00:40 Douglas Blackmon: Welcome back to American Forum. Barack Obama was crystal clear when campaigning for the White House back in 2008: Not only had the United States stumbled into a mistaken invasion of Iraq, the CIA and other American security forces had gone too far in their interrogations of alleged terrorists. It had been wrong to hold prisoners indefinitely at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, without trials or any opportunity to make a defense. The United States, he told us, had damaged its reputation in the world as a defender of human rights and a beacon of civilized conduct and the rule of law in a hostile world. President Obama promised that all this was going to change. And indeed when, in 2009, less than year into his administration, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the judges cited his creation of a “new climate” in international relations and peaceful outreach to the Muslim world. But how much really changed? The U.S. greatly escalated the use of drones to attack and kill enemy operatives around the world. The government expanded its secret programs to collect telephone and Internet information on millions of our own citizens. Terror suspects continued to be denied access to the civilian judicial system. And as the Obama presidency winds to an end, the prison at Guantanamo Bay remains in operation. Our guest today is Charlie Savage, a Pulitzer Prize winner, now reporter for the New York Times, and the author of a new book: Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post 9/11 Presidency. It is already an important first draft of history and will be remembered as one of the very first comprehensive looks at the Obama foreign policy record, and in particular the conundrum of how, in the end, in crucial ways, President Barack Obama may not have been all that different from George W. Bush. Thanks for being here.
Charlie Savage: Thanks for having me.
02:31 Blackmon: So your book sets up a, a, you don’t use these words, but an interesting construction that I might describe as, uh, the difference between the cowboy who’s a… with a fast draw and a six-shooter versus the ponderous constitutional lawyer in terms of Bush versus Obama. But, but exactly is it that, remind us because most of a decade has gone by, what exactly was the indictment of the Bush years that Barack Obama was promising us would come to an end.
Factoid: The Question: Did Obama Live up to Promises on National Security?
Savage: So after 9/11, George W. Bush and his very influential vice president Dick Cheney instituted a series of policy responses to the new Global War on Terrorism as they called it, uh, that led to a great deal of controversy about whether this was lawful, whether this diverged from American values and Constitutional principles. You might, so they opened the Guantanamo prison and they brought war prisoners there from Afghanistan and eventually elsewhere and declared that courts had no ability to oversee what the government did to these men. Uh, they had no legal rights at all.
Uh, they arrested American citizens and on domestic soil and held them in incommunicado military detention without charge. Uh, they instituted a program of torturing prisoners through the CIA primarily, and they instituted what we eventually found out was a very broad program of surveillance that violated the foreign intelligence surveillance act both the bulk collection of phone and email records, uh, of Americans’ communications and targeted, warrantless wiretapping of Americans’ international phone calls and emails without warrants.
04:13 Blackmon: But what exactly was it that, that the president was promising to do the minute he came into office that was going to address all of that, and then when did you, as a reporter at the White House, begin to realize that this isn’t exactly what’s happening isn’t exactly what’s been promised.
Savage: Right. In retrospect what Obama was promising was awfully vague. I think people were projecting onto his promises of change what they wanted to hear, which in some cases was the government was going to stop doing these things, uh, and and it looked kind of like that’s what those expectations were going to be met in January of 2009. You might remember that, uh, the first few things Obama did once he took the oath after giving this inaugural speech thing, we were going to, we no longer needed to have a trade-off between our values and our security, this false
FACTOID: Obama’s campaign slogan was A Change We Can Believe In
choice was not, uh, the way the United States was going to go anymore, he issued executive orders promising greater transparency, closing CIA black sites prisons, forbidding torture, saying Guantanamo was going to be closed within a year, and so forth and it really looked like the War on Terror – quoted, you know, TM – was over. And so I would say by mid-February 2009 it was clear to me, at least, that there was going to be much greater continuity than people had thought, and at that point I, uh, I remember calling up the White House and saying, “I’m just going to write an article saying that there was greater continuity here with Obama’s counter-terrorism policies than, than, uh, the expectations created by his campaign rhetoric.” And they explained, basically, “ Look, we’re not going to have a bumper sticker, shoot-from-the-hip, simplistic, ratchet change to the government without really understanding what we were doing, we’re going to be deliberate about this, they’ve gone out to Langley where the CIA is, they’ve gone to the Pentagon during the transition, learn from the sort of permanent national security state bureaucracy, why what the programs were, and they were going to be very careful, so they were saying, To the people on our left who are saying this is a betrayal: give us time. It doesn’t mean that we’re signing onto the Bush view of the world. But to the people on the right who are saying this is vindication: we don’t buy that either. We’re going to chart our own course.
06:08 Blackmon: Very early on while President Bush is remains aloof and is, is not making any sort of commentary, as is typical for a president, but Vice President Cheney, very characteristically for a vice president, almost right off the bat, uh, is out front saying that these changes are going to make the country, uh, tremendously more unsafe.
Savage: Very quickly they saw the political dimension of the risks that, that was entailed by ratcheting back anything that they had inherited. Uh, I open the book with what I think is the single most important example of that, which is the Christmas 2009 attempted underwear bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, which, uh, almost 300 are killed on Christmas over American soil, and fortunately the bomb just fails to explode, but all the systems put in place to protect against something like that had failed, and the political backlash to that moment was ferocious.
Everything is melting down from his attempt to close Guantanamo, and his attempt to bring the 9/11 defendants from, uh, to a regular court and have a regular trial for them also throughout 2009 when Dick Cheney, you’re right, is out there, uh, making his comments, that if there was a successful attack, uh, it would destroy Obama’s presidency. And so that is a moment in which, uh, there’s a clenchening or a har, a har, a hardening in their approach, and the people who are trying to reform, uh, things kind of get quiet and the people who are trying to keep things, uh gain influence.
07:36 Blackmon: Suddenly if you’re the person who’s actually tasked with the duty to keep these things from occurring, uh, in the United States then it’s a lot harder to X out any possible way that you might be able to prevent this.
Savage: I think there’s a couple major moments in this administration where the world as it is does not cooperate with what Obama would like to have done. And I think we’ve been living through another one very recently, which is he clearly, I think, wanted to wind, you know destroy core al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and then wind down the War on Terror by the end of his eight years and say this sort of war we’ve been involved in since 2001, the longest war in American history, is over now, and we can close Gitmo, and sort of get back to normalcy. And he’s on the path in 2013 to do that, and then the rise of the Islamic State sweeping out, sweeping out of Syria, across Iraq, and creating all these, you know other risks, and refugee flows, and now inspirational domestic attacks has just gotten in the way of that. And instead of saying the war’s over, he’s had to expand the 9/11 War to encompass the Islamic State and resumed bombing and now ground forces of certain types. Uh, and it’s clear he’s going to leave the presidency with this war ongoing, notwithstanding what he had wanted to do.
08:49 Blackmon: Let’s talk about some of the very specific things that the Obama Administration had to back off of, essentially having trials of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other terror, the enormous, uh, problematic figures who were imprisoned at Guantanamo, uh, and the desire of the Obama Administration to bring them to the United States, in that case try him in U.S. District Court in New York, and, but at the time that Attorney General Holder was here was the very moment that was all collapsing. It was clear that, uh, that was not going to move forward, but he still made a spirited defense of, of that had those political considerations not come into play, that that trial would have proceeded, he would have been convicted, he would have been received a death penalty and Holder would still say that to this day
Savage: He’s probably right about that.
Blackmon: And probably, exactly.
Savage: And, in retrospect, military commission system is totally floundering. It’s clear to all who would look at it just objectively whether you think it’s a fair system of trials or an unfair system of trials, it’s a dysfunctional system of trials. It has failed to get that case and the Cole bombing case to trial year after year after year they’re still mired in dysfunction in a way that the regular court system would not have been.
Continued or even escalated a campaign of targeted killings away from traditional battlefields using drones and other means. Uh, an unprecedented crackdown on leaks of information, criminal prosecution of people accused of leaking to the public, uh, clearly as the Edward Snowden leaks showed an expansive, voracious surveillance state has continued, and on, and on, and on And this recurring accusation that I think is a defining accusation of this era that Obama has acted like Bush, you know betraying the expectations of his campaign, depends on how you define ‘act like Bush.’
During the Bush years, when there was controversy over these programs and policies he was creating, there were two very different strands of criticism that were often sort of coiled together, and tangled but actually are quite distinct. One was what I call the “rule of law” critique, and the other was the “civil liberties critique.” So the rule of law critique says that the president has to obey the law – the president cannot say he’s the commander-in-chief and just sort of willy-nilly blow through statutes and treaties that say he can’t do X because he decides he wants to do X anyway. And that was sort of, that was how Bush put in place very rapidly all these wrenching changes to the government’s approach to national security. The civil liberties critique says the government should not have these powers, vis-à-vis the individuals, it’s a matter of individual rights and American values.
If the government wants to wiretap, they need to get a judge’s permission. The government, the government should never torture people. If the government is going to prosecute someone, they should prosecute them in a regular court with all the full panoply of defendant rights. And the difference between these two critiques is that one can be fixed. The rule of law critique can be changed if Congress changes the law so that it authorizes rather than forbids what the government wants to do. And as the civil liberties critique can’t be fixed. The only way to fix a civil liberties problem is for the government to stop doing that thing.
11:50 Blackmon: And so that establishes this kind of fascinating dynamic of where a team of lawyers inside the White House, working in the administration, then continued to tackle the parts of the rule of law question that remained fuzzy and developed these various rationales and legal arguments for why these particular things actually are okay to do, are in fact legally authorized or have been approved by the courts or there is some basis in law which is a kind of curious logic when you think of it in that way.
Savage: Well it’s a lawyer’s logic, it’s a lawyer’s way of attacking the problem. It’s natural that they’re going to bring the question of is there a legal authority for this. If the answer is yes, it’s okay, if it’s no, it’s not okay is their lens for thinking about is there a problem here or can we keep doing this thing? An example is how is it that Obama came to learn that the government was collecting everyone’s domestic phone records and decided to keep that program, which we only find out about in 2013 with the Snowden leaks. It seems like a wildly disconnected to what people looking at him running for office in ’07 and ’08 would have expected him to blessed and continued. So he found out about that in, at a situation room meeting just past lunch time on February 4, 2009.
13:07 Blackmon: So he’s a brand new president?
Savage: A brand new president, he’s got a couple lawyers who are working for him at the National Security Council who knew about these programs as they had been involved in Congress in 2008 with the FISA Amendments Act and they had been briefed in these highly classified programs. And they said he really needs to understand what he’s inherited so they organize this briefing, Obama comes into the room, he’s a little bit late, sitting around the table is members representatives of the permanent deep state national security bureaucracy. The CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, their lawyers, and the, the NSA, they’re going to explain these things to him. He’s got with him Greg Craig and Eric Holder, who you had here, just been confirmed a couple days earlier and they sit at the top of the table. And they explain these are the various programs you’ve inherited, and Obama’s kind of stressed, he’s chewing nicotine gum, Dick Cheney’s been saying we’re gonna all get killed and it’s going to be Obama’s fault. Later that afternoon he has to go meet with the families of the 9/11 victims who are mad that he temporarily turned off the military commission’s trial at Gitmo. So he’s got all this right at the forefront, the threat of terrorism at the forefront of his brain
. And they explain well here’s this program, it was put in place unilaterally by Bush as an assertion of raw executive power. But over time the intelligence court has begun blessing it and now they’re issuing secret orders to the phone companies for them to turn over these records based on this reading of the Patriot Act so the courts are on board, the statutory authority, the intelligence committees had been briefed on it so all three branches of government are on board. There’ve been some problems with it we’ve discovered lately but those are just technical we’re gonna fix them and he says okay, well so there’s legal authority for it. And he says I guess I’m comfortable with what you’re telling me but I want my lawyers to take a look so he goes to Holder and Craig and they go off and take a look and they do not disturb that initial decision to fix these problems and move on.
15:10 Blackmon:We’ve all heard stories about the deputy sheriff somewhere who did a background check on his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend and then harassed him because of whatever he found there. But is there any version that somebody at the NSA was collecting your information that was then used for political purposes or whatever it is that we would imagine would be the negative consequences of this? Has there been harm?
Savage: Well, have they found that the data was used for political purposes or to spy on a girlfriend, no. There has not been evidence that it has been misused in that sense. I think just to articulate the best critique of it, the fact that, you know, A) there, once the government has a record of everyone’s social connections that can reveal things about them like do they call their psychologist a lot, are they calling an abortion clinic, are they calling someone who appears not to be their wife all the time et cetera. While it hasn’t been abused yet, the temptation is there, it’s a great risk. And in some sense the diminishment of this very abstract sense of freedom and privacy is an abuse even if it was not misused for political ends because is that the country we want to live in? And by Congress last year, by scrapping that program I think in a rare bipartisan fashion answered the question no.
18:30 Blackmon: There’s no doubt that the Obama foreign policy and the approach to national security has been messy and they stumbled a lot in various ways.
Savage: Not just that they stumbled, but it may be that there is no national security policy-making is about choosing among bad options. Which of these options is the, the least bad. As opposed to, here’s the obvious good thing to do, let’s do that thing, why isn’t everyone doing that thing already?
18:53 Blackmon: Exactly.
Savage: Nothing comes without tradeoffs.
18:54 Blackmon: Exactly. As the President is coming into office, uh, these drone strikes are controversial in some regards. But they also seem to be a highly effective way of deteriorating al-Qaeda without engaging additional U.S. troops. And so this is something that seems to have a very high utility and president Obama doubles down on them.
FACTOID: NATO intervention in Libya ended with death of Muammar Gaddafi
But we go through this series of events, the, the uh, unauthorized under the war powers act, action in Libya, arguably a violation of the war powers act, but, and it, you can debate whether that was a success or not, and certainly the way things have turned out in Libya is not great, but at the same time, the, the uh the intentions of the United States did seem to be accomplished in the short term without a big invasion. Uh, even the current approach to ISIS where there’s k been so much criticism of the President from one side, uh, for not engaging in a bigger way, but in reality, it, by not engaging, and there now do seem to be some defeats of ISIS occurring. It is this incredibly complicated world. It turns out that, uh, a world view in the prior administration that, that viewed the world a bit like the film Star Wars does. That, that there’s one evil out there and there’s one bad, one or two critical bad guys, and if we can get to them and break them down, then we can destroy this evil and, and then reorder uh, uh a disordered planet, and a great thing will follow.
Savage: Well, but it turns out the First Order comes, you see. The Islamic State, they just keep going.
18:19 Blackmon: Well, exactly. And the, the world used to be much messier and more complicated.
Savage: Um, that’s right. Uh, the, that’s also, though not to say that they haven’t had some policy successes. And sometimes it’s obscured by the messiness. So I would say the, their handling of newly captured terrorism. They have sort of figured it out with new, with new captures, a way to get good intelligence without torturing people, and to have a stable long-term disposition options so that, this, you don’t have this sort of open wound of holding people without trial 20 years later. You put him on a ship or take him somewhere where he’s sort of out of, out of reach, and interrogate him for intelligence purposes without torture, but without Miranda warnings and so forth either, but that, what he says in those period can’t be used in court, but it can be used to gather more intelligence about where we should go next and who we should go after.
And then you bring in a new team of interrogators a clean team with the FBI, and the courts have upheld this so far, and they continue to interrogate but now for the court, and you prosecute them in an Article III court, a civilian court, and they go off to Florence, the Supermax, in Colorado, and they’re never heard from again. And it works, it works. It works in the way that, just as a pragmatic description of the, is, was this effective. It’s worked over and over again. And so I think that, it’s sort of a more normal way of, a less, of handling things than bringing hundreds of people to Gitmo and holding them forever. We see in the Boston marathon trial, you can get to trial, you can get a death sentence if that’s what you’re going for, without shutting down a city, and without, and even as the 9/11 case continues to flounder in the military commission system, and, and they’re not holding Americans as enemy combatants and so forth anymore.
So that’s sort of, the newly captured ratcheting down, right sizing the policy to sort of deal with 21st century problems without sort of losing our heads over it, I think, has been effective, uh, but, but no one really thinks about it because everyone is still looking at the legacy prisoners he inherited, that, for various reasons, can’t be tried and are still as Guantanamo as a failure to, to close that down, but it’s sort of a problem that has corners around it and is not expanding either.
20:27 Blackmon: You’ve written a really judicious book, it’s interesting that your judiciousness is also one of things that you’ve been dinged a little bit on by reviewers which is a funny thing to me, that we live in a world now that a, uh, a prominent, White House correspondent for The New York Times gets criticized for being judicious but uh, that that’s the world we live in. and I do think that it’s a fairly significant thing that the Obama administration that resisted the urge to go back into, essentially to repeat the land invasion, uh scenario.
Savage: Hugely significant.
20:58 Blackmon: Hugely significant, and uh, and, and something that required a great deal of willingness to take political cost, and, far far riskier thing to do politically than, than uh, to have actually taken dramatic action.
Savage: Although that may be eroding,
21:09 Blackmon:But so does this, does that, is it a more transformational shift, than, than, perhaps it, than you acknowledge it to be in the book?
Savage: I set up the sort of, the notion that, the question was whether the pendulum was gonna swing back, and whether this was, the stuff that Bush had put in place would be the new normal, and just how were gonna live, or whether, uh, we’d recede, and, and I, part of what I say is that that question is too simplistic because there was not one pendulum, there was many and so, uh, you know, clearly with drone strikes and so forth were, the pendulum didn’t swing, and especially surveillance, the pendulum didn’t swing, but in terms of capturing Americans and putting them in military custody without lawyers, and , that did swing hard, in that direction, and so you have to sort of take these case by case by case.
21:53 Blackmon: But so this new norm, this new normal, is it strong enough that that new normal carries into, has a chance of carrying into whoever the next president would be?
Savage: This is why Liberals and Libertarians are so mad at Obama or one of them is because even though he’s ratcheted back a lot of things he has not disavowed with the exception of torture.
He’s kept you know, he clearly accepted this is war and therefore authorities that exist only in war are real, for real, literal war not a metaphorical war are legitimate. He doesn’t want to use them as much as like a last resort, not a first resort. But by keeping them available and on the table it means that the next president or some successor down the road can just amp it up again and start bringing new prisoners to Guantanamo and so forth as opposed to closing the door permanently on it. And so what the next president does and whether the next president wants to continue this sort of slow wind down in some areas and steady state in the other or whether the next president wants to make wrenching changes and go back to the Bush approach or more. Uh I think Donald Trump said that he would not only bring back water boarding but more, whatever that means, when you know and it’s not clear whether or what his theory of why that would be legal or uh but.
23:06 Blackmon: And Ted Cruz has said that the right approach to ISIS is to carpet bomb the whole topography.
Savage: Right, uh obviously campaign rhetoric has been wild in certain cases. But what they, how they will actually govern might prove to be very different then the expectations created but that rhetoric too.
23:20 Blackmon: What, I guess presumably, maybe hopefully, we should say the same sort of reality check that Barack Obama confronted when he became president would also happen in the inverse.
Savage: That’s right. And you know one of the checks have been political and some of the checks have you know what Congress is actually willing to stomach and some of the checks has been real world, the terrorists continue to try to blow planes up.
23:42 Blackmon: Obviously these questions are ones that will confront the next president. You are a great judicious impartial reporter so you are not going to give us a policy recommendation in a specific sort of way but if you were talking to a top advisor or to the person who ultimately is the next president and giving some sort of counsel as to what part of this story should they pay attention to, what part of this offers some wisdom to the next president and their approach to these questions? What would you say to that counselor or to the next president?
Savage: A substantive response is if you’re going to do something and you say you’re going to do something then you should do it and not just say you’re going eventually. So a huge mistake, whether you think Obama’s plan to close Gitmo was a good one or a bad one, a huge mistake he made just as a level of governance was to say he was going to close Gitmo and then not do it. And then it floated out there for a year and then the politics changed and suddenly he just couldn’t do it because the piñata had been shattered. Or to say they were going to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the 9/11 guys to New York but then not just put them on a plane and move then to New York and then the underwear bomb happens and if they changed the facts on the ground by doing what they said they were going to do when they were going to do it they would have been less stymied in that policy.
24:56 Blackmon: I think though what you’re really saying, the counsel you’re really offering is that arrogance is bad idea and timidity is a bad idea and a wise president operates somewhere in the middle. Charlie Savage, thank you for being here. The book is Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency. We hope that you will join this conversation with American Forum on the Miller Center Facebook page or following us on Twitter @douglasblackmon or @americanforumtv. To send us a comment, to watch other episodes or download podcasts or read a transcript visit us at millercenter.orgamericanforum. I’m Doug Blackmon. See you next week.