In Barack Obama’s first weeks in office, in a series of executive orders and public statements, the new president and former professor of constitutional law promised to make sweeping changes in the way government operated in a number of specific areas. But has he kept his pledges?
Let’s consider four of them:
On his first day in office, Obama ordered an end to the practice of torture, or as the George W. Bush administration preferred to call it, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In the president’s words, “effective immediately” individuals in U.S. custody “shall not be subjected to any interrogation technique or approach, or any treatment related to interrogation, that is not authorized by and listed in the Army Field Manual.”
Of the four promises, this is the one the president has come closest to keeping. He has, among other things, shut down the global network of “black sites,” or secret prison facilities established by the Bush administration. And, despite some questionable practices, such as the force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo, the ban on torture has held into the sixth year of Obama’s presidency.
On his first day in office, Obama also pledged to close the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention facility — home at the time to 245 detainees — within a year. That proved politically impossible. As of January, 155 detainees remained at the prison, including 77 who had been cleared for release. But the president insists he is still trying. In his State of the Union address last month, he urged legislative action: “This needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.”
But even if the president is successful, there’s a catch: He has made it clear that he means to close Guantanamo only in the most technical sense. While he would like to empty the facility, he is quite prepared to keep the strikingly un-American Guantanamo system of indefinite detention itself intact, allowing some suspects in Washington’s war on terrorism to be held indefinitely without charges or trial if they are considered a risk to national security.
In other words, Obama’s second promise may eventually be kept — though on a slower schedule — only by redefining what closing Guantanamo means.
Ending unnecessary secrecy
Another goal Obama identified on his first day in office as key to his presidency was establishing a “sunshine” administration. He pledged to end the excessive secrecy of the Bush administration and put more information in the public arena.
Obama’s self-professed aim was to restore trust between the people and their government by pledging to promote accountability and provide “information for citizens about what their government is doing.” Toward that end, the president quickly released a number of previously classified documents from the Bush years on torture policy.
But that, as it happened, was the end of the sunshine. In the five years since, little of note has occurred in the name of transparency and much, including a war against whistle-blowers, has been pursued in the name of secrecy. The administration has also, even after Edward Snowden’s devastating revelations, continued for the most part to defend the NSA’s massive, secret, warrantless surveillance.
Nor, of course, has secrecy been limited to the NSA. One reason for the slow progress in processing Guantanamo detainees has been the CIA’s obsessive anxiety that still-classified material might come out in court.
And then there is the drone program. The president has insisted that Justice Department documents offering “legal” authorization for White House-ordered drone assassinations of suspects, including American citizens, must remain classified, even as administration officials leak information that they think justifies the program.
The president’s tenure has hardly been a time of increased transparency.
An end to war without limits
At the outset of Obama’s presidency, the administration downplayed the notion of a borderless battlefield that encompassed the globe. It also threw on the trash heap of history the Bush administration’s term “global war on terror.”
In his recent State of the Union address, the president stated his continued aversion to the notion that Washington should pursue an unlimited war. He was speaking by now not just about the geography of the boundless battlefield but of the very idea of warfare without an end point. “America,” he counseled, “must move off a permanent war footing.”
But despite the president’s insistence on placing limits on war, and on the defense budget, his brand of warfare has helped lay the basis for a permanent state of global warfare via “low footprint” drone campaigns and special forces operations aimed at an ever-morphing enemy usually identified as some form of Al Qaeda. According to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the Obama administration has killed 4,700 individuals in numerous countries, including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Obama has successfully embedded the process of drone killings into the executive branch in such a way that any future president will inherit it, along with the White House “kill list” and its “terror Tuesday” meetings. Unbounded global war is now part of what it means to be president.
Five years into his presidency, it’s clear Obama has failed to keep promises he claimed were at the heart of his approach to governance. We expected better.
Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law, is the author of “The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days.” Kevin Garnett, a legal research fellow at the center, contributed research for this article. This piece was adapted from a longer version at tomdispatch.com.