The 9/11 Era Is Over
In the bowels of the CIA, there is a sign that reads every day is september 12th.
“As a New Yorker who witnessed the 9/11 attacks, I once felt that way myself,” Ben Rhodes wrote earlier this month, “but by the time I saw the sign, during the second term of the Obama administration, it seemed to ignore all the things that our country had gotten wrong because of that mindset. Now, as COVID-19 has transformed the way that Americans live, and threatens to claim exponentially more lives than any terrorist has, it is time to finally end the chapter of our history that began on September 11, 2001.”
Ben Rhodes is right to acknowledge what many of us anticipated soon after the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago: that our response to the attacks has done more harm than good. He provides examples that no student of history could credibly dispute, including opening the prison at Guantánamo Bay, torturing detainees, and the invasion of Iraq. There is much blame to go around for those failures, which have led to many lives lost, exacerbating many times over the devastation of 9/11.
Mr. Rhodes comes up short, however, by not acknowledging sufficiently the Obama administration’s share of responsibility for failing to remedy, and in some instances compounding, the missteps of the prior administration. President Barack Obama undoubtedly wanted to end the “post-9/11 period” and move U.S. national security and foreign policy away from a focus on terrorism, but regrettably his actions often led elsewhere. His administration often claimed legal authority to do what his predecessor had claimed authority to do without legal constraints under the guise of fighting terrorism. This included surveilling electronic communications of U.S. citizens without warrants, expanding the use of armed drones based on dubious legal opinions about what constitutes an imminent threat, and claiming authority to hold detainees at Guantánamo Bay indefinitely and without charge by picking and choosing which armed-conflict rules to apply to them. The administration also preferred to look forward, not backward, and consequently failed to prosecute or hold anyone accountable for torturing detainees. Rather, President Obama was willing to overlook the involvement of his administration officials in those grave crimes.
Nowhere is President Obama’s failure to move away from the post-9/11 era more apparent than his failure to close Guantánamo Bay, which Amnesty International aptly labeled “the gulag of our times” in 2005. President Obama repeatedly emphasized his genuine desire to close the prison, and his State Department made substantial efforts to reduce the detainee population. But closure efforts stalled for two years, due in part to his unwillingness to fight congressional intransigence, until he was forced to restart them in 2013, in response to a widespread hunger strike at the prison. In what can only be described as self-loathing toward its own closure policy, the administration also continued until its last day in office to fight reflexively against detainee court challenges requesting release, including cases where the administration itself had long ago determined that the detainee did not pose a substantial threat to the U.S. and should be transferred.
The post-9/11 era has not ended for the 40 men who remain at Guantánamo Bay—28 of whom are not currently charged with a crime—or for their loved ones, who may struggle to remember their faces after a generation of absence and loss. (Some have even been cleared for transfer for more than a decade.) The detained men cheered when President Obama was elected and promised to close the prison more than a decade ago. Now many wait for death, a result that could befall the aging and ailing population sooner rather than later, particularly if the coronavirus spreads inside the wire. Yet they worry about their families, and their children, some of whom were born after their capture and are now teenagers they have never met, who must face the global pandemic without them. Though Mr. Rhodes may attribute the present situation to gravitational forces, quicksand beneath their feet, or other circumstances beyond their control, the truth is that the fate of these detained men is measurably the result of policy choices made and actions taken by President Obama and his administration, including Mr. Rhodes. Guantánamo Bay’s continued existence was not inevitable.
No, the post-9/11 era that Mr. Rhodes was “roused” to join when he moved to Washington so many years ago is certainly not over for those whose lives have been upended by America’s global War on Terror. Nor is it over for the victims of the 9/11 attacks, because the military commission system that President Obama attempted to reform has failed to successfully prosecute a single defendant alleged to have orchestrated the attacks. Many who were affected in different ways by 9/11 continue to endure the lasting consequences of the U.S. response to the attacks every day. We may face a deadly pandemic that will claim more than 100,000 lives, but we cannot simply move on from the devastation caused by the misguided U.S. response to 9/11, which has been waged for nearly two decades.
Ending the post-9/11 era requires decisive action, including closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay. Mr. Rhodes is right that in the aftermath of 9/11, America “committed the familiar mistake of hastening a superpower’s decline through overreach,” which President Donald Trump accelerates by exploiting “anger, grievance, nationalism, and crude racism to win political support.” We therefore must look ahead to the future, to a new administration, to bring an end affirmatively to the post-9/11 era. This can happen only through deliberate action rather than the passage of time and the onset of a global pandemic.
J. Wells Dixon
Center for Constitutional Rights
New York, NY
Ben Rhodes replies:
I certainly understand the sentiment expressed by J. Wells Dixon. I was deeply frustrated—indeed, angered—by the failure to close Guantánamo Bay Naval Base (GTMO), which is a profound stain on America’s moral leadership and national-security interests. However, I think the letter makes a crucial omission with respect to why GTMO was not closed, which speaks to what will be necessary to change the post-9/11 mindset.
There is no question that President Obama would have closed GTMO if it had been up to him, and he constantly said so publicly and privately. Unfortunately, bipartisan majorities of Republicans and Democrats repeatedly passed legislation preventing the transfer of detainees to U.S. territory, which essentially made it impossible to close the prison. This was not for lack of effort by the Obama administration, which made annual, repeated efforts to engage members of Congress, presenting different plans and compromises. But the politics of terrorism ensured that Congress was an immovable object on the issue.
There are surely elements of President Obama’s record on these issues to challenge. However, simply winning the presidency does not change the politics around terrorism or the structural issues related to everything from defense budgets to the statutory powers granted to the executive branch by Congress. To truly put an end to the post-9/11 period and its excesses will take not just a change in the White House, but a change in how Congress approaches these issues and a change in the external pressures that come to bear on any president. This will require an active citizenry that sends the message to its representatives that it is time to move beyond self-defeating approaches and focus on the neglected and under-resourced aspects of our foreign and domestic policies. The COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath make this an imperative.