When al Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks, it also thrust the United States on a decade-long (and counting) search for the best way to combat the unconventional threat posed by terrorism. That search evolved into a competition of sorts between the military’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the paramilitary operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the prestige and resources that went with leading the fight against terrorism. Within less than a decade, however, various officials involved in counterterrorism policy were trying to combine the two groups of operators in a way that maximized the advantages and minimized the risks and constraints of each group.
Many critics of the George W. Bush administration’s wholehearted push into the realm of shadow wars – covert operations in countries with which the United States was not at war – assumed that the situation would improve when Barack Obama became President. To the surprise of many, if not most, of his campaign supporters, however, President Obama has, in some ways, become an even more ardent supporter of shadow wars than his predecessor. And, as this article will show, just about every indication points to a further expansion of this hybrid military and intelligence activity in countries beyond war zones. It is imperative, therefore, that we more clearly understand how these shadow wars are being conducted and by whom, and whether they are subject to adequate oversight and accountability.
The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) excoriated the legal work done by John Yoo and Jay Bybee of the Office of Legal Counsel on the torture memos, but DOJ’s ultimate decision stopped short of referring Yoo and Bybee for professional discipline. Serious questions remain, particularly since the OPR was unable to obtain the testimony of many high-level officials who played critical roles in authorizing torture. A full-scale investigation, preferably by an independent commission not part of the very department implicated in the wrongdoing, is still necessary. Great Britain conducted such an independent inquiry into the abusive practices used against IRA prisoners in the 1970s, and the United States must do the same. The essential lesson must be that torture and cruel treatment are not policy options, even when lawyers are willing to write opinions blessing illegality.
At the January 2009 Association of American Law Schools’ Section on National Security Law panel discussion, I and others urged the incoming Obama administration to make a clear and decisive break with the Bush administration’s national security policies. Six months later, the new Administration has not done so. Rather, it has acted in a contradictory manner: boldly asserting in its first days that it would ban torture and close Guantánamo, but in practice continuing many of the Bush antiterrorism policies. President Obama’s major speech on Guantánamo and other national security issues reiterated his desire to close Guantánamo, but also argued that the United States could hold detainees in custody indefinitely without trial or try them by military commissions. The Administration has adopted the Bush administration position that detainees held in U.S. custody in Afghanistan indefinitely have no right to seek habeas corpus in U.S. courts. It has also continued to assert the state secrets privilege to attempt to block lawsuits seeking accountability for extraordinary rendition and torture.
As the United States continues to fight on multiple fronts to disrupt the efforts of al Qaeda and its affiliates, the U.S. government has slowly come to realize that military force alone cannot defeat radical Islamist extremism (hereafter “radical extremism”). Today, there is a growing consensus that countering the ideology that drives this extremism is a critical element in the overall effort to prevent extremist acts of violence. Despite this greater realization, developing a precise strategy to counter extremism effectively and empower mainstream alternatives has proved challenging. This issue posed a difficult challenge to the Bush administration and remains a daunting and urgent task for the Obama administration.
By any measure, the period between September 11, 2001, and the 2008 presidential election witnessed an unprecedented tangle of controversies at the intersection of national security law and policy. The Bush administration responded to the September 11 attacks and the threat of further terrorism by asserting expansive executive authority across a wide range of national security domains. The President fashioned new rules for detaining those captured in what was called the “global war on terror” …