Since 9/11, US government officials have frequently fought national security excesses. They will likely do so againby Rupert Stone / November 21, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read former MI6 Chief Richard Dearlove: Trump could make Britain safer
Donald Trump’s election victory has caused widespread alarm. The Republican candidate who called for torture, the murder of terrorists’ family members, military tribunals for American citizens, surveillance of Muslims, bombing “the shit” out of ISIS, mass deportations and other harsh measures will soon be president.
Concerns about the future of American democracy are, of course, understandable. But, if the past is anything to go by, Trump may well struggle to implement his proposals. Since 9/11, US government officials have repeatedly challenged overweening national security policies by protesting internally or leaking to media outlets.
Let’s take a look at the Bush administration. Soon after 9/11 the CIA embarked on a secret programme to capture terror suspects and torture them using so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. Problems started soon after the agency detained its first prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, in 2002, when former FBI agent Ali Soufan objected to the harsh methods being used and withdrew his participation. Government attorneys had approved the CIA techniques in a notorious series of legal opinions, but Jack Goldsmith, a senior lawyer in the Justice Department, disagreed and eventually revoked those opinions before resigning his position in 2004. Around the same time CIA Inspector General John Helgerson issued an explosive report raising doubts about the legality and effectiveness of the interrogation regimen.
Then, in 2005, leaks about secret CIA prisons appeared in The Washington Post. Detention facilities were closed and interrogations soon ground to a halt. In 2007 there was another major leak, this time concerning the agency’s destruction of 92 videotapes, some of which showed two detainees undergoing harsh interrogation techniques. This, in turn, triggered a massive inquiry by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which, thanks to the dogged persistence of its then chair, Senator Dianne Feinstein, finally released the scathing executive summary of its 6,700-page report in 2014. That report led to new legislation placing firmer constraints on the abuse of prisoners, making it harder for Trump to reauthorise torture as he has promised. It has also enabled a lawsuit brought by former CIA captives against architects of the interrogation program.
At Guantanamo, where a similar set of abusive tactics was approved after 9/11, government insiders also spoke out. Alberto Mora, former General Counsel of the Navy, rejected the administration’s legal justification for mistreating prisoners. Other officials, such as Mark Fallon, protested internally about harsh interrogation techniques. The system of military commissions, set up after 9/11 to try terrorism suspects, met with intense opposition. Indeed, former prosecutors Stuart Couch and Morris Davis resigned over concerns about evidence obtained through torture. Dissent was not limited to Guantanamo: take Sgt. Joseph Darby, who disclosed images of torture at Abu Ghraib, or Col. Steven Kleinman who tried to stop prisoner abuse in Iraq.
Bush’s surveillance policies also encountered resistance. Shortly after 9/11 the NSA was given sweeping new powers to intercept domestic phone calls and email data in breach of federal law. Jack Goldsmith and his boss James Comey, who was acting Attorney General at the time (and is now FBI Director), deemed parts of the program to be illegal, and threatened to resign along with a host of other Justice Department officials if they continued. Bush eventually capitulated and made changes, but the NSA program then leaked to the New York Times, generating widespread controversy. Around the same time a group of dissident NSA officials was trying to roll back the surveillance practices, complaining internally to the relevant oversight bodies.
To the surprise of many, Barack Obama largely continued Bush’s policies. Indeed, dissenters have mostly managed to reform, rather than end, the practices they opposed. Obama even expanded Bush’s surveillance activities, but here, too, there was pushback, most famously from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked vast troves of information to the media. Snowden’s disclosures have already resulted in one (albeit modest) legislative reform, while also enabling greater transparency and public debate about surveillance. Snowden was not the only dissenting insider: former State Department official John Tye protested the bulk gathering of data by Executive Order. More recently it was revealed that John Crane, a former high-ranking official in the Department of Defense Inspector General, had fought with his colleagues about the Obama administration’s treatment of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake.
One of the most striking aspects of Obama’s early years in office was his dramatic escalation of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere. The strikes, which are secret, leaked to the media and attracted criticism. As a result, drone attacks declined in frequency from a peak in 2010, and the Obama administration has been forced to apply new safeguards to its targeted killing policy. There has been opposition to the use of force in other contexts, too. Matthew Hoh, a former State Department official serving in Afghanistan, resigned in protest against Obama’s continuation of the war there. In 2010 Wikileaks published huge numbers of Iraq and Afghan war logs leaked by Chelsea Manning. More recently, fifty Pentagon intelligence analysts complained that assessments of the effectiveness of the military campaign against ISIS were being distorted.
There have been many other examples of internal dissent besides those mentioned here. In the past fifteen years government insiders have shown a remarkable willingness to risk their careers by speaking out against perceived abuses of power. And they will likely continue doing so under Trump, whose proposals are generally more draconian than the policies of Bush or Obama. Indeed, officials have already vowed to disobey unlawful orders, before Trump has even taken office. If the president-elect does follow through on some of his campaign pledges, there will surely be one hell of a fight.