top lawyer, said there was no backing in the laws of war for the Algerian man’s detention; the Pentagon’s top lawyer, meanwhile, argued for a flexible definition of whom could be detained. Rather than answer the question, the administration simply redefined the man as effectively part of al Qaeda, rather than just a supporter.