When George W. Bush and Dick Cheney launched their forever wars—under the banner of a “Global War on Terror”—they unleashed an unholy trinity of tactics. Torture, rendition, and indefinite detention became the order of the day. After a partial suspension of these policies in the Obama years, they now appear poised for resurrection.
For eight years under President Obama, this country’s forever wars continued, although his administration retired the expression “war on terror,” preferring to describe its war-making more vaguely as an effort to “degrade and destroy” violent jihadists like ISIS. Nevertheless, Obama made major efforts to suspend Bush-era violations of US and international law, signing executive orders to that effect on the day he took office in 2009. Executive Order 13491, “Ensuring Lawful Interrogations,” closed the CIA’s secret torture centers—the “black sites”—and ended permission for the agency to use what had euphemistically become known as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
On that same day in 2009, Obama issued Executive Order 13492, designed—unsuccessfully, as it turned out—to close the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, the site of apparently endless detention without charges or trials. In 2015, Congress reinforced Obama’s first order in a clause for the next year’s National Defense Authorization Act that limited permissible interrogation techniques to those described in the US Army Field Manual section on “human intelligence collector operations.”
All of that already seems like such ancient history, especially as the first hints of the Trump era begin to appear, one in which torture, black sites, extraordinary rendition, and so much more may well come roaring back. Right now, it’s a matter of reading the Trumpian tea leaves. Soon after the November election, Masha Gessen, a Russian émigré who has written two books about Vladimir Putin’s regime, gave us some pointers on how to do this. Rule number one: “Believe the autocrat.” When he tells you what he wants to do—build a wall, deport millions, bring back torture—“he means what he says.” Is Gessen right? Let’s examine some of those leaves.