- 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. The imprisonment of foreigners at Guantánamo is one of several Bush-era policies that continue under Obama’s presidency. While Obama has shut down the CIA’s secret prisons and banned the harshest of Bush’s torture methods, many others—the drone war, presidential secrecy, jailing whistleblowers and mass surveillance—either continue or have even grown. The story of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism legacy is told in the new book, “Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Charlie Savage.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: With just over a year left in office, President Obama is running out of time to fulfill his long-term 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.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This legislation specifically impedes our ability to close Guantánamo, in a way that I have repeatedly argued is counterproductive to our efforts to defeat terrorism around the world. Guantánamo is one of the premier mechanisms for jihadists to recruit. It’s time for us to close it. It is outdated. It’s expensive. It’s been there for years. And we can do better, in terms of keeping our people safe while making sure that we are consistent with our values. So, I’m going to be be vetoing this authorization bill. I’m going to be sending it back to Congress. And my message to them is very simple: Let’s do this right.
AMY GOODMAN: The imprisonment of foreign citizens at Guantánamo is one of several Bush-era policies that continued under Obama’s presidency. While Obama has closed the CIA’s secret prisons and banned the harshest of Bush’s torture methods, many others—the drone war, presidential secrecy, jailing whistleblowers, mass surveillance—either continue or have even expanded. The story of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism legacy is told in the new book, Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency. It’s by the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Charlie Savage.
Charlie Savage, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.
CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thanks so much for having me on.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about why you wrote this book and called it Power Wars.
CHARLIE SAVAGE: So I’ve been covering these sorts of issues, post-9/11 legal policy issues about collective security and individual rights, since about 2003, when I first went to Guantánamo, and then expanded out from there to issues like surveillance and torture and all the rest of these things that you just mentioned. And I remember in 2009, when Obama came in and he issued executive orders like the one you just mentioned, Juan, and was going to close the prisons, and there was going to be no more torture and so forth, I was thinking, “What am I going to do with myself? You know, this is my specialty. This is what I get up in the morning and come to work and think about. This is what all my sourcing is. And I need to find something else to do. Maybe there’s an opening in the sports department or something, right?”
But it turned out that there was quite a lot to keep me busy in the years that followed. These issues were not so simple. There weren’t going to just be turned off, notwithstanding that first week of executive orders. In fact, very quickly, it became clear that there was going to be a lot more continuity with the counterterrorism policies that Obama had inherited from George W. Bush than the expectations created by his campaign rhetoric. I think by February of '09, I was over at the White House talking to Obama's new White House counsel about why that was. And so, for the last few years I’ve been chronicling all this and continuing to go to Guantánamo and think about executive power issues. And then, of course, with the Edward Snowden leaks, we saw how much the surveillance state that Obama had inherited had remained intact.
And it became clear to me that there was a big story here that could not be told in individual newspaper articles, which—you put all this together systematically, but also go behind the scenes and talk to people. I talked to 150 current and former government officials. I gained access to lots of documents that hadn’t been public. And I was attempting to explain what happened. How did this—how did it turn out like this? People on the left say Obama is acting like Bush. Is that true? What does it mean to act like Bush? Maybe it’s true in one respect, but not others. But also, when you look at these, over and over, these sort of—these episodes where things are happening in the world, and the sort of liberal Obama lawyers are grappling with, and policymakers, what are we going to do about it, and the rules are not clear, and it’s not as simple as it seemed to be on the campaign stump—”Oh, we’re just going to end the war on terror”—when it’s your administration that is going to be blamed and maybe go down in flames if there is a successful terrorist attack.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you point out that the—that there was a pivotal moment early on with the Christmas Day underwear bomber of 2009 and the impact that that had on the debate within the Obama administration?
CHARLIE SAVAGE: Absolutely. So this is one of my arguments in the book, and the book opens with a trio of chapters about the Christmas 2009 moment and the sort of political fallout from it. So your listeners or your viewers may remember that a al-Qaeda terrorist attempted to blow up a plane with a bomb in his underwear on Christmas Day in 2009, and, thankfully, the bomb failed to go off.
But it quickly became this enormous political and policy event. And the FBI read the terrorist his Miranda rights, and that—suddenly Mirandizing terrorists became a political issue. In New York, even Democrats who had sort of cautiously favored having the 9/11 trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others in a normal court in New York, suddenly there was this wave of fear, and the political support for that option collapsed. Obama was forced to—by politics, to put a moratorium on transferring Yemenis from Guantánamo, which basically killed the effort to close Gitmo, because so many of the low-level prisoners are from Yemen—because the affiliate was based in Yemen, that had sent the operation. And most importantly, Scott Brown, the Republican, wins Ted Kennedy’s seat in deep blue Massachusetts a couple weeks later. And he does that by pounding on this issue of Obama’s trying to use—you know, give rights to terrorists, and he should just be sending this guy to Guantánamo.
And I think inside the administration, all this culminated in a sense that they really can’t sustain an attack. Everything they would try to do, on totally unrelated issues—healthcare and so forth—would collapse. Obama would be a failed, one-term president. And at that point, this sort of ambiguous, ambivalent first year he had had, where he’d sort of kept this but got rid of that, was going to keep this but ratchet it back, shifts, and he takes a much harder line on counterterrorism issues than he had before as an individual. And within the administration, security-minded voices, many of whom are permanent parts of the government, not part of the political appointees who come in, and who don’t—who are reluctant to let this guy out of Guantánamo or put this tool back in the toolbox and say we’re not going to use it anymore, they have a lot more influence. And the sort of reformer-minded faction gets quiet. And I chronicle that through sort of fly-on-the-wall meetings through these disputes that—some of which we knew kind of what happened, but we didn’t know why and who was taking what position and what was going on behind closed doors. And others of the stories I’m telling in here, we didn’t know at all.
AMY GOODMAN: You were warning about surveillance long ago, long before Edward Snowden, though Edward Snowden revealed so much. President Obama had a decision to make: whether to continue the mass surveillance state, the mass surveillance of Americans, not to mention others. Talk about the decision that he made, the difference he has now made in history.
CHARLIE SAVAGE: So, in this book, I have two chapters about surveillance. And one of them is only about what happened under Obama, both before and after Ed Snowden. And the other one tries to take everything that we now know, because of the Snowden leaks and then the government’s declassifications as a result of the Snowden leaks, of how surveillance developed from the '70s up until 2009, and put it together into a coherent story, because there's like this whole secret history of how technology and spying powers changed that we didn’t know. Now it’s knowable.
But I open that historical chapter with a briefing that Obama received on February 4, I think it was, 2009—right at that moment where I was thinking there was nothing left for me to do, but was also starting to realize, “Wait, what about these things they say they’re going to keep?” But we didn’t know about this at the time. So Obama comes into the Situation Room to receive a briefing on all these surveillance programs and, you know, the program that’s keeping records of all Americans’ domestic phone calls and emails, that we don’t know about until after the Snowden leaks. But he finds out about it at this briefing. And the sort of permanent security state—the FBI and the NSA and the CIA and the intelligence community—want to tell the new president, “Here’s what you’ve inherited.”
And they brief him on all this stuff, and they also explain how George W. Bush had sort of put it in unilaterally, by fiat—”I’m the commander-in-chief. The law doesn’t matter. We’re going to do this”—after 9/11. But also, over time, it had become—it had been secretly put on a stronger legal basis. The intelligence court had begun issuing orders for it. They come up with this PATRIOT Act theory about why maybe it was authorized, counterintuitively, by statute. And so, their argument was: It’s OK now, because the legal basis for it is OK. And over and over, we see the pattern in the Obama administration of “What was the problem with Bush? Is it the problem that these programs are inherently bad, or is the problem that Bush was putting them in place in a way that violated statutes?”
And the very lawyerly minded Obama administration—Obama himself being a lawyer, a lot of the policymakers around him being lawyers—were overwhelmingly focused on the problem with Bush, if there was one, being a legal problem. And so, Obama says, “Well, I’m comfortable”—when he learns about these programs—”I’m comfortable with what you’re telling me, but I want my lawyers—Eric Holder, Greg Craig—to take a look. And are they satisfied?” And they were satisfied. I talked to Greg Craig on the record about why he didn’t—you know, they were fighting the security establishment in other ways; why did Obama not stop this when he first heard about it? He was like, “Well, you know, the court had approved it, and there was a statutory basis for it. The intelligence communities know about it. It did not seem to be a legally rogue program. We just needed to make sure we obeyed what the court was telling us to do, and then it was fine, because the problem is law, not the problem is individual rights.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you also reveal that at one point the government was actually considering the physical tracking of Americans through their cellphones, and basically where they were—and the entire population. And you talk—that degree of surveillance, I don’t think has been talked about in the past.
CHARLIE SAVAGE: It was sort of edged out and on the side, but so much was coming out that, you know, which target are you going to pay attention to? This is the 2013 flurry of disclosures. That’s true. So there’s this bulk phone records program, famously, right? It does not keep track of cellphone locational data, but it just says who called whom, when. But there was—the NSA was playing around with “Could we also add another layer of metadata, which is which cellphone tower is this phone proximate to? Can we ingest that in bulk so that everyone’s location at any given moment in the day would also be in our databases? And then we could use that to figure out, if we’re interested in someone or the people that person’s been in contact with, you know, where were they physically.” And they actually got some data, and they started testing the system and then shut it down. That was before Snowden. But it sort of shows you the surveillance state or the people who play with toys at the NSA see the technological operational capabilities of something as interesting, and they play with it, and sometimes the technology gets way beyond what policymakers have decided is actually a good idea and is certainly way beyond what the rules were written to regulate.
AMY GOODMAN: And the prosecution of whistleblowers? I mean, you know it very well, intimately, at The New York Times. Your colleague, James Risen, who was gone after as a journalist by the Obama administration—intensified after Bush. He thought, with Obama, these charges would be dropped; instead, it went the other way. Although, ultimately, it was resolved.
CHARLIE SAVAGE: The charges of his alleged source.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, and also the questioning of him, demanding that he release information and face jail.
CHARLIE SAVAGE: That he testify, that’s right, mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the whistleblowers? You write about them in this book.
CHARLIE SAVAGE: That’s right. So I have—you know, in some ways, Obama sort of continued at least the outlines maybe of what he inherited from Bush. In some ways, like torture, he ratcheted it back. In a few ways, he goes beyond Bush. He uses drones and does targeted killings at a much more intense clip.
And another way in which things are different, in a more aggressive way under Obama, is that this administration is overseeing now the criminal prosecution of nine leakers. I mean, as a side issue, I’d quarrel with calling them all whistleblowers. I think that makes it too easy for defenders of what’s happening to say, “Well, this guy’s not a whistleblower,” and then it sort of discredits the whole critique. But I would say the people who are providing information to the public, for public education purposes, without authorization, of information that higher-ranking people of the government want kept secret. Nine prosecutions in this administration versus three in all of American history combined. A radical change, right? And when there is a—so I have a whole chapter looking at each of the nine cases and trying to figure out, behind the scenes, where did this come from, because when you see something that turns on a dime like that, a sea change, you really want it to be—to make sense. You want someone to have at least decided to do that. So I—
AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds.
CHARLIE SAVAGE: OK. And part of what I came up with was this just happened because—this goes back to Snowden. Because of technology, it’s impossible to hide who’s in contact with whom anymore, and cases are viable to investigate now that weren’t before. That’s not something Obama did or Bush did. It’s just the way it is in the 21st century, and investigative journalism is still grappling with the implications of that.
AMY GOODMAN: But did you expect Obama to do better, since he had attacked Bush so much on these issues?
CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, I don’t want to say better or worse—that’s not my role. I’m just trying to explain why did this happen, this amazingly surprising turn of events.
AMY GOODMAN: Part 2 at democracynow.org. Charlie Savage, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The New York Times. His new book, Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency.