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History > 2016 > USA > Politics (I) > White House > President Obama




The Broken Promise

of Closing Guantánamo


JUNE 20, 2016


The Opinion Pages



Eight years ago, presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama agreed on one issue: It was time to shut down the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Asked about his position on Guantánamo, Mr. McCain, a former prisoner of war, said his view had been reinforced by meeting an operative of Al Qaeda held prisoner in Iraq, who told him the use of torture by American forces helped to fuel the insurgency.

“What is the moral superiority of the United States of America if we torture prisoners?” Mr. McCain said shortly before the election. Mr. Obama vowed to shut down the prison during his first year in office, calling it a legal and moral abomination.

As Mr. Obama’s administration draws to a close, there is less and less hope that the president will find a way to fulfill his promise.

The failure to close Guantánamo, where 80 detainees remain, is a shameful stain on Congress, which has hindered efforts to release prisoners and barred the Pentagon from moving those remaining to prisons in the United States. The prison has undermined America’s standing as a champion of human rights and set a deplorable example for other governments inclined to violate international human rights law. Its familiar orange jumpsuits have been made part of the terrorists’ propaganda, most recently by Islamic State fighters in photos and videos that show the execution of hostages.

There is a modest step still available to Mr. Obama to demonstrate to the world that he is willing to acknowledge what has taken place at Guantánamo. The United Nations special rapporteur who examines issues of torture has sought access to the detainees for years, seeking to document their treatment while in custody. The government has refused repeated requests since 2004, with no good reason.

“I want to believe that the use of torture by the United States is a dark chapter that has ended,” Juan Méndez, the special rapporteur, said in an interview. “But I can’t be certain of that until we see a change in policy and verify that the United States is meeting all its international obligations.”

The defense team of Ammar al-Baluchi, one of the detainees at Guantánamo who is being tried in connection with the 9/11 attacks, filed a motion in May asking the military commission to allow him to meet with Mr. Méndez. Thomas Pickering, a veteran diplomat who has served as ambassador to Russia, India and the United Nations in Republican and Democratic administrations, has filed a memorandum supporting this request. Mr. Pickering wrote that recent reports of “heavy-handed and even brutal force-feedings, indifferent medical care, unacceptably cold stainless steel cells, indefinite solitary confinement” at Guantánamo may constitute violations of the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. The United States is a signatory of both.

“Guantánamo is currently used by our enemies as a symbol of lawlessness that grossly undermines U.S. national security,” Mr. Pickering wrote. “If the public reports about current abusive conditions are false, then I believe that the United States has much to gain by allowing” Mr. Méndez access.

Mr. Obama’s pledge to close the prison was doomed by Republican opposition. But it is not too late for him to allow independent human rights monitors to create a fuller historical record of the conduct of the American government after 9/11.



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A version of this editorial appears in print on June 20, 2016,
on page A18 of the New York edition with the headline:
The Broken Promise on Guantánamo.

The Broken Promise of Closing Guantánamo,
June 20, 2016,






Obama in Vietnam

Will Focus on Future,

Rather Than the Past


MAY 15, 2016

The New York Times

White House Letter



WASHINGTON — The pictures will be unavoidable, and the flood of painful memories unstoppable.

When President Obama lands next Sunday in Hanoi, his visit will be chronicled by photographers, cameramen and journalists who will track every public move of only the third presidential visit to Vietnam since the end of the American war there.

Mr. Obama’s former defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, said he is already bracing for the onslaught of recollections those pictures and articles are likely to inspire.

“I know those images will hit me,” said Mr. Hagel, whose 12 months as a soldier in Vietnam remain the defining period of his life, despite the subsequent years as both a senator and a cabinet secretary. “They’re going to make it all come back.”

For Mr. Obama, the trip to Vietnam offers an opportunity to help solidify not only his promised pivot of American policy toward Asia, but also to deepen economic and security ties with an increasingly important regional player.

But for the United States’ Vietnam War veterans, a presidential trip to the country where many of them lost their youth, innocence and some of their closest friends is weighted with powerful emotions and never-ending debates about that war’s consequences.

“There are still a lot of ghosts around,” Mr. Hagel, 69, said in an interview. “There is still a great deal of debate about Vietnam and what it meant for this country.”

“It still haunts us,” he added. “That terrible waste of lives, and the lessons we learned there, the terrible lessons that still hang over us.”

Mr. Hagel said that every decision he made as defense secretary and every piece of advice he gave Mr. Obama was informed by his experience in Vietnam. He now finds himself thinking more and more about the year he spent there in the 1960s. And he said he is certain to closely study the pictures from Mr. Obama’s trip: the lush green background, the people and their iconic conical hats.

One of the stumbling blocks between the two nations is the continuing belief by some in the United States that there may still be captive American soldiers held there, the kind of mythology that was fueled by 1980s movies like “Missing in Action” starring Chuck Norris and the “Rambo” series starring Sylvester Stallone.

A black P.O.W./M.I.A. flag still flies above the Capitol and state capitols around the country, and the military and many lawmakers choose to focus on the retrieval of the remains of dead service members as fulfilling those concerns. But some leaders of veterans organizations insisted in a meeting on Friday at the White House that Mr. Obama ask Vietnamese leaders whether there are living prisoners, according to Frank Francois III, the chief executive of Service Disabled Veteran Enterprises, who attended the meeting.

“One of the questions that has to be asked is whether there is anybody in jail or captivity or someone living in the area we need to know about,” Mr. Francois said.

For other veterans, Mr. Obama’s trip will serve as a welcome reminder to two generations of Americans who have come of age since the war’s end, illustrating that conflict’s importance to the United States. For these men, the ghosts of the war should not have been so easily laid to rest.

“Vietnam is a totally forgotten issue nowadays,” said Bobby Muller, a disabled veteran and antiwar activist whose life helped inspire the 1978 movie “Coming Home,” starring Jane Fonda. “To have gone through those times and have something as huge and powerful and affecting and tragic in our lifetimes wind up nonexistent in the consciousness of the country today is stunning.”

Mr. Muller lives in Washington in an apartment that is filled with books on the war, and his anger at two wartime leaders — President Richard M. Nixon and his closest adviser, Henry Kissinger — remains undiminished.

Mr. Obama is unlikely to focus as much on combat deaths during his trip as President Bill Clinton did when he visited in 2000.

Mr. Clinton took the two sons of a missing airman, Lt. Col. Lawrence G. Evert, to a rice paddy in a tiny town 17 miles northeast of Hanoi and searched, along with scores of villagers, for the remnants of an F-105D fighter-bomber that had crashed in 1967. Remarkably, they found Colonel Evert’s bones.

Mr. Obama is more likely to hail cooperation between the two countries to clean up the remnants of Agent Orange, one of the wartime issues still important to Vietnam. But as a president who came of age after the war ended, he is unlikely to be a symbol of healing of the psychological wounds that some veterans suffered upon returning home, when many of their countrymen disdained them for fighting there.

“That lack of a welcome home is still a national shame,” said Senator John McCain, a Vietnam veteran who, because he was a prisoner of war, did receive a hero’s welcome. “You had 18- or 19-year-old draftees who did their duties and were literally spat upon by their fellow citizenry when they returned.”

Mr. McCain said the country has learned that lesson, and service members and veterans are routinely celebrated at sporting events and public occasions nowadays. But for some veterans, Mr. Obama’s visit is likely to stir bitter memories of their rejection, he said.

Mr. McCain, a Republican of Arizona, said his efforts to help normalize relations between Vietnam and the United States were among the proudest accomplishments of his life, and he said he had been to Vietnam so often since the war’s end that “I’m recognized more in the streets of Hanoi than I am in Phoenix.”

Those efforts long ago helped Mr. McCain put the worst of the war and his captivity behind him, so he is unlikely to be moved by the photos of Mr. Obama’s visits, he said. Mr. McCain said he had other ways of stirring his wartime memories.

“To this day, I’ll get up real early sometimes and go down to the Vietnam Memorial just as the sun is coming up,” Mr. McCain said in an interview.

“It’s always a great experience for me to think and remember.”


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A version of this article appears in print on May 16, 2016, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Obama in Vietnam Will Focus on Future, Rather Than the Past.

Obama in Vietnam Will Focus on Future, Rather Than the Past,
NYT, May 15, 2016,






For Obama,

an Unexpected Legacy

of Two Full Terms at War


MAY 14, 2016

The New York Times



WASHINGTON — President Obama came into office seven years ago pledging to end the wars of his predecessor, George W. Bush. On May 6, with eight months left before he vacates the White House, Mr. Obama passed a somber, little-noticed milestone: He has now been at war longer than Mr. Bush, or any other American president.

If the United States remains in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria until the end of Mr. Obama’s term — a near-certainty given the president’s recent announcement that he will send 250 additional Special Operations forces to Syria — he will leave behind an improbable legacy as the only president in American history to serve two complete terms with the nation at war.

Mr. Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and spent his years in the White House trying to fulfill the promises he made as an antiwar candidate, would have a longer tour of duty as a wartime president than Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon or his hero Abraham Lincoln.

Granted, Mr. Obama is leaving far fewer soldiers in harm’s way — at least 4,087 in Iraq and 9,800 in Afghanistan — than the 200,000 troops he inherited from Mr. Bush in the two countries. But Mr. Obama has also approved strikes against terrorist groups in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, for a total of seven countries where his administration has taken military action.

“No president wants to be a war president,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a military historian at Johns Hopkins University who backed the war in Iraq and whose son served there twice. “Obama thinks of war as an instrument he has to use very reluctantly. But we’re waging these long, rather strange wars. We’re killing lots of people. We’re taking casualties.”

Mr. Obama has wrestled with this immutable reality from his first year in the White House, when he went for a walk among the tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery before giving the order to send 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan.

His closest advisers say he has relied so heavily on limited covert operations and drone strikes because he is mindful of the dangers of escalation and has long been skeptical that American military interventions work.

Publicly, Mr. Obama acknowledged early on the contradiction between his campaign message and the realities of governing. When he accepted the Nobel in December 2009, he declared that humanity needed to reconcile “two seemingly irreconcilable truths — that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.”

The president has tried to reconcile these truths by approaching his wars in narrow terms, as a chronic but manageable security challenge rather than as an all-consuming national campaign, in the tradition of World War II or, to a lesser degree, Vietnam. The longevity of his war record, military historians say, also reflects the changing definition of war.

“It’s the difference between being a war president and a president at war,” said Derek Chollet, who served in the State Department and the White House during Mr. Obama’s first term and as the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs from 2012 to 2015.

“Being a war president means that all elements of American power and foreign policy are subservient to fighting the war,” Mr. Chollet said. “What Obama has tried to do, which is why he’s careful about ratcheting up the number of forces, is not to have it overwhelm other priorities.”

But Mr. Obama has found those conflicts maddeningly hard to end. On Oct. 21, 2011, he announced that the last combat soldier would leave Iraq by the end of that year, drawing that eight-year war to a close. “Our troops will definitely be home for the holidays,” Mr. Obama said at the White House.

Less than three years later, he told a national television audience that he would send 475 military advisers back to Iraq to help in the battle against the Islamic State, the brutal terrorist group that swept into the security vacuum left by the absent Americans. By last month, more than 5,000 American troops were in Iraq.

A furious firefight this month between Islamic State fighters and Navy SEALs in northern Iraq, in which Special Warfare Operator First Class Charles Keating IV became the third American to die since the campaign against the Islamic State began, harked back to the bloodiest days of the Iraq war. It also made the administration’s argument that the Americans were only advising and assisting Iraqi forces seem ever less plausible.

President Obama inherited two wars from his predecessor, and has struggled to wind them down. American troops are still in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Afghanistan followed a similar cycle of hope and disappointment. In May 2014, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would withdraw the last combat soldier from the country by the end of 2016.

“Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” the president said in the Rose Garden. “Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century.”

Seventeen months later, Mr. Obama halted the withdrawal, telling Americans that he planned to leave more than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan until early 2017, the end of his presidency. By then, the Taliban controlled more territory in the country than at any time since 2001.

Taliban fighters even briefly conquered the northern city of Kunduz. In the bitter battle for control, an American warplane mistakenly fired its missiles into a Doctors Without Borders hospital, killing 42 people and prompting accusations that the United States had committed a war crime.

Critics of Mr. Obama have long said his clinical approach to wars weakened the ability of the nation to fight them. “He hasn’t tried to mobilize the country,” Dr. Cohen said. “He hasn’t even tried to explain to the country what the stakes are, why these wars have gone the way they have.”

Mr. Bush was also criticized for failing to ask the American people to make any sacrifices during the Iraq war. But, Dr. Cohen said, “for all his faults, with Bush, there was this visceral desire to win.”

Vincent DeGeorge, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who collected the data on presidents at war, said Mr. Obama’s tone mattered less than the decisions he made. “Does the rhetoric a president uses at home matter to the soldiers who come back wounded or get caught in the crossfire?” he asked in an interview.

Mr. DeGeorge acknowledged the complications in measuring Mr. Obama’s wars. The American-led phase of the Afghanistan war, for example, ended formally in December 2014, though thousands of troops remain there. For his analysis, he considered a state of war to exist when less than a month passed between either American casualties or an American airstrike.

More so than Mr. Bush or President Bill Clinton, Mr. Obama has fought a multifront war against militants. Officials at the Pentagon referred to the situation as “the new normal.” But for those who worked in the Obama administration, it made for an unrelenting experience.

“As the Middle East coordinator, I certainly felt like it was a wartime pace,” said Philip H. Gordon, who worked in the White House from 2013 to 2015.

Still, Mr. Gordon and other former officials drew a distinction between the wars of the 21st century and those of the 20th century. For one, Congress has not specifically authorized any of Mr. Obama’s military campaigns, let alone issued a declaration of war — something that it has not done since World War II.

“War doesn’t exist anymore, in our official vocabulary,” Mr. Gordon said.

It is not clear that Mr. Obama’s successor will take the same approach. The front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, has been more receptive to conventional military engagements than Mr. Obama. The presumptive Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump, has pledged to bomb the Islamic State into oblivion, though he has sent contradictory messages about his willingness to dispatch American ground troops into foreign conflicts.

Military historians said presidents would probably continue to shrink or stretch the definition of war to suit their political purposes.

“Neither Clinton nor Obama identified themselves as war presidents, but Bush did,” said Richard H. Kohn, professor emeritus of history and peace, war and defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“War goes back in human experience thousands of years,” he said. “We know that it has an enormous variation of definitions.”


A version of this article appears in print on May 15, 2016, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: For President, Two Full Terms of Fighting Wars.

For Obama, an Unexpected Legacy of Two Full Terms at War,
NYT, May 14, 2016,






Obama Criticizes the ‘Free Riders’

Among America’s Allies


MARCH 10, 2016

The New York Times



WASHINGTON — President Obama believes that Saudi Arabia, one of America’s most important allies in the Middle East, needs to learn how to “share” the region with its archenemy, Iran, and that both countries are guilty of fueling proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

In a series of interviews with The Atlantic magazine published Thursday, Mr. Obama said a number of American allies in the Persian Gulf — as well as in Europe — were “free riders,” eager to drag the United States into grinding sectarian conflicts that sometimes had little to do with American interests. He showed little sympathy for the Saudis, who have been threatened by the nuclear deal Mr. Obama reached with Iran.

The Saudis, Mr. Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg, the magazine’s national correspondent, “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.” Reflexively backing them against Iran, the president said, “would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”

Mr. Obama’s frustration with much of the Arab world is not new, but rarely has he been so blunt about it. He placed his comments in the context of his broader struggle to extract the United States from the bloody morass of the Middle East so that the nation can focus on more promising, faster-growing parts of the world, like Asia and Latin America.

“If we’re not talking to them,” he said, referring to young people in those places, “because the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity, then we’re missing the boat.”

Mr. Obama also said his support of the NATO military intervention in Libya had been a “mistake,” driven in part by his erroneous belief that Britain and France would bear more of the burden of the operation. He stoutly defended his refusal not to enforce his own red line against Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, even though Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. argued internally, the magazine reported, that “big nations don’t bluff.”

The president disputed criticism that he should have done more to resist the aggression of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Ukraine. As a neighbor of Russia, Mr. Obama said, Ukraine was always going to matter more to Mr. Putin than to the United States. This meant that in any military confrontation between Moscow and the West, Russia was going to maintain “escalatory dominance” over its former satellite state.

“The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,” he said. “This is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for.”

Mr. Obama, who has spoken regularly to Mr. Goldberg about Israel and Iran, granted him extraordinary access. The portrait that emerges from the interviews is of a president openly contemptuous of Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, which he said was obsessed with preserving presidential credibility, even at the cost of blundering into ill-advised military adventures.

“There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow,” Mr. Obama said. “And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses.” This consensus, the president continued, can lead to bad decisions. “In the midst of an international challenge like Syria,” he said, “you are judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons.”

Although Mr. Obama’s tone was introspective, he engaged in little second-guessing. He dismissed the argument that his failure to enforce the red line in Syria, or his broader reticence about using military force, had emboldened Russia. Mr. Putin, he noted, invaded Georgia in 2008 during the presidency of George W. Bush, even though the United States had more than 100,000 troops deployed in Iraq.

Similarly, the president pushed back on the suggestion that he had not been firm enough in challenging China’s aggression in the South China Sea, where it is building military installations on reefs and islands, some of which are claimed by the Philippines and other neighbors. “I’ve been very explicit in saying that we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China,” Mr. Obama said.

The president refused to box himself in as a foreign-policy thinker. “I suppose you could call me a realist in believing we can’t, at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery,” he said. But he went on to describe himself as an internationalist and an idealist. Above all, Mr. Obama appeared weary of the constant demands and expectations placed on the United States. “Free riders aggravate me,” he said.

He put France and Britain in that category, at least as far as the Libya operation was concerned. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, he said, became distracted by other issues, while President Nicolas Sarkozy of France “wanted to trumpet the flights he was taking in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses.”

Only on the threat posed by the Islamic State did Mr. Obama express some misgivings. He likened ISIS to the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” the 2008 Batman movie. The Middle East, Mr. Obama said, was like Gotham, a corrupt metropolis controlled by a cartel of thugs. “Then the Joker comes in and lights the whole city on fire,” Mr. Obama said. “ISIL is the Joker,” he added, using the government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State.

Still, Mr. Obama acknowledged that immediately after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., he did not adequately reassure Americans that he understood the threat, and was confronting it.

“Every president has his strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “And there is no doubt that there are times where I have not been attentive enough to feelings and emotions and politics in communicating what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”


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A version of this article appears in print on March 10, 2016, on page A9 of the New York edition with the headline: Obama Criticizes the ‘Free Riders’ Among America’s Allies.

Obama Criticizes the ‘Free Riders’ Among America’s Allies,
NYT, MARCH 10, 2016,






Obama’s Lofty Plans

on Gun Violence

Amount to Little Action


FEB. 7, 2016

The New York Times




WASHINGTON — The centerpiece of a plan for stemming gun violence that President Obama announced last month largely amounts to this: an updated web page and 10,000 pamphlets that federal agents will give out at gun shows.

In a tearful display of anger and sadness in the East Room of the White House, Mr. Obama ordered steps intended to limit gun violence and vowed to clamp down on what he called widespread evasion of a federal law requiring gun dealers to obtain licenses.

But few concrete actions have been put in motion by law enforcement agencies to aggressively carry out the gun dealer initiative, despite the lofty expectations that Mr. Obama and top aides set.

Obama administration officials said they had no specific plans to increase investigations, arrests or prosecutions of gun sellers who do not comply with the law. No task forces have been assembled. No agents or prosecutors have been specifically reassigned to such cases. And no funding has been reallocated to accelerate gun sale investigations in Washington or at the offices of the 93 United States attorneys.

The absence of aggressive enforcement is a reminder of the limits of Mr. Obama’s executive authority, even as he repeatedly asserts the power of the Oval Office to get things done in the face of inaction by a Republican Congress.

Even the National Rifle Association, which fights anything it perceives as a threat to gun rights, has not sued to block Mr. Obama’s actions, and gun groups profess little reason for concern. “Nothing, from what we can see, has changed,” said Mike Bazinet, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group.

Administration officials say that with Congress unwilling to take any legislative action, the White House’s plan goes as far as Mr. Obama can to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and people with mental illnesses.

“The actions the president announced last month represent the maximum the administration can do under the current law,” said Eric Schultz, the deputy White House press secretary, “namely increasing mental health treatment and reporting, improving public safety, managing the future of gun safety technology and, of course, enhancing the background check system.”

Mr. Obama has been under pressure from gun control advocates to confront gun violence since he failed to convince Congress to approve universal background checks in 2013. The highly stage-managed announcement in January gave him the chance to demonstrate what he called the “fierce urgency” to respond to mass shootings.

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch told reporters on the day Mr. Obama announced the plan that the government was “ramping up our enforcement efforts, particularly online” and “will be looking” for unlicensed gun dealers.

But turning promises into action is often difficult — a political reality that Mr. Obama and his aides know all too well — especially in the face of a sluggish bureaucracy and a determined, partisan opposition in Congress. The president’s attempts to sidestep lawmakers on immigration have been tied in courts for more than a year, and he faces fights on executive orders to expand gay rights, establish a minimum wage for federal contractors and combat climate change.

The most visible sign of the president’s initiative to license more gun dealers is the printing of 10,000 pamphlets clarifying what qualifies a gun seller as a dealer. Officials plan to hand out the pamphlets at gun shows, weekend flea markets and elsewhere. They say they hope the “education campaign,” as it is called, will prompt more gun sellers to register as dealers, who then must conduct background checks. The same information has been updated on the website of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The new guidance says that there is no “bright line” for determining whether someone should register as a dealer, but that a number of factors — such as selling even a small number of new firearms in their original packaging, making a profit and selling regularly at gun shows or online — could qualify.

Sally Quillian Yates, the deputy attorney general, said the A.T.F.’s new guidance would put people who sold guns regularly “on notice” that they must register as dealers and conduct background checks. She said it should also lead to more successful prosecutions of unregistered gun dealers who are flouting the law.

But gun control advocates say they want more than just notification. Jonas Oransky, counsel at Everytown for Gun Safety, said the A.T.F. should not expect that arrests and prosecutions would happen “without extra energy behind it by them,” but added, “We’re giving them some time to figure out how best to do this.”

Some experts are skeptical that the president’s actions will have much effect, even if they are carried out fully.

“This is a very modest plan,” said Joe Vince, a former administrator at the A.T.F. who now teaches criminal justice. “I don’t think the president had much more authority than to do what he did.”

White House officials said it was too early to judge the effect of the president’s measures. And they said the effort to register more gun dealers was just one piece of his initiative. Other elements would tighten rules on gun purchases by corporations and more quickly identify lost or stolen guns.

The president also sought to improve the F.B.I.’s ability to identify prohibited gun buyers by hiring more background check examiners and by collecting more criminal and mental health information from states.

But a number of the elements that Mr. Obama took credit for last month were already underway before he directed the administration to develop new gun measures in the wake of mass shootings in California and Oregon in the fall.

The F.B.I., for example, has already received funding for an additional 230 examiners in the next two years to handle the growing requests for background checks.

The president is wary of creating any appearance that he is sending in armies of federal agents to take away people’s guns.

“Our No. 1 goal here is not to slap the cuffs on people for not being registered,” Ms. Yates, the deputy attorney general, said. “We believe there are a lot of folks out there who want to comply with the law.”

Mr. Obama’s lawyers have cautioned against seeming to create new gun laws by fiat. The most the president can do, they have said, is to direct better enforcement of the laws that exist.

The bulk of the new responsibilities outlined by Mr. Obama will fall to the A.T.F., an agency that has suffered from chronic underfunding and understaffing, years of scandals, and distrust from Republicans and gun rights groups. Mr. Obama plans to request tens of millions of dollars from Congress for additional A.T.F. agents, but Republicans are hesitant to approve it.

The A.T.F. has been without a confirmed director since April; the White House has blamed a backlog of confirmations in the Republican-controlled Senate. Michael Bouchard, a former assistant director at the A.T.F., faulted Mr. Obama for not nominating anyone to the job as part of his plan.

“How could you say that all this stuff about guns is so important, but you don’t think it’s important enough to name a nominee to run the agency?” Mr. Bouchard asked. “This would have been a great time for it.”

A.T.F. officials said that the agency had not named anyone to oversee the plan or set up new committees to run it. Brian Garner, a special agent and spokesman for the agency, said: “We’ve not at any point said we’re going to do any big rollout. Right now, we’re going to work the cases with the resources we have and do the best job we can.”

Supporters of the plan said they had been assured that it would be enforced aggressively.

“It was significant; it was bold,” said Maura Healey, the Massachusetts state attorney general. “It takes time for the directive to be implemented.”
Correction: February 8, 2016

An earlier version of this article misstated the title for Jonas Oransky, a gun control advocate. He is a counsel, he is not the chief counsel.

Obama’s Lofty Plans on Gun Violence Amount to Little Action,
NYT, FEB. 7, 2016,





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