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Timeline: How Obama Compares to Bush on Torture, Surveillance and Detention

This piece was originally published May 10, 2012. We’ve updated it to reflect new developments

In his second inaugural address, President Obama declared that “a decade of war is now ending.” Troops have left Iraq, and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is supposed to begin next year. But Obama has expanded shadow drone wars beyond Afghanistan and has maintained some of President Bush’s controversial national security policies. Here’s a look at how much has changed — and how much has stayed the same.

Mouse over the bars within the timelines for more information on each event.



Wiretaps & Data Collection
CIA Black Sites
Targeted Killing
Drone Strikes
Enhanced Interrogation
Military Commissions


Patriot Act is enacted

October 26, 2001: Congress passes the USA Patriot Act, which expands the government’s authority to, among other things, collect intelligence, conduct searches, share intelligence information between agencies and detain non-citizens. Opponents say the bill undermines civil rights.


Patriot Act is renewed

March 6, 2006: Bush signs a renewal of the Patriot Act, making most of law’s provisions permanent. It includes a few additional restrictions on the FBI’s ability to obtain private information and to put gag orders on organizations that receive requests for information.


Patriot Act is renewed

May 27, 2011: Obama signs a renewal of several of the Patriot Act’s most controversial segments, including the use of “roving wiretaps,” the government’s expanded access to business records, and the “lone wolf” provision, which allows surveillance of individuals not affiliated with any known terrorist organization.

Media Reports

NSA's warrantless wiretapping program is first reported

December 16, 2005:The New York Times reports that the National Security Agency has conducted widespread domestic wiretapping since 2002 without warrants. Bush defends the program as necessary to prevent terrorism and denies that the surveillance is illegal.

May 11, 2006: USA Today reports the NSA is secretly collecting domestic phone and electronic communication records of millions of Americans not suspected of terrorism.


Warrantless wiretapping is legalized

June 2008: Congress amends the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to allow for warrantless wiretapping of international communications by the NSA, and to provide immunity to telecom companies who cooperate with intelligence agencies. Then-Sen. Obama votes for the legislation.


NSA continues to collect information

June 2010: The Washington Post reports that the NSA intercepts and stores 1.7 billion phone calls, emails and other communications daily. The NSA denies that it targets purely domestic communications, despite widespread reports to the contrary.

May 2011: Congress extends the Patriot Act without increasing oversight of NSA warrantless wiretapping. The Obama administration says that there is adequate oversight of surveillance laws.


Secret Court Finds Violation of Constitutional Rights

July 20, 2012: The Director of National Intelligence concedes that a secret FISA court “on at least one occasion” concluded that some data collection was “unreasonable” under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.


Wiretapping authorities extended again

December 30, 2012: Obama signs a five-year extension of the FISA Amendments Act. Provisions for more oversight and public disclosure failed to pass Congress.

Prisoners Arrive

January 11, 2002: First detainees arrive in Guantanamo.


Detainees can challenge their detention

June 28, 2004: In Rasul v. Bush, the Supreme Court rules that terror detainees have the right to challenge their detention in U.S. Court.


Abuse of detainees is reported

December 2004: The ACLU obtains FBI memos detailing abusive treatment of detainees at Guantanamo. Memos uncovered earlier that year show concerns raised by the International Committee of the Red Cross over the treatment of detainees.

Ordered Closed

Obama orders Guantanamo's closing

January 21, 2009: Obama orders the closing of Guantanamo, one of his central campaign promises.

Plans Abandoned

Obama abandons plans to close Guantanamo

March 7, 2011: Obama signs an executive order creating a system of indefinite detention at the Guantanamo Bay prison. Congress had recently passed a bill effectively preventing the president from moving Guantanamo detainees to the U.S., and has since passedadditional restrictive legislation.

January 2013: Obama administration reportedly is closing the State Department office responsible for shutting Guantanamo and resettling detainees.


CIA secret prisons are first reported

November 2, 2005: The Washington Post first reports the existence of foreign CIA secret prisons, or “black sites.” It would be illegal for the CIA to detain terror suspects in such isolation within the U.S.


Bush acknowledges that secret prisons exist

September 6, 2006: Bush publicly acknowledges the existence of CIA secret prisons. He announces the transfer of 14 final CIA prisoners to Guantanamo but does not close the program.


Obama closes secrets prisons

Jan. 21, 2009: In his first day in office, Obama orders the closure of CIA prisons. Reports of rendition, proxy detention by other countries, and black site prisons run by the military in Afghanistan emerge during Obama’s first term.

Legal Basis

Congress gives Bush more power to fight terrorism

September 18, 2001: Congress authorizes the president to use "all necessary and appropriate force” against terrorist organizations connected to the 9/11 attacks. This becomes a key legal basis of targeted killings for both Bush and Obama.

October 2001: The Bush administration reportedly deploys internal memos making the case for covert targeted killings of terrorists at presidential directive.


Targeted killings by drone increase

February 2008: The Bush administration reportedly allows so-called “signature strikes” in Pakistan, against apparent militants without knowing their identities. Obama will continue and expand that policy.

June 2009: The CIA scuttles a Bush administration program to assassinate senior Al Qaeda leaders that was in the works since 2001. The emphasis falls on drone strikes instead.


Osama Bin Laden and Al-Awlaki are killed

May 1, 2011: White House announces the death of Bin Laden in Pakistan. The raid was carried out by one of the military’s Special Ops “kill/capture” squads. The number of Special Ops forces had more than doubled since 2001.

September 30, 2011: A drone strike kills Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, in Yemen. A secret memo made the legal case for Awlaki’s killing despite an executive order banning assassinations and other potential legal obstacles.


Administration says targeted killings are justified

March 5, 2012: Attorney General Eric Holder gives a speech justifying the killing of a U.S. citizen involved in Al Qaeda – one of several given this year by senior administration officials laying out the legal rationale for targeted killing. The government still does not acknowledge particular strikes.


Administration develops targeted killing “playbook”

October 2012: The Washington Post reports the Obama administration is tightening the process for approving kills or captures and concentrating it in the White House. At least initially, the CIA will not be bound by the new rules.

First Strike

First drone strikes are reported

November 5, 2002: One of the first reported predator strikes kills an Al Qaeda leader, and six others, in Yemen.


Drone strikes rise

2008: In the entire Bush presidency, there are an estimated 45 airstrikes in Pakistan. In the first year of Obama’s presidency, there are 53.


Drone strikes reach a yearly high

2010: Airstrikes in Pakistan hit a yearly high of 117, according to media reports.


Drone strikes continue to rise

April 26, 2012: Obama gives the CIA authority to expand drone strikes in Yemen. The number of airstrikes there has been steadily increasing, from 2 during the entire Bush presidency, to 13 in the first few months of 2012.

Yemen becomes new front

Jan. 2013: In 2012, there were roughly 42 drone strikes in Yemen – a yearly high for that country. Pakistan was down to 46. A small number were reported in Somalia.


Drone program is discussed, civilian deaths disputed

April 30, 2012: Obama counterterrorism adviser John Brennan admits that some number of civilians have died from strikes.

May 29, 2012: The New York Times reports that the Obama administration counts all military-age males in a drone strike zone as enemy combatants unless they are proven innocent after the fact. The numbers of civilian deaths claimed by officials are inconsistent with one another, and considerably lower than independentcounts.


Bush orders some terrorists exempt from torture protections

February 7, 2002: Bush orders that members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not protected by the Geneva Conventions Article Three protections against torture and “humiliating and degrading treatment of detainees.”


Abu Ghraib and narrow definition of torture

April 30, 2004: Reports of abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib are published.

June 2004: News organizations report a 2002 Justice Department legal memo saying “torture may be justified” and that international law might not apply to interrogations of suspected terrorists. The memo also gave a definition of torture as only “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death."


Bush widens definition of torture

December 2004: Bush legal counselors rescind the 2002 memo on torture, widening the definition of torture and narrowing acceptable interrogation techniques. It does not address the legality of particular practices used by the CIA, such as waterboarding. Memos released later show a discrepancy between guidelines for detainee treatment and prisoner accounts.

New Guidelines

Bush issues new guidelines for CIA interrogations

July 21, 2007: Bush outlines new guidelines for CIA interrogations, saying that they will comply with Geneva Conventions. They are still broader than the military’s interrogation policy, and the specific techniques permitted are not named.


Obama bans enhanced interrogation techniques

January 22, 2009: Obama bans all abusive interrogation techniques and obliges the CIA and all U.S. agencies to comply with the Geneva Conventions and Army guidelines for interrogation.


Bush orders terror suspects to be tried in military tribunals

November 13, 2001: Bush signs a military order authorizing the detention of members of Al Qaeda, terror suspects, and anyone who harbors them, and their trial in military commissions, rather than U.S. courts.

Struck Down

Supreme Court rules against using military commissions to try Guantanamo detainees

June 26, 2006: In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court strikes down the Bush administration’s plan to use military commissions to prosecute Guantanamo detainees, saying they violate the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.


Act gives Bush power to try enemy combatants in military commissions

October 17, 2006: The Military Commissions Act of 2006 gives the president authority to try enemy combatants in military tribunals. It places some limits on interrogation and prosecution based on the Geneva conventions but does not offer the full defendants’ rights of a federal court.


Obama temporarily halts military commissions

January 2009: Obama halts military commissions. In October, Congress passes the Military Commissions Act of 2009 with expanded due process for defendants.


Obama decides for military commissions in 9/11 case

May 2011: The Obama administration drops its plan to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other alleged plotters of the 9/11 attacks in federal court, instead of a military commission. As of 2011, the federal court system has obtained more than 300 convictions for terror-related crimes.


Congress codifies military commissions

December 31, 2011: Obama signs a bill codifying the administration’s stance on military commissions and detention of terror suspects as justified by the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

February 2012: The seventh conviction of a detainee in front of the military commission at Guantanamo.

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