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Tomgram: Pratap Chatterjee, Obama's Last Chance

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Imagine this scenario: you've occupied an office for eight years and now you're about to move out. You know who's going to move in and, by reputation, he's a fellow with a minimal ability to control himself who might conceivably be a danger to others. So here's one thing you undoubtedly wouldn't do: leave a loaded revolver in the top desk drawer and a stash of extra ammunition in the closet.

However -- if you'll excuse the analogy -- that seems to be exactly what President Obama and his national security team are doing when it comes to Donald Trump.

Consider two news stories of last week. The Washington Post reported that, in its last days, the Obama administration is intent on giving the secretive and elite Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) new powers to strike globally. As Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Dan Lamothe write, JSOC will gain

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"expanded power to track, plan, and potentially launch attacks on terrorist cells around the globe, a move driven by concerns [about] a dispersed terrorist threat as Islamic State militants are driven from strongholds in Iraq and Syria... When finalized, it will elevate JSOC from being a highly valued strike tool used by regional military commands to leading a new multiagency intelligence and action force. Known as the 'Counter-External Operations Task Force,' the group will be designed to take JSOC's targeting model -- honed over the last 15 years of conflict -- and export it globally to go after terrorist networks plotting attacks against the West."

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that, in the last moments of his second term, President Obama is expanding the legal basis for the war on terror by formally adding the Somali group al-Shabaab to "the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001" war authorization that Congress passed not long after the 9/11 attacks. (Mind you, al-Shabaab didn't even exist in 2001.) As Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt, and Mark Mazzetti point out, this is "a move that will strengthen President-elect Donald J. Trump's authority to combat thousands of Islamist fighters in the chaotic Horn of Africa nation... [and will] shore up the legal basis for an intensifying campaign of airstrikes and other counterterrorism operations, carried out largely in support of African Union and Somali government forces."

Maybe we have to think of that Oval Office desk as stuffed with loaded weaponry from all these years of wars, raids, assassination campaigns, and the like. When Trump moves in he'll find a formidable national security apparatus at his command, one that in its capabilities has left even the totalitarian regimes of the previous century in the shade. If only we could say that Barack Obama had at least made a serious attempt to blunt or rein in the powers of that state within a state, but no such luck. Instead, he's leaving a striking (and still expanding) series of oppressive and aggressive powers loaded and ready for action for the new president.

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The irony is that even with just a few weeks left, Obama could still act in ways that might make at least a modest difference on some of those powers. He could, as TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee makes clear today, at least lift the all-enveloping veil of secrecy around the national security state and let the American public know just what has been done in our name in these years and what exactly is about to be handed over to his edgy successor. Tom

Publish, Punish, and Pardon
Nine Things Obama Could Do Before Leaving Office to Reveal the Nature of the National Security State
By Pratap Chatterjee

In less than seven weeks, President Barack Obama will hand over the government to Donald Trump, including access to the White House, Air Force One, and Camp David. Trump will also, of course, inherit the infamous nuclear codes, as well as the latest in warfare technology, including the Central Intelligence Agency's fleet of killer drones, the National Security Agency's vast surveillance and data collection apparatus, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's enormous system of undercover informants.

Before the recent election, Obama repeatedly warned that a Trump victory could spell disaster. "If somebody starts tweeting at three in the morning because SNL [Saturday Night Live] made fun of you, you can't handle the nuclear codes," Obama typically told a pro-Clinton rally in November. "Everything that we've done over the last eight years," he added in an interview with MSNBC, "will be reversed with a Trump presidency."

Yet, just days after Obama made those comments and Trump triumphed, the Guardian reported that his administration was deeply involved in planning to give Trump access not just to those nuclear codes, but also to the massive new spying and killing system that Obama personally helped shape and lead. "Obama's failure to rein in George Bush's national security policies hands Donald Trump a fully loaded weapon," Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, observed recently. "The president's failure to understand that these powers could not be entrusted in the hands of any president, not even his, have now put us in a position where they are in the hands of Donald Trump."

In many areas, it hardly matters what Barack Obama now does. In his last moments, for example, were he to make good on his first Oval Office promise and shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Trump could reverse that decision with the stroke of a pen on January 20, 2017.

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So, at this late date, what might a president frightened by his successor actually do, if not to hamper Trump's ability to create global mayhem, then at least to set the record straight before he leaves the White House?

Unfortunately, the answer is: far less than we might like, but as it happens, there are still some powers a president has that are irreversible by their very nature. For example, declassifying secret documents. Once such documents have been released, no power on earth can take them back. The president also has a virtually unlimited power of pardon. And finally, the president can punish high-level executive branch or military officials who abused the system, just as President Obama recalled General Stanley McChrystal from his post in Afghanistan in 2010, and he can do so until January 19th. Of course, Trump could rehire such individuals, but fast action by Obama could at least put them on trial in the media, if nowhere else.

Here, then, are nine recommendations for action by the president in his last 40 days when it comes to those three categories: publish, punish, and pardon. Think of it as a political version of "publish or perish."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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