With the stroke of his pen, he effectively declared an end to the “war on terror,” as former President George W. Bush defined it, signaling to the world that the reach of the US government in battling its enemies will not be limitless.
While Obama says he has no plans to diminish counterterrorism operations abroad, the notion that a president can circumvent long-standing US laws simply by declaring war was halted by executive order in the Oval Office.
Key components of the secret structure developed under Bush are being swept away: The military’s Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility, where the rights of habeas corpus and due process had been denied detainees, will close, and the CIA is now prohibited from maintaining its own overseas prisons. And in a broad swipe at the Bush administration’s lawyers, Obama nullified every legal order and opinion on interrogations issued by any lawyer in the executive branch after Sept. 11, 2001.
It was a swift and sudden end to an era that was slowly drawing to a close anyway, as public sentiment grew against perceived abuses of government power. The feisty debate over the tactics employed against al-Qaeda began more than six years ago as whispers among confidants with access to the nation’s most tightly held secrets. At the time, there was consensus in Congress and among the public that the United States would be attacked again and that the government should take all means necessary to thwart the threat.
The CIA, which had taken the lead on counterterrorism operations worldwide, asked intelligence contacts around the globe to help its teams of covert operatives and clandestine military units identify, kill or capture terrorism suspects. They set up their first interrogation center in a compound walled off by black canvas at Bagram Air Base, and more at tiny bases throughout Afghanistan, where detainees could be questioned outside military rules and the protocols of the Geneva Conventions, which lay out the standards for treatment of prisoners of war.
As the CIA recruited young case officers, polygraphers and medical personnel to work on interrogation teams, the agency’s leaders asked its allies in Thailand and Eastern Europe to set up secret prisons, where people such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh could be held in isolation and subjected to extreme sleep and sensory deprivation, waterboarding and sexual humiliation. These tactics are not permitted under military rules or the Geneva Conventions.
Over time, a tiny circle of federal employees outside these teams got access to some of the reports of interrogations. Some were pleased by the new aggressiveness. Others were horrified. They began to push back gingerly, as did an even smaller number of congressional officials briefed on the reports.
Eventually their worries reached a handful of reporters trying to confirm rumors of people who seemed to have disappeared: a Pakistani microbiologist spirited away in the dead of night in Indonesia, an Afghan prisoner frozen to death at a base code-named the Salt Pit, a German citizen who did not get back on his bus at a border crossing in Macedonia.
Front companies and fictitious people were used to hide a system of aircraft that carried terrorism suspects to “undisclosed locations” and to third countries under a little-known practice called rendition.
Unlike the federal employees, who could go to jail for disclosing the classified program, the reporters and their news outlets were protected by the constitution -- but not from government pressure. Then-CIA Director Porter Goss and, later, Bush summoned top editors of The Washington Post to press their case against disclosing the existence of the secret prison network.
The published reports in The Post and elsewhere earned the news media sharp recriminations from the administration, the Republican leadership in Congress and the public. Government leak investigations were launched. Bush administration officials argued that such methods and operations were necessary to effectively thwart terrorism, noting to this day that there have been no major attacks since Sept. 11, 2001.
If there were dissenters back then, they were largely silent.
But in Europe, the reports set off a firestorm of criticism and government investigations in nearly every capital. Washington was pressured to move prisoners out of the secret jails. US government officials scattered throughout the national security and foreign policy agencies scrambled to learn more about operations they knew little about. A growing chorus within the CIA and the State Department began to question how long the secret system of detention and interrogation could survive, and drew up plans for an alternative.
By then, the color-coded terrorist alerts had ended. Police disappeared from roadblocks around the Capitol. Washington the fortress drew millions of visitors again. Some Democratic members of Congress replaced the “war on terror” phraseology with language indicating vigilance and persistence, but not unending combat and military-only options.
On Sept. 6, 2006, Bush announced the transfer of 14 “high-value detainees” from secret prisons to Guantanamo. He suspended the CIA program, but defended its utility and reserved the right to reopen it. The secret was officially out.
Over the next two and a half years, as Democrats gained power in Congress, as the violence in Iraq sapped public support for the president and as the fear of another terrorist attack receded, the debate over secret prisons, renditions and harsh interrogations grew louder. Presidential candidates felt comfortable to include these sensitive subjects in the debate on the efficiency of Bush’s war against terrorists, and even on the notion that it was still a war.
In his campaign and again in his inaugural address on Tuesday, Obama used a different lexicon to describe operations to defeat terrorists. “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” he said. “... And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” © The Washington Post, 2009