Business as Usual on Steroids: The Obama Administration Doubles Down on the War on Terror
n the seven weeks since the killing of Osama bin Laden, pundits and
experts of many stripes have concluded that his death represents a
marker of genuine significance in the story of America’s encounter with
terrorism. Peter Bergen, a bin Laden expert, was typically blunt
the day after the death when he wrote, "Killing bin Laden is the end of
the war on terror. We can just sort of announce that right now."
Yet you wouldn’t know it in Washington where, if anything, the Obama
administration and Congress have interpreted the killing of al-Qaeda’s
leader as a virtual license to double down on every “front” in the war
on terror. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was no less blunt
than Bergen, but with quite a different endpoint in mind. “Even as we
mark this milestone,” she said on the day Bergen’s comments were
published, “we should not forget that the battle to stop al-Qaeda and
its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of bin Laden.
Indeed, we must take this opportunity to renew our resolve and redouble
National Security Adviser John Brennan concurred. “This is a strategic blow to al-Qaeda,” he commented
in a White House press briefing. “It is a necessary but not necessarily
sufficient blow to lead to its demise. But we are determined to
destroy it." Similarly, at his confirmation hearings to become
Secretary of Defense, CIA Director Leon Panetta called for Washington toexpand its shadow wars
. "We’ve got to keep the pressure up,” he told the senators.
Tomgram: Karen Greenberg, How to End the War on Terror
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Only
two days left to get your personalized, signed copy of the must-read
history book of the summer, Adam Hochschild’s bestselling To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918,
in return for a $100 contribution to this website. Anybody still
thinking about doing so should head directly for our donation page by clicking here. Tom]
Every time we get a peek inside Washington’s war on terror, it just
couldn’t be uglier. Last week, three little home-grown nightmares from
that “war” caught my attention. One you could hardly miss. On the front page of the New York Times, Glenn Carle, a former CIA official, claimed that the Bush administration had wanted “to get” Juan Cole, whose Informed Comment blog devastatingly critiqued the invasion and occupation of Iraq (and who writes regularly for TomDispatch). Not only that, administration officials called on the CIA to dig up the dirt on him.
Keep in mind that, though the Times quotes “experts” as
saying “it might not be unlawful for the C.I.A. to provide the White
House with open source material [on Cole],” that just shows you where
“expertise” has gone in the post-9/11 world. Since the Watergate era,
the CIA has been prohibited from domestic spying, putting American
citizens off-limits. Period. Of course, been there, done that, right?
In case you think taking down Cole was just a matter of the bad old
days of the Bush administration, note that the journalist who revealed
this little shocker, James Risen, is being hounded by the Obama
administration. He's been subpoenaed by federal authorities to testify against a CIA agent accused of leaking information to him (on a bungled CIA plan to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program) for his book State of War. It’s worth remembering that no administration, not even Bush’s, has been fiercer than Obama’s in going after government whistle blowers.
In the meantime, in case you didn’t think American law enforcement
could sink much lower while investigating “terrorist activity” and
generally keeping an eye on Americans, think again. According to
Charlie Savage of the Times, a revised FBI operational manual offers its 14,000 agents
new leeway in “searching databases,” using “surveillance teams to
scrutinize the lives of people who have attracted their attention,” and
“going through household trash.” Yes, that’s right, if you see
somebody at the dumpster out back, it may not be a homeless person but
an FBI agent.
And then there was Peter Wallsten’s account in the Washington Post
of a nationwide FBI investigation of “prominent peace activists and
politically active labor organizers.” According to Wallsten, news
leaking out about it hasn’t sat so well with union supporters of
President Obama (or, for all we know, with the president himself), since
“targets” include “Chicagoans who crossed paths with Obama when he was
a young state senator and some who have been active in labor unions
that supported his political rise.” All are (shades of Cole in the
Bush years) “vocal and visible critics of U.S. foreign policy in the
Middle East and South America.”
Strange are the ways of the American national surveillance state.
And lest you think these are simply minor aberrations, consider what TomDispatch regular Karen J. Greenberg, author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First One Hundred Days,
has to say about the direction the war on terror is taking in the wake
of Osama bin Laden’s death. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest
TomCast audio interview in which Greenberg discusses how fear of
terrorism increases presidential power, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom
Business as Usual on Steroids:
The Obama Administration Doubles Down on the War on Terror
by Karen J. Greenberg
As if to underscore the policy implications of this commitment to
“redoubling our efforts,” drone aircraft were dispatched on escalating
post-bin-Laden assassination runs from Yemen
(including a May 6th failed attempt on American al-Qaeda follower Anwar
al-Awlaki) to Pakistan. There, on May 23rd, a drone failed to take out
Taliban leader Mullah Omar, while, on June 2nd, an attempt to kill
Ilyas Kashmiri, a militant associated with the 2008 terrorist attack on
Mumbai, India, may (or may not) have failed. And those were only the
most publicized of escalating drone attacks, while reports of a major “intensification” of the drone campaign in Yemen are pouring in.
In the meantime, President Obama used the bin Laden moment to push through and sign into law a four-year renewal of the Patriot Act, despite bipartisan resistance
in Congress and the reservations of civil liberties groups. They had
stalled its passage earlier in the year, hoping to curtail some of its
particularly onerous sections, including the “lone wolf” provision
that allows surveillance of non-US citizens in America, even if they
have no ties to foreign powers, and the notorious Section 215, which
grants the FBI authority to obtain library and business records in the
name of national security.
One thing could not be doubted. The administration was visibly using
the bin Laden moment to renew George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror
(even if without that moniker). And let’s not forget about the leaders
of Congress, who promptly accelerated their efforts to ensure that the
apparatus for the war that 9/11 started would never die. Congressman
Howard McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee,
was typical. On May 9th, he introduced legislation
meant to embed in law the principle of indefinite detention without
trial for suspected terrorists until “the end of hostilities.” What
this would mean, in reality, is the perpetuation ad infinitum of that Bush-era creation, our prison complex at Guantanamo (not to speak of our second Guantanamo at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan).
In other words, Washington now seems to be engaged in a wholesale
post-bin Laden ratification of business as usual, but this time on
Perhaps after all these years the nation’s leadership was simply
unprepared for bin Laden’s death and hasn’t been able to imagine
switching directions readily, or perhaps the war on terror has simply
become a way of life. Certainly, the Obama administration has a record
of translating potentially propitious moments for change into strategic
Remember, for instance, the president’s day-one-in-the-Oval-Office pledge
to close Guantanamo within a year? Six months later, the
administration had doubled down on the idea of the indefinite detention
of terror suspects and so effectively made Obama’s promise meaningless.
It’s a pattern that’s repeated itself when it comes to the Afghan War,
the trial in New York City of 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Sheik Mohammed,
and other crucial matters.
But think about it for a moment: Should the postmortem to bin Laden
be just a continuation of the same-old-same-old? Shouldn’t there be a
national pause for reflection as the tenth anniversary of 9/11
approaches? Wouldn’t it make sense to stop and rethink policy in the
light of his death and of a visibly tumultuous new moment in the Greater
Middle East with its various uprisings and brewing civil wars?
has an administration that prides itself on thinking before doing
pushed on without a moment’s reflection? Why shouldn’t the president
establish a commission filled with at least a few new faces (and so a
few new thoughts) to assess what a war on terror might even mean today?
And why not insist that, until the findings of such a commission come
in, there will be no new expenditures, legislation, or policy decisions
to continue -- let alone further expand -- that war, its detention
policies, or for that matter the Patriot Act?
Were the President to establish such a commission, here are five
symbolic steps it might recommend -- hardly the only ones, but a start
-- that could help set the U.S. on another path and put the war on terror behind us:
1. Concede that there is no more tangible endpoint for the war on terror than the death of bin Laden:
Rather than trying to banish the term “war on terror” (as the Obama
administration did in 2009), let’s face it squarely. Practically
speaking, at the moment as for the past near-decade, it is little but a
catch-all phrase for “endless war.”
Our commission would have to face a basic question: If we are not to
commit to war without end, what could the “cessation of hostilities”
possibly mean when it comes to American terror policy? Any attempt at a
definition would have to grapple with the real meaning of bin Laden’s
death. After all, it may be the only tangible victory we’ll ever have.
What a moment, then, to announce that the war on terror has now passed
out of its “war” phase and entered a phase of risk management.
At present, Congress is considering an expansion of the Authorization to Use Military Force
(AUMF) that it passed on September 14, 2001, and that allowed “the use
of force against those nations, organizations, or persons [the
President] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the
attacks of 9/11. The current version
builds upon the previous open-ended war model and actually expands the
number of possible targets for the use of force to those who “have
engaged in hostilities or have directly supported hostilities in aid of a
nation, organization or person” that is engaged in hostilities against
the U.S. or its coalition partners.
Nor does it have an end date. How long this overly broad, overly
vague policy would remain in effect remains unknown. It would be far
better if current and pending revisions of the AUMF were more honest in
acknowledging that the counterterrorism policy it promotes is slated to
last indefinitely, much like the “wars” on drugs and organized crime.
This would, at least, put in front of lawmakers the appropriate
question: Are you willing to authorize military force as your perpetual
state of risk management against an ever-expanding list of enemies?
Perhaps, in the context of an endless state of war (and the expenses
that would go with it), Congress might prove more circumspect about
granting such broad powers to the president.
2. Release John Walker Lindh: This would be a symbolic act
of compassion, a way to turn our attention back to the first moments of
the Bush administration’s disastrous Global War on Terror, and perhaps
help along the process of heading Washington in new directions. Lindh,
you may remember, was the young man captured and turned over to U.S.
forces by Afghan allies in the early weeks of the invasion of
An American who had spent time with the Taliban and was ready to
fight for them (but not against the United States), he was the first
person against whom the Bush administration, in one of their favored
phrases, “took off the gloves.” He
was mistreated and abused while wounded. Later, faced with the
prospect of never emerging from jail, he provided information to the
authorities in exchange for a 20-year sentence in a plea deal.
Even George W. Bush described him
as a “poor boy” who had been “misled,” an upper-middle-class American
kid whose teenage identity issues sent him deep into the fundamentalist
part of the Muslim world, though with no indication on his part of any
interest in jihad, nor the slightest idea that the United
States would invade Afghanistan and he would find himself on the other
side of the lines from his own countrymen.
Lindh’s mistreatment in Afghanistan and subsequent sentencing
here were essentially acts of symbolic revenge for the tragic death of
CIA agent Mike Spann, the first official American casualty in what was
already being called the Global War on Terror. His sentence was also
meant as a warning to others who might consider his path.
As it happened, the judge in charge of the case acknowledged that
there was absolutely no evidence Lindh had been involved in Spann’s
murder. Bewilderingly enough, he nonetheless allowed the prosecutor to
tie Lindh inexorably to Spann's murder through the emotional testimony
of Spann's father at sentencing.
The U.S. government was sending a message. If this country would
punish one of its own in such a fashion without evidence of a crime or
even of theoretical allegiance to the idea of jihad against the West, what wouldn’t it do to its foreign enemies?
In prison, Lindh has since committed himself to the quiet life of a
scholar of Islam. Many who have followed this case think that, at age
30, he should be returned to his family.
Lindh’s release would be a signal that the United States was ready to
return to an era of calm justice and that the war on terror, with all
its excesses, was truly coming to an end.
3. Create a rehabilitation program for releasing Guantanamo detainees currently assigned to indefinite detention:
In the same spirit, it’s time to signal that, along with the war on
terror, the paroxysm of fears that led us to detain individuals who had
not committed crimes, but were otherwise deemed harmful, has come to an
end. The Obama administration’s most recent directive on Guantanamo follows its long-hinted-at intention to hold approximately four-dozen
Guantanamo detainees in indefinite detention for a variety of reasons.
Bottom line: although there is insufficient evidence to convict them,
administration officials have determined that each of them could pose a
danger to this country, if released.
Under U.S. law, detention without trial poses constitutional problems, which is why Guantanamo detainees were granted habeas corpus
rights by the Supreme Court. Similarly, under the laws of war, the
detention of prisoners is only justified while hostilities are ongoing.
If there really is no "war" on terror, it is hard to justify holding
detainees indefinitely without a fair adjudication of their rights in a
court of law.
Why not, then, consider creating an American version of the de-radicalization or rehabilitation programs
that flourish elsewhere in the world -- notably, for example in
Indonesia -- as a prelude to release for those where the evidence for a
trial is absent? A rehabilitation program might steer individuals
towards non-violent behavior, whatever their ideological leanings; it
might re-educate them on the subject of Islam; it might introduce
notions of rights and liberties. Religious leaders, psychologists, and
counterterrorism officials could fashion such a program jointly as they
do elsewhere in the world. President Obama
surprisingly inserted the word “rehabilitation” in his March 2011
directive on the future of Guantánamo (“Executive Order -- Periodic
Review of Individuals Detained at Guantánamo Bay Naval Station Pursuant
to the Authorization for Use of Military Force”). Why not use this
milestone moment in the war on terror to follow up in a concrete
4. Revisit the issue of prosecuting those responsible for America’s offshore torture policies in the Bush years: The Obama administration made a decision not to investigate or prosecute
the creators of the torture policy that defined the Bush
administration’s interrogation tactics in its war on terror. They did
so, its officials claimed, in an effort to focus on the overwhelming
issues the new presidency had to confront. They were visibly eager to
avoid stoking a bitter partisan battle that they feared might further
divide the country.
They banked instead on the idea that the lawyers and politicians
responsible for that torture policy and the “black sites” and
“extraordinary renditions” that went with it would quietly fade into the
woodwork. This has obviously not been the case. On the contrary, in
recent months former officials and members of the Bush administration
have openly re-embraced
those policies. In the aftermath of bin Laden’s death, as if on cue,
they immediately flooded the newspapers and air waves with unsupportable
claims that torture had led Washington to the al-Qaeda leader and
should be a crucial part of the American arsenal in the future.
Forget for a moment that torture has still not been shown to have
extracted valuable information (not otherwise available) from terror
suspects. We know, in fact, that on a number of occasions it led
investigators down the wrong path. More importantly, it was a symptom of
the war-on-terror frenzy that gripped this country and led it down the
We now have all the proof we need that pretending torture never
happened, legally speaking, only helps keep us embroiled in that “war”
and the emotions it evokes. If the war on terror is ever to end, then
tolerance for the support of torture has to end as well. Nothing would
accomplish this better than the actual prosecution of the American
crimes of that era -- or at the very least, the investigation and
official condemnation of those who sidestepped the constitution and
diminished the moral standing of the country at home and abroad.
5. Restore permanently to the Department of Justice responsibility for trying terrorists from around the globe:
Since the fall of 2001, the Justice Department has been largely
deprived of its portfolio for trying terrorists captured outside the
United States. With the exception perhaps of cases involving terror
attacks on military targets, there is no reason Justice should not
prosecute such cases, as in the 1990s it successfully prosecuted the
conspirators who first attacked the World Trade Center, as it did in the
African embassy bombings cases, and as it has recently done in Chicago
in the case of Tahawwur Hussain Rana, who was convicted of providing material support
to the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. (He was acquitted of conspiracy
charges in the Mumbai bombing.) Since 9/11, the ability of judges,
prosecutors, and defense attorneys to understand terrorism cases and try
them responsibly has, if anything, increased immeasurably, while the
military commissions system instituted by the Bush administration at
Guantanamo and kept in place by President Obama has crashed disastrously
and repeatedly on the shoals of politics, misinformation, and faulty
Whatever a commission might do when it came to bringing the war on
terror officially to an end, this is the moment -- with the death of bin
Laden, the Arab uprisings, and the 10th anniversary of 9/11 -- to do it
and to begin to seek ways to defend America even while guiding us back
to our true self: a country with respect for the law, restraint when it
comes to the use of force, and rights for all.
Karen J. Greenberg is the executive director of the New York University Center on Law and Security, author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First One Hundred Days, editor of The Torture Debate in America, and a frequent contributor to TomDispatch.com.
Research for this piece was contributed by Susan Quatrone, Gil Shefer,
Camilla McFarland, and Dominic Saglibene from the NYU Center on Law and
Security. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview
in which Greenberg discusses how fear of terrorism increases
presidential power, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
Copyright 2011 Karen J. Greenberg