Charlie Savage on Guantánamo's Future & "Power Wars: Inside Obama's Post-9/11 Presidency" (Pt. 2)

November 04, 2015
Web Exclusive


Charlie Savage

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The New York Times. He is author of the new book, Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency. He is also the author of the 2007 book, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy.

With just over a year left in office, President Obama is running out of time to fulfill his longstanding promise to close the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay. In this web exclusive interview, we talk about the future of the prison with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Charlie Savage, author of the new book, Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency.

Watch Part 1


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, with just over a year left in office, President Obama is running out of time to fulfill his longstanding promise to close the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay. Obama signed an executive order for Guantánamo’s closure in one of his first moves as president. But for the last six years, the administration has backed down in the face of staunch Republican opposition. Now that showdown could be revived. Just last month, Obama vetoed a Republican-backed military spending bill that would have made it more difficult to close Guantánamo.

AMY GOODMAN: The imprisonment of foreign citizens at Guantánamo is one of several Bush-era policies that continue under Obama’s presidency. Today we’re going to continue our discussion about the story of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism legacy in Part 2 of our discussion about a new book, Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency. It’s by the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Charlie Savage. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Charlie, I wanted to ask you specifically about Guantánamo. In your book, you report that Obama really is maybe the last person in the administration still holding out hope for closing Guantánamo. What about the defeat he has suffered all these years now in being unable to close it? And do you think there’s any possibility of him doing something before he leaves office?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: I mean, it’s a great topic, and it’s a topic that I tell, you know, from year to year to year in the sort of behind-the-scenes wrestling in the book. It’s hard to reduce to a single thought. But a couple sort of insights that arise from it is, first of all, they totally mishandled it. Obama announced on January 22nd we’re going to close Gitmo, and then he didn’t close Gitmo. They were going to take their time. They were going to look at each detainee. They were going to carefully figure out, well, what’s the—where should we send them, this place or that place. And a year passes, and the politics change in that year, because of, you know, the Republicans figure out they can attack Obama for wanting to bring terrorists to your backyard, even though it would be a maximum-security lockup. And the underwear bombing happens, as I mentioned, and there are a few other incidents. And this thing—this policy was sitting out there like a piñata, and then that—just to be hit and hit and hit. Whereas I think, in retrospect, if he had just done it on day three—put them on a plane and bring them to Fort Leavenworth or something—it would have been a fait accompli.

But he drags his feet, and then, eventually, Congress passes a statute, that he reluctantly signs into law because it’s bundled with a bunch of other stuff, that says you cannot bring Guantánamo detainees onto U.S. soil for any purpose—not for continued detention, not for prosecution. And that statute remains in place today. One of the reasons he vetoed the bill last week that you mentioned was that it didn’t lift the statute, but with or without that bill, there’s a provision like that that lasts at least, I think, through the end of the fiscal year and September 2016. And so, that, by the way, was a Democratic-controlled Congress that enacted that law. So, this is kind of—it’s not just Republicans that did this to him. But certainly Republicans now control Congress. The idea that they’re going to give him a policy win by lifting that seems to me very remote. Even if he vetoes and vetoes, it’s—you know, it would take a government shutdown eventually, because it’s attached to the budget.

So that’s going to leave—if that impasse remains, it’s going to leave him with two options, one of which is policy failure and just knowing that history will say he said with fanfare he was going to do this thing and never was able to do it, or the other would be to act in defiance of the statute, to say, "I’m the commander-in-chief, and I can move wartime prisoners. Congress can’t tie my hands in that way." And that brings its own problems. That’s the kind of thing George W. Bush used to do that drove Democrats crazy, including Obama. And so, is he going to go out—go out of office doing something—acting in defiance of a statute? That doesn’t seem like a very attractive option for him, either. So it’s a terrible dilemma.

And I think—especially for your viewers, I think that this shouldn’t pass without noting that his plan for closing Guantánamo is not supported by some on the left, either, because his plan for closing Guantánamo is not to let go everyone who can’t be prosecuted. His plan is to bring another at least 40, maybe 60, people who can’t be tried but are deemed too dangerous to release, and keep holding them in law of war detention without trial somewhere else. So, you know, query whether that’s really closing Guantánamo. You know, is Guantánamo the physical prison with a name, or is Guantánamo this policy as a means of dealing with terrorism which has attracted so much controversy over the last 13, 14 years? And so, some human rights advocates and civil liberties advocates certainly want to see Gitmo closed, but they don’t want to see all those prisoners brought to U.S. soil and held under that authority here, because they think that would institutionalize the mechanism of detention without trial as a way of dealing with terrorism here on U.S. soil, which would actually be a pyrrhic victory from their vantage point.

AMY GOODMAN: In all of your work, what most shocked you in your investigations of the Obama administration?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: You know, because I do this day in and day out, and I’ve been doing it for 13 years, like shock is a strange way to think about it. I mean, this is my world. I’m used to it. I’m immersed in it. I talk to these people all the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Or what most surprised you?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Just there was something—well, there were certain—there’s certain stories I tell in the book that are not of the—you know, there are some in which we knew what they did, and we just didn’t know why or we didn’t know the behind-the-scenes deliberations, others that we just didn’t know had happened at all. And so, when I found one of those, I was, you know, particularly interested.

One of them, for example, is about how they ended up sort of compromising their principles a little bit on using evidence derived from torture to hold someone at Guantánamo. I tell the story—none of this was known. I told the story of this guy, a Yemeni guy named Alhag, and he was captured by Pakistanis in a raid on a guesthouse in 2002 with a bunch of other people and brought to Gitmo. And really, the evidence against him was he was at this guesthouse. That’s basically it. It was very thin. But there was one guy who had apparently been tortured, or at least abused, and he had said something that applied to everyone at the guesthouse, something like "We were all going to go, you know, attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan," or something. It was sort of this vague statement.

And when the Obama people came in and looked at everyone—they had this six-agency task force—they looked at everything, including that statement, and they decided that "We need to let this guy go. This is just too thin." And they almost sent him in 2010 to the Netherlands. And then, at the last second, he said something to a visiting delegation from the Netherlands about how he might like to go home someday. And the security establishment freaked out, and they said, "Well, if we send him to the Netherlands, he’ll just get on a plane and go to Yemen." And this was after the underwear bombing, and they just thought, "No one can go to Yemen, because al-Qaeda is too active there and the government doesn’t have control. And so, we can’t send him to the Netherlands after all."

And that meant that this court case he had brought, saying, "Let me go. There’s not enough evidence I’m part of al-Qaeda," had to be addressed instead of being mooted because he was going to be put on a plane. And the problem was other people who had been at this guesthouse had already gone through the court system, and the judges had been—had thrown it out and said, "This is garbage. What are you doing? Get rid of this person. This is not—this is no good." But they hadn’t been using this torture-tainted piece of evidence. And so, the Justice Department litigators who had to go into court said, "We are not going to—we can’t not tell the judge about this other reason why we think he’s dangerous, OK, because it’s unethical to bring a trivial case in court, and without that, it looks like we’re doing something trivial." The State Department says, "We can’t use this torture-tainted evidence in court. That’s against—we said we weren’t going to do that. That’s against our morals and our ethics." And then the intelligence community says, "We can’t let him go. We’ve got to fight to hold onto him, because we can’t send him back to Yemen." So it set up this three-way policy dilemma. Someone had to lose. And because it was all happening with sealed filings and no one knew what was going on, it was the State Department that lost. So they kept fighting in court, and they used the torture-tainted evidence, and Alhag stayed locked up for two-and-a-half more years. I think he was eventually in late 2013 resettled somewhere else.

But it’s like—I mean, that’s a sort of slightly complicated story, but it also shows—that’s a sort of a flavor of what I’m trying to bring to readers. You can see how the permanent security establishment, the concerns of litigators going into court, the high values of the sort of liberals that were part of the administration all come into conflict with these dilemmas that don’t have perfect answers, and they end up doing things that, certainly in 2008, I don’t think they would have envisioned doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for being with us, Charlie Savage, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The New York Times. His new book is called Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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