Interview with Charlie Savage on Obama’s War on Terror Legacy

The solidifying of Bush/Cheney war on terror programs, once regarded as right-wing aberrations, into bipartisan consensus is easily one of the most significant, disturbing aspects of Obama’s legacy.

IN FEBRUARY 2009 — just one month after Obama’s inauguration — a series of policy announcements from the new administration startled and angered civil liberties activists because they amounted to a continuation of some of the most controversial Bush/Cheney war on terror programs. That led New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Charlie Savage to observe that “the Obama administration is quietly signaling continued support for other major elements of its predecessor’s approach to fighting al Qaeda,” which was “prompting growing worry among civil liberties groups and a sense of vindication among supporters of Bush-era policies.”

In response, I wrote that while I believed “Savage’s article is of great value in sounding the right alarm bells, I think that he paints a slightly more pessimistic picture on the civil liberties front than is warranted by the evidence thus far (though only slightly).” Yes, that’s correct: Very early on in his administration, I defended Obama from the “he’s-just-like-Bush” critique as premature. But six months later, the evidence piled up higher and higher that there was far more continuity with the Bush/Cheney model than almost anyone expected. As a result, I wrote in July that “in retrospect, Savage was right and I was wrong: His February article was more prescient than premature.”

Over the years, Savage has become one of the most knowledgeable and tireless reporters chronicling the civil liberties and war powers controversies under the Obama administration. The way in which that continuity has solidified what were once regarded as right-wing aberrations into bipartisan consensus — strengthening the Bush/Cheney template far beyond what the GOP by itself could have achieved — is easily one of the most significant, and one of the most disturbing, aspects of the Obama legacy.

Savage has written a book that will clearly be the comprehensive historical account of these controversies. Titled Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency, the book provides exhaustive detail on each of these questions (the book also early on recounts the exchange he and I had on these questions to help set the framework for the ensuing debates). Its most valuable contribution is the access Savage has to some of the key legal and policy officials responsible for these decisions, and the book thus provides a full account of their thinking and self-justifications.

That makes his book simultaneously illuminating but also infuriating. Many of these officials are administration lawyers and their excuses for following Bush/Cheney — or their denials that they have done so — are often tendentious: dubious lawyer parsing at its worst. But Savage is an extremely diligent narrator of the thinking behind these debates, and the book really is essential for understanding Obama officials’ (often warped) thinking and rationale that led to these policies.

I spoke with Savage for what amounted to about an hour about his book. We could have easily spoken for hours. The discussion was occasionally contentious — mostly because I find much of the self-excusing rationale of Obama officials that he conveys so dubious and often disingenuous — but Savage and his new book really are an indispensable resource for understanding the nuances and details of these controversies, and his book is fascinating for those who have followed these debates over the Obama legacy on these questions.

You can listen to the discussion on the player below. A full transcript, which has been edited for clarity, is here.


GREENWALD: This is Glenn Greenwald with The Intercept and my guest is the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the New York Times Charlie Savage, who has a newly published book, the title of which is Power Wars: Inside Obama’s Post-9/11 Presidency. And I think the best way to describe this book is that it’s really a comprehensive history on all of the many civil liberties and war power controversies that have taken place over the last seven years under Obama and especially the extent to which Obama has or has not, as one chapter put it, been acting like Bush in these areas.

One of the things I found most valuable about the book, Charlie, is that you have access to a lot of sources who have been inside these controversies — White House lawyers, lawyers in the Justice Department, key Pentagon officials ­– who we haven’t heard all that much from on these controversies until your book. It gives some great insight into what a lot of these people who have been responsible for these decisions have been thinking about — why they made the choices they made. I want to begin by taking a step back and asking you the history of these issues. Of course these issues were very controversial after 9/11.

Under George Bush and Dick Cheney, there were a lot of accusations that they were constructing what was called “an imperial presidency,” and yet as you point out, this kind of model and concern about the imperial presidency dates back to the end of World War II when all of these war agencies and militarized policies were implemented, and then after the war they weren’t deconstructed. And it was Arthur Schlesinger, the historian, who coined the term imperial presidency. How did those events create the conflicts that ended up being so controversial first under Bush and now under Obama?

SAVAGE: Sure. Thank you very much for having me on, Glenn, I really appreciate it. In some ways, what you’re asking me to do is summarize my first book about the growth of executive power, especially from Watergate to the present and especially under the Bush administration at that time.

You’re absolutely right that it was typical in American history, up until World War II, that when there was a war, there would be a tremendous growth in executive power. There would be the creation of a big army, and the president would have all kind of tools at his disposal and things that he was in charge of — that when the war was over would be dismantled again. The army would be largely decommissioned and the people would come home and the special powers that had been asserted would lapse.

Read the full transcript of Glenn Greenwald’s interview with Charlie Savage.

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