Imagine this scenario: you’ve occupied an office for eight years and now you’re about to move out. You know who’s going to move in and, by reputation, he’s a fellow with a minimal ability to control himself who might conceivably be a danger to others. So here’s one thing you undoubtedly wouldn’t do: leave a loaded revolver in the top desk drawer and a stash of extra ammunition in the closet.
However — if you’ll excuse the analogy — that seems to be exactly what President Obama and his national security team are doing when it comes to Donald Trump.
Consider two news stories of last week. The Washington Post reported that, in its last days, the Obama administration is intent on giving the secretive and elite Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) new powers to strike globally. As Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Dan Lamothe write, JSOC will gain
“expanded power to track, plan, and potentially launch attacks on terrorist cells around the globe, a move driven by concerns [about] a dispersed terrorist threat as Islamic State militants are driven from strongholds in Iraq and Syria… When finalized, it will elevate JSOC from being a highly valued strike tool used by regional military commands to leading a new multiagency intelligence and action force. Known as the ‘Counter-External Operations Task Force,’ the group will be designed to take JSOC’s targeting model — honed over the last 15 years of conflict — and export it globally to go after terrorist networks plotting attacks against the West.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that, in the last moments of his second term, President Obama is expanding the legal basis for the war on terror by formally adding the Somali group al-Shabaab to “the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001” war authorization that Congress passed not long after the 9/11 attacks. (Mind you, al-Shabaab didn’t even exist in 2001.) As Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt, and Mark Mazzetti point out, this is “a move that will strengthen President-elect Donald J. Trump’s authority to combat thousands of Islamist fighters in the chaotic Horn of Africa nation… [and will] shore up the legal basis for an intensifying campaign of airstrikes and other counterterrorism operations, carried out largely in support of African Union and Somali government forces.”
Maybe we have to think of that Oval Office desk as stuffed with loaded weaponry from all these years of wars, raids, assassination campaigns, and the like. When Trump moves in he’ll find a formidable national security apparatus at his command, one that in its capabilities has left even the totalitarian regimes of the previous century in the shade. If only we could say that Barack Obama had at least made a serious attempt to blunt or rein in the powers of that state within a state, but no such luck. Instead, he’s leaving a striking (and still expanding) series of oppressive and aggressive powers loaded and ready for action for the new president.
The irony is that even with just a few weeks left, Obama could still act in ways that might make at least a modest difference on some of those powers. He could, as TomDispatchregular Pratap Chatterjee makes clear today, at least lift the all-enveloping veil of secrecy around the national security state and let the American public know just what has been done in our name in these years and what exactly is about to be handed over to his edgy successor.