(Review for New York Journal of Books) Charlie Savage, the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist, has put together a wide-ranging and important examination of the Obama presidency focusing on the legal-security challenges of modern war. The huge account, perhaps Savage’s Magnus Opus, chronicles how “interpreting and applying national security law to such turbulent and rapidly changing conditions” post-9/11 was a huge amount of work for an Obama administration that sought to define itself against his predecessor’s record.
Obama had promised “unprecedented level of openness in government” reversing a culture the Democrats claimed the Bush administration had created. Savage explains that Cheney in particular saw the law as encroaching on presidential power. The accumulation of executive power by the Bush presidency and potential violations of civil liberties and the rule of law, saw a response from Obama but one that was actually more continuity than change and was, as Savage writes, “more hawkish than many had expected.”
Indeed the Obama administration would focus on the ensuring the rule of law and not rolling back on the challenges to civil liberties. The focus was on waging a rules-based war, and as Obama would say “we do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat.”
Power Wars tracks in some detail how difficult Obama found it to end some of the programs that Bush had initiated. Nowhere was this difficulty more obvious than in the case of the failure to close Guantanamo Bay. While the new president would describe the closure as “really important to me and to the country” and order it closed in 2009, over seven years later it remains open at huge cost to the American taxpayer, not to mention that it continues to hemorrhage U.S. reputation legitimacy (witness ISIS use of the iconic jumpsuits used by its hostages). One hundred seven prisoners are still being held at the camp at the time of writing, and Savage contrasts how the executive branch closed Bagram prison fairly easily but with involvement of Congress and the courts couldn’t close Guantanamo Bay.
Facing the legal-security challenges saw Obama, who’d spent a decade teaching constitutional law, evolve into a extremely pragmatic “lawyerly” president. Yet Savage’s chronicle highlights the gap between rhetoric and action. The treatment and processing of “terrorist” suspects showed this challenge for a White House facing new problems and an extremely hostile Congress. The notion of moving suspects to civilian courts became a political hot potato and led Obama to adopt a military-civilian hybrid model. This was a costly choice, and in 2014 the US government spent $78 million, not including personnel costs, to achieve just 33 days of hearings in military commissions.
Savage is well placed to take us on the journey of the Obama presidency, having good contacts on his “beat” although his continual reminder that sections were being reported “for the first time” eventually begins to grate somewhat. The interaction of politics and personality at the top levels of government reads as a bureaucratic soap opera around the scope and limits of executive power in a new type of war.
Power Wars explores the challenges of bulk data collection and the prism scheme that by October 2011 saw the government was collecting “more than two hundred and fifty million Internet communications each year.” Snowden, Manning and Wikileaks all make an appearance as part of the story around the antagonism between secrecy versus transparency.
The impact of Snowden’s leaks are well told as having “killed a major, long-running program that was collecting data about Americans’ communications in bulk.” Yet Obama’s “war against whistleblowers” would see nine criminal cases on leaking in his first seven years compared to three under all previous presidents. Savage is clear where he stands on this issue writing that he opposes “the criminalization of unauthorized disclosures.”
While Obama did succeed in reducing the number of newly created classified secrets, other intentions were delayed by the difficulty in deescalating counterterrorism programs in the face of opposition who were warning that they would lead to “blood on his hands.”
In addition, the full range of in fighting between various Washington bodies is displayed in fights between the CIA and Senate Intelligence Committee, the White House and Congress, State and Pentagon, and many others. Obama’s pragmatism was sorely tested, and he steadily adapted to a “governing realpolitik in an era of congressional gridlock.”
One of the most high profile tactics of the Obama administration was the use of drone warfare and targeted killings. An interesting point is touched on but not hugely explored as to the challenge of how to define who is directly associated with Al Qaeda and therefore a legitimate target. Meanwhile the high profile killing of the American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki is explained as not a deliberate targeting but rather a consequence of his presence alongside other Al Qaeda leaders who were targets at the time. Yet Savage acknowledges the damage from the episode and that “the secrecy surrounding the killing of al-Awlaki raised a challenge to democratic accountability and America’s system of self-government.”
The overall narrative of Savage’s work is that of a president who wanted to scale back U.S. interventions abroad but found that the world and in particular his own domestic political system, wouldn’t cooperate. This sees Power Wars finish with an unanswered question following the Libya and Syria wars and the rise of ISIS about whether the U.S. now faces a never-ending conflict despite Obama being clear that America’s interests are not served by “endless war.”