Jeremy Scahill: Well, remember that within days of 9/11, Congress passed this bill, The Authorization for the Use of Military Force," that was very swiftly signed into law by president Bush. And basically, that gave the Bush Administration a blank check to declare the world a battlefield. It was really the legal architecture for operations outside of the stated battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, and led to the boosting up of paramilitary forces from the CIA. It's not that the CIA hadn't always been in the paramilitary game; it's that it resulted in an expansion of its operations and the operations of its elite military unit, the "Joint Special Operations Command." There was only one member of Congress that actually voted against that in the entire Congress (both houses), and that was Representative Barbara Lee of California.
She said in her speech, "We can't live in a state of perpetual war, and I fear that this law will insure that we do." I think she was largely right; but we what we saw then under Bush and Cheney, of course, was "Murder Inc.," where these guys are setting up black sites around the world; where they are rendering people (in some cases) to third countries, in other cases to the CIA black sites in Poland, and Thailand, and elsewhere. They start reverse engineering torture tactics that had been used to train American soldiers on how to resist lawless enemies' torture -- we started using those very same tactics against prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, the black sites, Guantanamo - and this goes on for both terms of the Bush Administration.
Then President Obama comes into office; and he is briefed on the various threats around the world, hundreds of concurrent terrorist threats around the world, and basically buys into this idea that America is going to need to kill it's way to victory and engage in preemptive war. So he starts to tweak the Bush/Cheney machine so that he can keep his campaign pledge. He says, "I'm going to ban torture, we're going to shut down the black sites, and I'm going to close Guantanamo." Well, of course Guantanamo is not closed for a combination of reasons; part of it has to do with the Republicans blocking it, part of it is because Obama hasn't really made this a priority for much of his time in office.
But what I've seen, Rob, in my travels around the world, is that in many cases, what the Obama administration has done is slightly tweak the program to try to make it seem more legitimate, and I'll just give you one concrete example: I believe that Obama did shut down the CIA's black sites. But instead, we're using other countries' black sites to have prisoners interrogated - at times, with the participation of CIA personnel, or military intelligence personnel. What this allows the White House to do is say, "We're not torturing people, we're not holding them at black sites; but what we're doing is directing allied countries to snatch them for us and take them to prison, and then our interrogators can come in after they've been softened up and then talk to them." So it's not that there's no difference between Bush and Obama; it's that the difference is largely a re-branding of the program in many ways.
Rob Kall: And that was going to be a question. It seems like Obama has continued, intensified, and worsened some of Bush's worst programs.
Jeremy Scahill: Right. I mean: I want to be clear, because I covered all of this abuse and murder that happened under the Bush Administration. I mean, these guys were uniquely bloodthirsty characters. I think we have to be careful. I agree with everything that you've said, I do think Obama has done all of that; but I also want to just be clear that (laughs) we are looking at Murder, Inc. under those guys, so.
For me, the really interesting part of this is: President Obama started an air war in Yemen very early on in this administration. December of 2009 was the first airstrike that he ordered there, and had these teams of Special Operations Forces running around Yemen. They're doing not only drone strikes, and cruise missile strikes, they're training units in Yemen that have been used not just by Al Qaeda, but for domestic repression purposes. In Somalia, the US has a counter-terrorism base at Aden Adde Airport, and they've been putting Somalis on the payroll to engage in outsourced kill campaigns.
For me, the enduring legacy of Obama is not going to be in any one drone strike, or any one aspect of his policy. I think it's going to be that he helped to legitimize and streamline assassination as an essential component of US foreign policy. It's not that the US hasn't always engaged in some form of assassination despite the ban; it has. It's that Obama is selling this idea that it's a smarter way of waging war, and a lot of Liberal have bought into that idea. To me, the more dangerous aspect of the Obama presidency is this idea that you lay the groundwork to make it permanent. The next time a Republican is in office, Liberals are going to have very shaky ground to stand on if they try to confront assertions that American citizens can be killed without a trial, or that the US can wage war anywhere around the world without Congressional authority.