When It Comes To Counterterrorism, Why Bush And Obama Aren't So Far Apart NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with New York Times reporter Charlie Savage about his new book, Power Wars: Inside Obama's Post-9/11 Presidency.
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When It Comes To Counterterrorism, Why Bush And Obama Aren't So Far Apart

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When It Comes To Counterterrorism, Why Bush And Obama Aren't So Far Apart

When It Comes To Counterterrorism, Why Bush And Obama Aren't So Far Apart

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In a pile of books about the Obama presidency, "Power Wars" stands out. It's the most thorough look yet at how this administration has handled counterterrorism and national security. There are sections on drones, detainees, spying, leaked prosecutions and much more. The author, Charlie Savage, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The New York Times, and he joins us now. Welcome.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: You and I have known each other for years because we covered many of the same issues as they were happening during the Bush and Obama administrations. The book has such a broad sweep. I want to drill down into one specific story that I think illustrate some of the broader issues. And we're going to start with a clip of tape from a congressional hearing in 2011. This episode, I think, is key to understanding the Obama administration's approach to fighting terrorism. So we're about to hear Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina questioning the head of special operations, Vice Admiral William McRaven. And Graham asks McRaven what the U.S. would do if it captures of high-value terrorism suspect in a place like Yemen or Somalia, which is not an active war zone, but doesn't have a reliable government, either. And McRaven tells Graham the detainee would be held on a ship. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: What's the longest we can keep somebody on the ship?

WILLIAM MCRAVEN: Sir, I think it depends on whether or not we think we prosecute that individual in a U.S. court or we can return him to a third-party country.

GRAHAM: What if you can't do either one of those?

MCRAVEN: Sir, it - again, if we can't do either one of those, then we'll release that individual.

SHAPIRO: Charlie, pick up your reading from your book.

SAVAGE: (Reading) What the public did not know was that the discussion was not hypothetical. At that moment, the military was holding a Somali prisoner aboard a ship in the Indian Ocean, the first high-value terrorism suspect to come into American custody abroad for several years. His name was Ahmed Warsame. His fate would make him arguably the most important terrorism captive in the Obama era.

SHAPIRO: One key detail of this is that Warsame was from Somalia. Why does it matter that this terrorism detainee was in Somalia?

SAVAGE: So typically, we think of the world as being divided into two types of places - war zones, where there's ground troops engaged in hostilities, and normal countries with functioning governments and police forces, where if there's a threat emanating from that country, the person can go and be arrested. But especially in the 21st century, in the sort of war-on-terror era, we - the world is encountering this problem of badlands - ungoverned, broken states, failed states, places where there's neither a normal war happening in any kind of sustained way or a functioning government. And so when al-Qaida or its allies go into those places, the old rules don't really seem to apply.

SHAPIRO: How does this specific example of Ahmed Warsame, this one detainee, represent the broader themes that you explore in the Obama administration's handling of counterterrorism and national security issues, generally?

SAVAGE: Well, in several ways. One of them is that - and this is not just true of the Obama administration, but the Bush administration before it. A lot of the situations the government is encountering now in the sort of post-9/11 world are completely different than what the rules were written for. The rules were developed for 20th-century situations - wars between nation state armies and so forth. And the government is then encountering a new problem for which they do not quite map onto very well. And the Bush administration responded to the disconnect by essentially saying there are no rules. The president, as commander-in-chief, can do what he thinks is necessary. While there's Geneva Conventions or domestic laws on things like interrogation or surveillance, we can just override those. The Obama administration has taken a very different approach, in part because they are extremely lawyerly. Bush and Cheney were CEOs by background, not lawyers. Biden and Obama are lawyers, and they put a lot of lawyers into policymaking roles throughout their administration. And so they're trained to think like lawyers, and they're exceedingly interested in the law. And so that has led them, when encountering this disconnect between what the rules were written for and the situations arising today, to think about things through a legal lens.

SHAPIRO: In the interest of disclosure, let me say that my husband, a couple years after the incident that we're talking about, went to work as a lawyer in the Obama White House and no longer works there. I think this idea of looking at Bush and Obama as the CEO and the lawyer is really helpful. And a CEO is the decider, and the lawyer is the deliberator. And even if they end up in the same place, they get there different ways. You said that Obama administration officials told you the process is the product; the legal deliberation really is important, even if often we do end up in the same place as the Bush administration did.

SAVAGE: Or sometimes, yes.

SHAPIRO: Or sometimes. What's downside to being the lawyer rather than the CEO?

SAVAGE: Well, each system has its own dysfunctions, right? And if you think about how lawyers are trained to think, you have certain attributes, right? They're careful. They're incremental. They really have to look at the best arguments of the other side. So if you have a lot of sort of lawyerly thinkers at the top of government, they're going to be more cautious. They're going to not just make a decision and move on and never second-guess themselves. And so you see the Obama administration really being, you know - being, sometimes, accused of dithering. Why are you not deciding whether we should have a surge in Afghanistan? Why are you not just making a call on what we should do to help the rebels in Syria? But they're sitting there saying, well, is it going to more harm than good? I don't know. Let's have another meeting about it. On the other hand, that kind of mindset is less likely to lead to some sort of reckless activity where you, you know, invade another country without thinking about what the occupation is going to mean and what sort of forces might be unleashed after the sort of mission-accomplished moment.

SHAPIRO: At the end of this book, you say that the Obama administration - and this is not a spoiler (laughter) - has turned out to be less transformational and more transitional on these issues of national security and counterterrorism. Explain what you mean by that.

SAVAGE: You know, all these years after 9/11, this is still a moment of flux. You know, what are things going to be like later in the 21st century? Is this the new normal? Is this a forever war? Obama wanted to get us out of war - the war in Afghanistan and to sort of declare it over, but events made that impossible. The Islamic State arose, and now the Taliban is sort of coming back. And we're sort of getting - staying sucked-in over there. And I think that the next president will have a lot to say about whether this was en route to the - you know, the rolling-back of some of this stuff or was en route to the entrenchment and the normalization and the making-permanent of all these post-9/11 policies that have such implications for individual rights and collective security.

SHAPIRO: And finally, where's Ahmed Warsame today?

SAVAGE: Ahmed Warsame is such a cooperative informant, witness, intelligence-source that he appears to have been taken into the witness protection program. He disappeared, more or less. And we later found out that he had plead guilty to something and has never been sentenced, which is a sign, usually, of a cooperator. And so it turns out the FBI is quite good at getting people to talk without torturing them.

SHAPIRO: That's Charlie Savage. He covers national security for The New York Times. And his new book is "Power Wars: Inside Obama's Post-9/11 Presidency." Great to talk to you, Charlie. Good to see you again.

SAVAGE: Thank you so much.

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