When he took office, President Barack Obama was handed a tool kit containing an array of very dangerous weapons, policies, and practices which President George W. Bush had accumulated during his eight-year “Global War on Terror.” Tragically, in our current state of perpetual war, because of what Obama has done and not done, he is passing on that dangerous toolbox to President Trump largely intact and indeed newly stocked with killer drones, Obama’s weapon of choice.
In Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War, Mark Danner delivers eloquent and brutally direct assessments of both Bush and Obama when it comes to their respective responses to 9/11, terrorism, and foreign policy. Danner reveals how Obama missed the opportunity to isolate Bush as a presidential outlier by failing to pursue criminal prosecutions or at least appoint a Truth Commission to hold the Bush administration accountable for its violations of domestic and international law.
Danner’s excellent and timely book, finished before Trump’s election, presciently sounds an alarm for the future of our country under the next president, so long as we remain trapped in the failed and counterproductive policies of the past 16 years. Danner has written about foreign affairs and American politics for three decades for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of Torture and Truth and Stripping Bare the Body. In Spiral, he sets out to show “how it is that terrorist attacks on a single day could have led a great power into the trap of endless war and how that war has degraded the country’s values together with its security.”
Drawing on eyewitness accounts, the 2007 International Committee of the Red Cross report on “High Value Detainees,” and various US government sources, including the 525-page Executive Summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, released in December 2014, Danner presents credible and authoritative evidence to support his unqualified conclusions that “during the war on terror the United States has disappeared people and it has tortured them, with the explicit and official approval of its leaders,” and has engaged in “widespread warrantless surveillance and assassination using remotely controlled drone aircraft.” All this and more have become “permanent parts of what the country does and thus what it is.” Danner finds one of the most regrettable consequences of the War on Terror “that so many Americans are now convinced that the country cannot be adequately protected without breaking the law.”
Danner also convincingly demonstrates that the “birth and growth of the Islamic State exemplifies a central theme of the war on terror: that across these fourteen and more years of war the United States through its own actions has done much to aid its enemies and has sometimes helped create them.” In the name of national security, during what Danner calls “the forever war,” we are living in a “state of exception” allowing some of our accustomed constitutional rights and democratic values to be circumscribed or set aside. Among the trademark policies adopted during the “state of exception”: “War on terror. Worldwide conflict. Forever war. National security letters. Warrantless wiretapping. Material support for terrorism. Extraordinary rendition. Unlawful combatants. Indefinite detention. Targeted assassination. Extrajudicial killing. Enhanced interrogation techniques. Torture.”
To humanize his account, Danner focuses on Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in Pakistan on March 28, 2002, and subsequently interrogated and tortured. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the world that Zubaydah was “a close associate of” Osama bin Laden, “one of bin Laden’s most trusted lieutenants,” and the “number two” in al-Qaeda. In truth, as the Department of Justice would eventually admit in court documents in 2009, Zubaydah wasn’t even a member of al-Qaeda.
Yet, Zubaydah was subjected to excruciating torture, including being waterboarded no fewer than 83 times. And for what? CIA agent John Kiriakou and FBI interrogator Ali Soufan, both of whom personally questioned Zubaydah, have publicly confirmed that all the valuable information that was ever gained from Zubaydah was obtained by lawful, traditional interrogation methods, before they were replaced by the CIA consultants who tortured Zubaydah.
The inhumane treatment of Zubaydah, as well as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times, and scores of others at the hands of the United States, according to Danner, “have often undermined or debilitated broader efforts to weaken and eliminate terrorist groups.” The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, torture, indefinite detention at Guantanamo and CIA “black sites” around the world, the photos of Abu Ghraib, and all the rest produced exactly what bin Laden had hoped for on 9/11. The United States “quickly came to embody the caricature that the jihadists had depicted: a blundering, blasphemous, muscle-bound, violent superpower intent on humiliating, repressing, and murdering Muslims.” Had bin Laden gone to Madison Avenue and offered to pay millions for an advertising campaign to embody his message, he could not have hoped for anything more effective and a more dramatic victory in the strategy of provocation. The United States has become the number-one recruiter for bin Laden and those who have come after him.
By 2004, the Pentagon’s own Defense Science Board had already identified “negative attitudes [toward the United States] and the conditions that create them” in the Middle East and South Asia as “the underlying sources of threats to America’s national security.” US direct intervention in the Muslim World had elevated the stature of, and support for, radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies. Claims of American diplomacy to “bring democracy” to Islamic societies was seen as self-serving hypocrisy. Indeed, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has led only to chaos and suffering, not democracy. And that Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather they hate our policies and actions. These were the conclusions of the Pentagon itself.
In 2007, it was against this background that a young senator from Illinois would run for president of the United States, declaring that:
Too often since 9/11, the extremists have defined us, not the other way around. […] No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. […] We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.
Sadly, Danner makes a convincing case that rather than “ending the state of exception, the Obama administration normalized it” by inscribing “his predecessor’s improvisations into law and [making] them permanent.” In 2012, Georgetown University law professor David Cole wrote that:
Obama has radically escalated drone strikes, continued military detention without charge and military commissions for trying terrorists, prosecuted more government officials for leaks than all prior presidents combined, maintained the discretion to render suspects to third countries, and opposed efforts to hold US officials accountable for authorizing torture of terror suspects.
Even as Obama warned the country that it must not remain “on a permanent war-time footing,” he “seems trapped in a prison of his making perpetuating the very policies he demands must end.” According to Danner, under Obama we live with Guantanamo; we live with warrantless surveillance; we live with “trials” of detainees conducted not in the sunlight of our civilian courts but in strange, new half-darkness; and we live daily with “targeted killing as a central tool of U.S. foreign policy, carried out by unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.”
Danner pulls no punches when it comes to his immense disappointment in:
[Obama’s] distinctive contribution to the state of exception: honing its rough edges, legalizing and regularizing its procedures, furthering its evolution into permanency — and, after his reelection, increasingly expressing publicly his apprehensions about the quiet permanent war he had done so much to create.
As early as March 2009, Danner reminds us that the Obama Justice Department embraced the war paradigm by arguing in court “that the government has the power to detain prisoners indefinitely in Guantanamo under the law of armed conflict, and grounding his authority on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force.”
Yet only two months later, in May 2009 during his signature speech devoted to national security and terrorism at the National Archives, Obama revealed just how hopelessly trapped he felt as if he were a mere powerless bystander in all this. “But if we continue to make decisions within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes. And if we refuse to deal with these issues today, then I guarantee you that they will be an albatross around our efforts to combat terrorism in the future.” Seven years later, what Obama saw as an albatross is being accepted by Trump as a garland and what Obama saw as mistakes Trump is adopting as the cornerstones of his foreign policy.
Starting slowly in 2008 pursuant to his secret presidential order, Bush authorized the CIA to launch drone strikes in tribal areas in Pakistan on average every 10 days, killing perhaps 350 people that year. By 2010, Obama had dramatically increased that number on average to every three days, killing in that year alone perhaps a thousand people.
Although the government refuses to disclose the actual numbers, according to credible sources by mid-2015, in Pakistan the United States had launched 419 drone strikes, killing from 2,467 to 3,976, of whom 423 to 965 were civilians. In Yemen, the United States launched as many as 126 drone attacks, killing as many as 1,114 people, including as many as 115 civilians. According to the US government, at least six of the victims of these drone attacks were American citizens. Despite Obama’s assurances that drones were only used against those who pose “a threat that is serious and not speculative,” Danner’s review of intelligence documents shows something different. Obama’s drone program migrated from “personality strikes” to targeted unidentified men based on “patterns of merely suspicious activity” to the point that as many as 94 percent of those killed were “mere foot soldiers,” about whom, in the words of terrorism expert Peter Bergen, “it’s hard to make the case that [they] threaten the United States in any way.”
At West Point in May 2014, Obama tried to defend and rationalize his drone program, claiming that strikes were only launched “when we face a continuing, imminent threat.” But in these words Danner sees “a tangle of paradoxes.” Given their plain meaning, “continuing” and “imminent” seem contradictory. And so they would, had government lawyers not redefined them. According to a leaked Department of Justice 2011 white paper, “imminence does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”
In 2004, the Supreme Court in an opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, repudiated the Bush administration’s unilateral assertion of executive authority to suspend constitutional protections for individual liberty. “It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments that our nation's commitment to due process is most severely tested; and it is in those times that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad.” She added, “[w]e have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens.”
In 2008, writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that “to hold that the political branches may switch the constitution on or off at will would lead to a regime in which they, not this court, ‘say what the law is.’”
In the context of the serious constitutional issues surrounding Obama’s drone policy, there is much to learn from these Supreme Court decisions. Before and after 9/11, the United States military has been fully capable of capturing and detaining alleged terrorists. Even in the War on Terror, the court has consistently held that before alleged terrorists, Americans and noncitizens alike, can be denied “life, liberty or property,” they are entitled to due process. The court has consistently rejected the presidential claim to unilateral authority to detain suspected terrorists, without charges, without lawyers, and without trial.
Since alleged terrorists — Americans and noncitizens alike — cannot be denied “liberty” without due process, surely they cannot be denied “life” without due process.
The men whom Bush detained in Guantanamo Bay, like the men whom Obama killed by targeted drones, were all accused of being dangerous terrorists who posed a grave threat to the United States. Yet of those whose cases were heard by the Supreme Court, when afforded due process and represented by legal counsel, two were duly tried and convicted in a court of law and are serving their sentences, and the rest were eventually released and are alive today. Yet those placed on Obama’s “kill list” were never afforded due process. Instead, thousands of them were systematically targeted and summarily killed by drones.
Summary execution is illegal, as it violates the right of the accused to a fair trial before a punishment of death. The United Nations’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares that “[e]very human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No man shall be deprived of his life arbitrarily.” “[The death] penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgment rendered by a competent court.” (ICCPR Articles 6.1 and 6.2)
Treaties such as the Geneva and Hague Conventions protect the rights of captured regular and irregular members of an enemy’s military, along with civilians from enemy states. Prisoners of war must be treated in carefully defined ways which ban summary execution. “No sentence shall be passed and no penalty shall be executed on a person found guilty of an offence except pursuant to a conviction pronounced by a court offering the essential guarantees of independence and impartiality.” (Second Protocol of the Geneva Conventions 1977 Article 6.2)
Obama’s use of a “kill list” and the systematic targeting and summary killing of individuals by drones is an unspeakable violation of the Constitution, international law, and human rights. And if that were not enough, Danner demonstrates that Obama’s drone attacks are creating enemies:
It is not in dispute that these killings of thousands of Muslims, conducted by remote control by a distant superpower, have caused enormous resentment and hatred of the United States in Pakistan and throughout the Islamic world, and have led at least two would-be Muslim American terrorists — Najibullah Zazi, the intended New York City subway bomber, and Faisal Shadzad, the Times Square bomber — to attempt attacks of their own. Deeply unpopular, drone strikes perpetuate many of the political sentiments at the root of the war on terror.
For Danner, the decision that most expressed “the tormented ambivalence of the Obama administration, torn between a boldly stated desire for justice and a growing reluctance to confront the political costs of supplying it, is the decision not to investigate or prosecute those who tortured.” Safely elected, on the eve of his inauguration, Obama made an abrupt about-face and announced that when it came to Bush’s use of enhanced interrogation and torture, “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backward.”
Obama’s shameful hypocrisy is captured in the yawning gap between his lofty speeches and his deliberate refusal to act. In December 2009, he boldly declared during his Nobel Peace Prize Lecture in Oslo that he believed that “the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. […] And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard. […] Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable.”
Accountable? Danner immediately asks:
Is it possible to reenter the realm of justice and legality without accountability? No one, beyond a handful of low-ranking soldiers from Abu Ghraib, has been held accountable for torture. No elected leader, no high official, no senior military officer. And yet the crimes are well documented. We have thousands of pages of reports from the various departments, including the CIA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Justice, and minutely detailed investigations from committees in Congress. Our highest officials, including the former president and vice president, have been frank in their memoirs and public statements.
For Danner, the “only way to move ahead into a future unshackled by past lawbreaking is to look forthrightly at the past and to demand clarity and at least some true accountability for what happened there.” Today,
a determined executive with accommodating lawyers, a timid legislature, and deferential courts can run roughshod over the law, however plainly it is written. Until there is some accountability, can anyone doubt that a future president — perhaps one of the Republican candidates who are calling for torture even as I write — could reinstitute torture if he or she were set on doing so?
That future president is Donald Trump. And that future is now. By squandering the last eight years, Obama’s true legacy will be that he was the mere placeholder between President Bush and President Trump, perpetuating the forever war and allowing the new president to reinstate torture and continue to launch killer drones, free to truthfully say he is just doing what Bush did, without Obama ever holding his predecessor accountable.
Danner’s goal is to recount the history of the last 16 years — which he does admirably with clarity and authority — not to propose an alternative program to fix what has happened. That is beyond the scope of his book, but he modestly proscribes that what is needed is for the United States to take “a broader approach born of statesmanship, patience, and judgment.”
It is for the rest of us to add justice and peace to that list and to end the forever war and all the death, torture, pain, and hatred it has caused.
Stephen Rohde is a constitutional lawyer, lecturer, writer, and political activist.