SA: I have to say I’m surprised by the preventive detention stuff. I’m waiting to see what he’ll actually produce as a plan, but he accepted a category of detainees—those who are too dangerous to release, but against whom the evidence is insufficient to charge. What I expected, from a campaign that talked a tremendous amount about not being constrained by old methods of thinking, and by a group of people that considered themselves, particularly on legal questions, to be more rigorous than the Bush administration, would be an exploration of the question: If we don’t have the evidence to justify charging them, or to justify detaining them, what reason do we have for believing that these people are so dangerous that they can’t be responsibly released?
There are others who really are dangerous, but the evidence against them is pretty decent, even in cases like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Abu Zubaydah, where they’ve been tortured. None of the torture stuff is admissible or should be, but nevertheless there’s good reason to believe that they’re the terrorists that we know they are. I expected the administration to take more of an approach of saying, some of these people are just people captured on a battlefield who’ve been through a series of rigmarole steps at Guantanamo that resulted in their presentation to the public as more dangerous than they are. And when the Secretary of Defense talks about a category of fifty to a hundred detainees, which is anywhere between about a quarter and half the population at Guantanamo still, that can be neither responsibly charged nor responsibly released, it’s an indicator to me that they’re not considering the option that perhaps they’re not in fact that dangerous.
GM: That’s a topic that Obama has taken grief from some parts of his base on, but it tends to be not a really high-salience issue with the general public. So how does the press go about holding him accountable on something like that?
SA: I think our responsibility is to present the situation in its complexity. There’s an audience that’s going to be interested in that. One of the things about the Internet, since everyone can access something like Google News, is you can go searching for what stories you want to read about. And national security reporters should report this and deal with the criticisms from their readers about whether the stories in and of themselves cover the situation they’re describing accurately, contextually and adequately. But just because more people, understandably, want to read about the economy or health care and that sort of thing doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be intensely focused on holding the administration accountable, particularly if there are going to be laws passed or executive orders issues that in significant ways transform the architecture of American constitutional law.
GM: A lot of the coverage on the internal dynamics of the administration with respect to broader foreign policy issues tends to get focused on Hillary Clinton, just because of her star power. With respect to national security issues specifically, what are some of the important fault lines in the administration? Are there particular names or patterns that readers should be looking for?
SA: I would trace not so much personalities. When I read that stuff it makes me really grateful that I work for a place that doesn’t confuse substantive coverage with a Washington parlor game. This stuff about is Hillary up or down, I want to quit the business before I write crap like that.
What I’m more interested in, and what I think readers are more interested in, is the degrees to which the Obama administration’s focus on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency sort of divide at a certain point, or whether there’s a sufficient role for global development—we still don’t have a head for USAID. I think that the changes the administration is talking about, structurally, to national security decision-making—things like transforming the ability of the State Department to have more of an expeditionary culture, to do diplomacy not just in embassies and consulates, but around in hinterlands of certain areas, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia—are really important things to look at and be focused on.