How the War on Terror Fuels Trump

The bipartisan consensus of endless wars and attacks on civil liberties laid the groundwork for Trump's toxic agenda.

In late September 2001, CIA director George Tenet phoned Michael Hayden, then director of the National Security Agency, to ask a fateful question. The NSA had the intelligence community’s fattest budget, an array of the world’s most powerful computers, and the benefit of operating in near-complete secrecy. The president and vice president, Tenet told Hayden, wanted to know if there was more his agency could be doing to prevent the next attack.

“No,” Hayden said, “not within my current authorities.”

Tenet paused. “That’s not actually the question I asked you. Is there anything more you could do?”

Another silence. “I’ll get back to you.”

A few days later, in flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment, President George W. Bush secretly authorized the warrantless collection of Americans’ phone call, email, and Internet data. The program — designed by Hayden and dubbed “Stellar Wind” — existed as part of what Dick Cheney memorably called the “dark side,” the anti-terrorism work conducted “in the shadows… quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies.”

General Hayden had his own term for it: “playing to the edge.” “Playing to the edge means playing so close to the line that you get chalk dust on your cleats,” the book jacket of Hayden’s new memoir explains.

But when it comes to the “war on terror,” the Bush and Obama administrations haven’t just played to the edge. They’ve tracked chalk dust well beyond the boundaries of the law — and unwittingly aided the rise of Donald Trump.

Playing to the Edge

This week, Hayden and forty-nine other top GOP national security officials released an open letter lambasting the Republicans’ presidential nominee.

“Mr. Trump lacks the character, values, and experience to be President,” they wrote. “He weakens U.S. moral authority as the leader of the free world. He appears to lack basic knowledge about and belief in the U.S. Constitution, U.S. laws, and U.S. institutions.”

Like Hayden, many of the signees served in the Bush-Cheney White House. There was Michael Chertoff, who co-authored the Patriot Act; Tom Ridge, the nation’s first secretary of homeland security; and Cold Warrior John Negroponte, who was director of national intelligence in 2006 when the NSA resumed collecting American’s phone records in bulk.

In a separate op-ed last week, Obama-era CIA deputy director Mike Morell denounced Trump as lacking “respect for the rule of law.” Morell, a vocal defender of drone strikes and torture, endorsed Hillary Clinton.

The recent denunciations underscore a growing consensus among foreign policy elites in both parties: that Trump’s disrespect for constitutional norms and antipathy toward limits on executive power pose, as the Washington Post put it, “a unique threat to American democracy.”

Some voters, however, aren’t convinced.

Eighty-eight percent of Republicans and 40 percent of the general public support Trump. Judging by the last few months of polling, a significantly larger portion backs his national security agenda. Half the country supports a temporary ban on Muslim immigration; 44 percent favor a registry for Muslims already here; 53 percent want to intensify surveillance of US mosques; and 63 percent endorse the torture of terror suspects. In the latest Pew survey on the subject, voters say Trump would do a better job than Clinton defending the country from future terrorist attacks.

It’s tempting to attribute these authoritarian sentiments to Trump’s demagoguery alone. But Trump didn’t generate an appetite for reactionary reform by himself. The seeds were planted long ago — sown in that cryptic conversation between Hayden and Tenet, and thousands like it in the halls of power since.

If a constituency exists for Trump’s extreme anti-terror agenda it’s because Republicans and Democrats alike have spent the last fifteen years cultivating paranoia, secrecy, and deference to executive authority — while vastly overstating the threat of attacks on American soil.

For fifteen years, the US government has waged a war on terror premised on the idea that the extraordinary threat of global terrorism demands extraordinary measures, that the effective prevention of terrorist plots demands sacrifices of civil liberties, and that rooting out terror across the globe necessitates an expansion of what is permissible under traditional norms of war. For fifteen years, the state has been “playing to the edge” and beyond — enabling the emergence of a candidate who doesn’t know or care where the edge is.

Foreign policy elites made their own bed; now Trump is sleeping in it.

Indeed, many of the elites now criticizing Trump were content to allow Islamophobia and irrational fear to fuel their war on terror, so long as it was coded in the Teflon language of “national security.”

Take John Yoo, author of the Torture Memos. No figure is more responsible for the legal architecture of the war on terror than Yoo. Bush and Cheney relied on his opinions to preemptively justify their violations of the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions.

In March, Yoo condemned Trump’s position on waterboarding. He did so not because he’s had a change of heart about the morality or legality of what he calls “enhanced interrogation,” but rather because Trump implied he would use torture as a means of punishment.

“That’s not what its purpose is,” Yoo insisted. “The purpose of it is not to take revenge for past acts. It’s to figure out what to do now to get intelligence to stop future attacks.”

Trump, by refusing to coat his language in nat. sec. legalese, revealed an uncomfortable truth: that torture has always been ineffective, motivated as much by spite as by a belief in its intelligence value. For Yoo, that was the unforgivable offense.

The Bush-Obama War on Terror

Trump’s national security proposals are horrifying — worse than anything we’ve seen since the Cold War. But even his most deplorable ideas differ in degree, not in kind, from the policies embraced by Bush and Obama. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the truly reactionary changes that have taken place since the onset of the war on terror.

It began with conversations like Hayden and Tenet’s. Abetted by Congress, President Bush vastly expanded domestic surveillance, lowered warrant requirements, instituted discriminatory watch lists, legalized the indefinite detention of terror suspects, and arrested and convicted hundreds on flimsy “material support” charges. For good measure, his lawyers secretly invented a legal justification for torture.

Obama’s DOJ largely continued these polices (with the exception of torture), abandoning a campaign commitment to bring transparency to the war on terror. Instead, he has ramped up investigations and prosecutions of national security leakers and resisted efforts to make public the worst crimes of the Bush administration.

On the battlefield too, there’s been much continuity between Bush and Obama. Bush administration lawyers reimagined the meaning of warfare, increasing the executive’s unilateral authority to wage it and creating a legal framework for a borderless, multifaceted war with no necessary end.

Despite a greater reluctance to commit American troops abroad, Obama has more or less embraced his predecessor’s paradigm. Obama’s “softer” war on terror favors the judicious deployment of Special Operations Forces (in 2014, they were sent to 133 — or 70 percent — of the nations on Earth) and an unaccountable system of targeted killing via drone strikes, which has eroded traditional notions of sovereignty and left many hundreds of civilians dead.

That much of this has been accomplished discretely, without the racist bombast of a Trump, is faint praise. By gradually chipping away at constitutional norms, the Bush and Obama administrations have facilitated what Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, has called “the death of liberty by a thousand cuts.”

As Greenburg writes in her new book, Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State, it is precisely the “quiet decisions, the individual judicial rulings and laws and executive orders… that make possible the fiascos, the follies, and the excesses that turn governments into the enemies of their constituents.”

Both Bush and Obama have treated democratic norms as expendable in the face of terrorist threats. They have created perpetual states of exception in which the old rules of the legal system do not apply — a permanent suspension of the normal.

In a hopeful speech at Oxford University in 2012, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said, “War must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary, and unnatural state of affairs,” one that “violates the natural order of things.” The war on terror — as architected by the Bush White House and perpetuated by Obama’s — has violated this principle more than any other. War itself has become the natural order of things.

In this environment, an authoritarian like Trump flourishes. The suspension of norms he promises — “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before… things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago” — is already underway. The exception is already the rule.

The growth in executive power under the last two presidents also plays into Trump’s hands.

Since the Iraq War resolution in 2002, Congress has effectively abdicated its duty to authorize wars. Obama’s drone program operates beyond public view with limited congressional oversight. The White House has severely underreported the number of noncombatants killed by drones and refused to explain how its policy of “signature strikes” — which take out anonymous targets suspected of terrorist activity — comports with humanitarian law. And despite post-Snowden efforts to rein in the National Security Agency, the next occupier of the Oval Office will still have access to the most extensive surveillance apparatus ever devised, checked by a pair of friendly congressional committees and a secret, ex parte court.

President Obama’s implicit deal with the public — in effect, grant my superlatively decent administration extraordinary power and we’ll keep you safe — is a recipe for autocracy. If we shudder at the thought of Trump in charge of a global assassination program, we must also deplore the presidential administration that conceived it in the first place.

The Tyranny Was Already Here

In domestic policy, many liberals and leftists have been comfortable blaming the Republican Party itself for enabling Trump’s rise: having unleashed noxious forces beyond its control, the GOP is now reaping what it’s sown. What the Paul Ryans of the Grand Old Party resent most about Trump is that his indelicate style makes plain the politics of white racial grievance at the center of American conservatism.

A similar dynamic, though less commented on, has been at work on issues of national security.

In the minds of foreign policy elites, Trump’s anti-terror platform is ugly but anomalous — an inexplicable departure from a righteous path of constitutional faithfulness, a singular and self-contained danger to the health of our democracy. For them, Trump’s tyranny intrudes from without upon our pristine republic.

But this is a fantasy. The tyranny was already here. Trump, as is his tendency, has only made it more evident.

We already live in a country engaged in an interminable, boundless war against an ill-defined enemy — a war in which any degree of constitutional compromise can be justified. If we don’t want to live in that country, we have to do more than reject Trump’s abhorrent policies. We have to reject the war on terror that made his ascent possible.