In his latest book, New York Times reporter Charlie Savage scores the Obama administration on its responses to what was left of President George W. Bush’s war on terror.
By Savage’s account, the decisions the Obama administration has made with respect to national security policy all stem from a single event: the failed attempt by al-Qaeda’s arm in Yemen to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. “The entire episode became the functional equivalent of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which had transformed the Bush-Cheney administration,” Savage writes. “The result of the stomach-churning near miss of a mass murder over American soil and its political fallout would have profound implications for Obama’s legal policy, hardening his administration’s approach to counter-terrorism.”
The attempted attack involved a young Nigerian student named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and a new, undetectable bomb that al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen had developed. Abdulmutallab hid the bomb in his underwear, but it failed to properly ignite. Even so, it sent a frisson through the Obama administration.
Savage writes that before the Christmas incident, Obama was keen to move as many prisoners as he could out of the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay. After the attempted attack, though, partly because the bomb plot originated in Yemen, Obama put a moratorium on repatriating Yemeni detainees. Yemenis made up a large portion of the men held at the prison in Cuba, so Obama’s moratorium hamstrung his efforts to close it.
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While the issue of closing the Guantánamo facility comes up throughout the book, Savage doesn’t shed light on one of the great mysteries surrounding the effort to shutter the prison: why the Obama administration didn’t take office with a plan when Obama had made closing Guantánamo a signature issue in the campaign.
Critiques of the Bush administration’s war on terror typically fall into two camps: one focused on civil liberties, and the other on rule of law. For the civil libertarians, the problem with the Bush administration was that it appeared to strike the wrong balance between rights and national security. Those more focused on rule of law took issue with the way that balance was struck — without congressional or judicial oversight. Obama has had to try to appeal to both groups.
Savage makes the case that Obama was never in the civil liberties camp. His followers put him there. “President Obama and most of his people appeared in practice to care somewhat more about civil liberties than President Bush and most of his team,” Savage writes. “But the Obama team was not, and never had been, the full-throated civil libertarians that Senator Obama had allowed and encouraged his supporters in the Democratic primary campaign to think — and his opponents to fear — they would be.”
To experienced watchers of national security policy, all this will sound vaguely familiar and merely add detail to what is already known. What Savage contributes to the broader discussion is his careful behind-the-scenes reporting. He reveals, for example, that after the Defense Department’s top lawyer, Jeh Johnson, and CIA General Counsel Stephen Preston finished a classified memo providing what they thought was the legal justification for the targeted killing of the American-born radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki, the man thought to have ordered the Christmas Day attack, they discovered from a law professor’s blog post that they had neglected to address a foreign-murder statute. They were asked to write a better memo.
The great strength of Power Wars, and sometimes its weakness, is its methodical, exquisitely detailed chronicling of the back-and-forth between principals and deputies while they crafted policy. That said, one can’t help wishing at times that Savage had chosen to tell this story by focusing on a handful of characters and their roles in the events rather than writing an exhaustive catalog. That criticism aside, there is no more comprehensive guide to today’s debates over national security and civil liberties than Power Wars.
Dina Temple-Raston reviewed this book for The Washington Post.