فصل 23دوره: سرزمین موعود / درس 24
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THE FIRST OFFSHORE OIL DRILLING operations in the Gulf of Mexico were simple affairs, wooden platforms constructed in shallow waters beginning in the late 1930s. As technology advanced and America’s thirst for oil grew unabated, companies ventured farther and farther from land, and by 2010 more than three thousand rigs and production platforms sat off the coasts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, dotting the horizon like castles on stilts. They became a potent symbol of oil’s central role in the regional economy: the billions in annual revenue it generated and the tens of thousands of people whose livelihoods depended, directly or indirectly, on siphoning up the remains of the ancient plants and animals converted by nature into the viscous black gold pooled beneath the ocean floor.
And when it came to rigs, few were more impressive than the Deepwater Horizon. Roughly thirty stories tall and longer than a football field, this mobile, half-billion-dollar semisubmersible could function in water as deep as ten thousand feet and drill exploratory wells several miles deeper than that. Operating a rig this size cost around $1 million a day, but major oil companies considered the expense well worth it. Their continued growth and profits depended on tapping potentially vast reservoirs buried at what were previously unreachable depths.
The Deepwater Horizon was owned by the Switzerland-based contractor Transocean and since 2001 had been leased by BP, one of the largest oil companies in the world. BP had used the rig to explore the U.S. section of the Gulf, discovering at least two enormous and potentially lucrative reservoirs beneath the seafloor. Just one of those fields, the Tiber, contained what was estimated to be a mind-boggling three billion barrels of oil. To access it, Deepwater crews had in 2009 drilled one of the deepest wells on record—35,055 feet under 4,130 feet of water, or farther beneath the ocean’s surface than the height of Mount Everest.
Hoping to repeat that success, BP dispatched the Deepwater Horizon to drill an exploratory well in another prospective oil field, called the Macondo, in early 2010. Located about fifty miles off the coast of Louisiana, the Macondo wasn’t quite as far down as the Tiber—a “mere” twenty thousand feet or so. But in ultradeep underwater drilling, there was no such thing as a routine job. Accessing each reservoir raised unique challenges, often involving weeks of tinkering, complex calculations, and ad hoc decisions. And Macondo proved to be an especially difficult field, mainly due to fragile formation and uneven levels of fluid pressure.
The project quickly fell weeks behind schedule, costing BP millions of dollars. Engineers, designers, and contractors disputed aspects of the well’s design. Nevertheless, by April 20, the well reached three and a half miles below the ocean’s surface and appeared almost complete. A team from Halliburton, a contractor on the project, injected cement down the well bore to seal the edges of the pipe. Once the cement had set, BP engineers began to conduct a series of safety tests before moving the Deepwater on to its next assignment.
Shortly after five p.m., one of those tests revealed possible gas leakage through the cement casing, signaling a potentially dangerous situation. Despite the warning signs, BP engineers decided to continue their process, pumping out the muddy lubricant used to offset pressure imbalances during drilling. By nine-thirty p.m., a powerful surge of gas had entered the drill pipe. A four-hundred-ton set of emergency valves called the blowout preventer—designed to seal off the well in the event of a sudden pressure increase—malfunctioned, allowing the highly pressurized and combustible gas to erupt through the platform and shoot a black geyser of mud lubricant up into the sky. Clouds of gas collected inside the rig’s engine control room and quickly ignited, rocking the entire structure with a pair of violent explosions. A tower of flames torched the night sky, as crew members scrambled into lifeboats or jumped into the debris-filled waters. Of the 126 persons aboard the rig, 98 managed to escape without physical harm, 17 were injured, and 11 platform workers remained unaccounted for. The Deepwater Horizon would continue to burn for the next thirty-six hours, its massive ball of fire and smoke visible for miles.
I WAS IN the residence when I got word of what was happening in the Gulf, having just returned from a West Coast fundraising trip for Democratic congressional candidates. My first thought was “Not again.” Just fifteen days earlier, a coal dust explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, in West Virginia, had killed twenty-nine miners, the worst mining disaster in nearly forty years. Although the investigation of that disaster was still in its early stages, we already knew that Massey had a long history of safety violations. In contrast, the Deepwater rig hadn’t had a serious accident in seven years. Still, I couldn’t help but connect the two events and consider the human costs of the world’s dependence on fossil fuels: the number of people who each day were forced to risk lungs, limbs, and sometimes their lives to fill our gas tanks and keep the lights on—and generate otherworldly profits for distant executives and shareholders.
I knew also that the explosion would have serious implications for our energy agenda. A few weeks earlier, I’d authorized the Department of the Interior to allow the sale of certain offshore leases, which would open oil exploration (though not yet actual production) in the eastern Gulf and some waters off the Atlantic states and Alaska. I was following through on a campaign promise: In the midst of surging gas prices and with the McCain-Palin proposal to open America’s coastline to wholesale drilling gaining traction in public polls, I’d pledged to consider a more limited expansion of drilling as part of an “all of the above” energy strategy. As a matter of policy, any transition to a clean energy future would take decades to complete; in the meantime, I had no problem with increasing U.S. oil and gas production to reduce our reliance on imports from petrostates like Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Above all, my decision to allow new exploratory drilling was a last-ditch effort to salvage our climate change legislation, which was by then on life support. The previous fall, when GOP senator Lindsey Graham had agreed to help put together a bipartisan climate bill, he had warned that we’d have to give something up in order to win enough Republican support to overcome a filibuster, and more offshore drilling had been at the top of his list. Taking Graham at his word, Joe Lieberman and John Kerry spent months working in tandem with Carol Browner, trying to persuade environmental groups that the trade was worth it, pointing out that the environmental risks of offshore drilling had been reduced by improvements in technology and that any final agreement would preclude oil companies from operating in sensitive areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
At least some environmental groups were prepared to play ball. Unfortunately, as the months passed, it became increasingly obvious that Graham couldn’t deliver on his end of the bargain. It’s not that he didn’t try. He worked to line up the oil companies behind a deal and courted moderate Republicans like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, as well as oil-state senators like Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, hoping they’d cosponsor the bill. But no matter how many concessions Kerry and Lieberman were prepared to make, Graham couldn’t get any takers within the GOP caucus. The political price for cooperating with my administration remained too high.
Graham himself had started taking heat for his work on the climate bill, from both constituents and conservative media. His demands for staying with the bill escalated, making it harder for Kerry to keep environmental groups on board. Even our announcement that we were laying the groundwork to open up new areas to drilling drew Graham’s ire; rather than viewing it as a show of good faith on our part, he complained that we’d undercut him by taking away a key bargaining chip. Rumors began circulating that he was looking for an opportune time to abandon the effort altogether.
All this came before the Deepwater accident. With newscasts suddenly flashing hellish images of a burning rig, we knew that environmental groups were sure to back off any bill that expanded offshore drilling. That, in turn, would give Graham the excuse he needed to jump ship. No matter how I sliced it, I could draw only one conclusion: My already slim chances of passing climate legislation before the midterm elections had just gone up in smoke.
THE MORNING AFTER the Deepwater blowout, I took some solace in reports that much of the oil released by the explosion was burning off at the ocean’s surface, at least slightly reducing the prospects of severe environmental damage. Carol confirmed that BP’s emergency vessels and the U.S. Coast Guard had made it to the scene quickly, that search-and-rescue operations for the missing rig workers were ongoing, and that we were in close contact with state and local authorities. Under a federal law passed in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker accident in Alaska, BP bore full responsibility for cleaning up the spill. Nevertheless, I mobilized the Coast Guard, as well as the EPA and the Department of the Interior, to assess the damage and provide any support the company might need.
Figuring we had a reasonable handle on the situation, I kept to my schedule, traveling to New York the following day to give a speech on Wall Street reform. By the time I arrived, though, the disaster had intensified. Weakened by the ongoing inferno, the entire Deepwater structure had collapsed and sunk into the ocean, spewing black smoke as all thirty-three thousand tons of it disappeared from view, almost certainly damaging the undersea apparatus beneath it. With the unknowns rapidly multiplying, I asked Rahm to set up a briefing upon my return, gathering U.S. Coast Guard commandant Admiral Thad Allen, Janet Napolitano of Homeland Security, and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, whose department was responsible for overseeing offshore drilling. As it turned out, the only time we could fit in a meeting was six p.m.—right after I finished addressing the couple hundred people we’d invited to a previously arranged Rose Garden reception celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day.
It was a bit of cosmic irony that I was in no mood to appreciate.
“Hell of a farewell tour we’re giving you, Thad,” I said, shaking hands with Admiral Allen as he and the rest of the group filed into the Oval Office. Stout and ruddy-faced, with a whisk-broom mustache, Allen was just a month away from retiring after thirty-nine years of service in the Coast Guard.
“Well, hopefully we can get this mess under control for you before I go, Mr. President,” Allen replied.
I signaled for everyone to have a seat. The tone grew somber as Allen explained that the Coast Guard had diminished hopes when it came to the search-and-rescue operations—too much time had passed for any of the Deepwater’s eleven missing crew members to have survived in open seas. As for the cleanup, he reported that BP and the Coast Guard response teams had deployed specially equipped boats to skim oil left from the explosion off the water’s surface. Fixed-wing aircraft were scheduled to begin dropping chemical dispersants to break up the oil into smaller droplets. And the Coast Guard was working with BP and the impacted states to pre-position booms—floating barriers of sponge and plastic—to help prevent the possibility of oil spreading to the shore.
“What’s BP saying about liability?” I asked, turning to Salazar. Balding and bespectacled, with a sunny disposition and a fondness for cowboy hats and bolo ties, Ken had been elected to the Senate in 2004, the same year I was. He’d become a trusted colleague and was an ideal choice for interior secretary, having led the Department of Natural Resources in Colorado before becoming the state’s first Hispanic attorney general. He’d grown up in the stunningly beautiful ranchlands of south-central Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where branches of his family had lived continuously since the 1850s, and was intimately familiar with the dueling impulses to exploit and to conserve the federal lands that had shaped so much of that region’s history.
“I heard from them today, Mr. President,” Salazar said. “BP has confirmed that they’ll pay any damages that aren’t covered by the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.” This was good news, I thought. While individual oil companies were responsible for the entire cost of cleaning up their spills, Congress had put a paltry $75 million cap on their obligation to compensate third parties like fishermen or coastal businesses for damages. Instead, oil companies were required to pay into a joint trust fund that would cover any excess damages up to $1 billion. But Carol had already alerted us that if the oil slick wasn’t sufficiently contained, that might not be enough. By securing an early pledge from BP to make up any shortfall, we could at least provide affected states with some assurance that their residents would have their losses covered.
At the end of the meeting, I asked the team to keep me informed of new developments and reminded them to use whatever federal resources we had at our disposal to mitigate the economic and environmental impacts. Walking everyone out of the Oval, I noticed Carol looking pensive. I asked her to hang back for a minute so I could speak to her alone.
“Is there something we didn’t cover?” I asked.
“Not really,” Carol said. “I just think we need to prepare for the worst.”
“Meaning?” I asked.
Carol shrugged. “BP’s claiming that oil isn’t leaking out of the well. If we’re lucky, they’ll turn out to be right. But we’re talking about a pipe that travels a mile down to a well on the bottom of the ocean floor. So I doubt anyone knows for sure.” “What if they’re wrong?” I asked. “What if there is a leak beneath the surface?”
“If they can’t seal it quickly,” she said, “then we’ve got a nightmare on our hands.”
IT TOOK LESS than two days to confirm Carol’s fears. The Macondo well was discharging oil below the surface—and not just a trickle. At first, BP engineers identified the leak as coming from a break in the pipe that had occurred when the rig sank, discharging an estimated one thousand barrels of oil into the Gulf each day. By April 28, underwater cameras had discovered two more leaks, and those estimates had risen to five thousand barrels a day. At the surface, the oil slick had grown to roughly six hundred square miles and was close to reaching the Louisiana coast, poisoning fish, dolphins, and sea turtles and threatening long-term damage to the marshes, estuaries, and inlets that were home to birds and other wildlife.
Even more alarming was the fact that BP didn’t seem to know how long it would take to successfully plug the well. The company insisted that there were several viable options, including the use of remotely operated vehicles to unjam the blowout preventer, stuffing the hole with rubber or other materials, placing a containment dome above the well to funnel oil up to the surface so it could be collected, or drilling intersecting relief wells so that cement could be pumped in to block the flow of oil. According to our experts, however, the first three of those options weren’t guaranteed to work, while the fourth might “take several months.” At the rate we believed oil was gushing out, that could add up to a nineteen-million-gallon spill—about 70 percent more than had been released during Exxon Valdez.
Suddenly we faced the prospect of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
We assigned Thad Allen the job of national incident commander; imposed a thirty-day moratorium on new offshore drilling, as well as a fishing ban in the contaminated area; and declared the Macondo disaster a “spill of national significance.” The federal government coordinated a response across many entities, including engaging with citizen volunteers. Soon more than two thousand people were working around the clock to contain the spill, operating an armada that comprised seventy-five vessels, including tugboats, barges, and skimmers, plus dozens of aircraft and 275,000 feet of flotation booms. I sent Napolitano, Salazar, and Lisa Jackson of the EPA to the Gulf to monitor the work, and I told Valerie I wanted her talking to the governors of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Florida (all five of whom happened to be Republican) every single day to find out what more we could do to help.
“Tell them if they’ve got a problem, I want to hear from them directly,” I said to Valerie. “I want us to be so goddamn responsive that they get sick of hearing from us.”
It’s fair to say, then, that by May 2, when I visited a Coast Guard station in Venice, Louisiana, to get a firsthand look at the cleanup operations, we were throwing everything we had at the disaster. As with most presidential trips, the point was not so much to gather new information but to communicate concern and resolve. After delivering a press statement in the driving rain outside the station, I spoke with a group of fishermen, who told me they’d recently been hired by BP to lay down booms across the path of the spill and were understandably worried about the spill’s long-term impact on their livelihoods.
I also spent a good deal of time that day with Bobby Jindal, the former congressman and health policy expert in the Bush administration who had leveraged his sharp-edged conservatism to become the nation’s first Indian American governor. Smart, ambitious, and in his late thirties, Jindal was viewed as an up-and-comer within his party and had been selected to deliver the televised GOP response to my first joint session address. But the Deepwater incident, which threatened to shut down vital Louisiana industries like commercial seafood and tourism, put him in an awkward spot: Like most GOP politicians, he was a champion of Big Oil and an equally fervent opponent of strengthening environmental regulations.
Scrambling to get ahead of any shift in public sentiment, Jindal spent most of his time pitching me a plan to rapidly erect a barrier island—a berm—along a portion of the Louisiana coast. This, he insisted, would help keep the impending oil slick at bay.
“We’ve already got the contractors lined up to do the job,” he said. His tone was confident, verging on cocky, though his dark eyes betrayed a wariness, almost pain, even when he smiled. “We just need your help to get the Army Corps of Engineers to approve it and BP to pay for it.” In fact, I’d already heard about the “berm” idea; preliminary assessments from our experts suggested that it was impractical, expensive, and potentially counterproductive. I suspected that Jindal knew as much. The proposal was mainly a political play, a way for him to look proactive while avoiding the broader questions the spill raised about the risks of deepwater drilling. Regardless, given the scope of the crisis I didn’t want to be seen as dismissing any idea out of hand, and I assured the governor that the Army Corps of Engineers would give his berm plan a quick and thorough evaluation.
With the weather too foul to fly Marine One, we spent much of the day driving. Sitting in the backseat of the SUV, I surveyed the patchy membrane of vegetation, mud, silt, and marsh that spread unevenly on either side of the Mississippi River and into the Gulf. For centuries, humans had fought to bend this primordial landscape to their will, just as Jindal was now proposing to do with his berm—building dikes, dams, levees, channels, sluices, ports, bridges, roads, and highways in the service of commerce and expansion, and rebuilding time and again after hurricanes and floods, undaunted by the implacable tides. There was a certain nobility in such stubbornness, I thought, part of the can-do spirit that had built America.
Yet when it came to the ocean and the mighty river that emptied into it, the victories of engineering turned out to be fleeting, the prospect of control illusory. Louisiana was losing more than ten thousand acres of land every year, as climate change raised sea levels and made hurricanes in the Gulf more fierce. The constant dredging, banking, and rerouting of the Mississippi to ease passage for ships and cargo meant that less sediment washed down from upriver to restore the land that was lost. The very activity that had made the region a commercial hub and allowed the oil industry to thrive was now hastening the sea’s steady advance. Looking out the rain-streaked window, I wondered how long the road I was traveling would last, with its gas stations and convenience stores, before it too was swallowed by the waves.
A PRESIDENT HAS no choice but to continually multitask. (“You’re like the guy in the circus,” Michelle told me once, “just spinning plates at the end of a stick.”) Al-Qaeda didn’t suspend its operations because of a financial crisis; a devastating earthquake in Haiti didn’t time itself to avoid relief efforts overlapping with a long-planned, forty-seven-nation nuclear security summit I was chairing. And so, as stressed as I was about the Deepwater disaster, I tried not to let it consume me. In the weeks following my Louisiana visit, I carefully tracked our response, relying on detailed daily briefings while also attending to the ten or twelve other pressing matters that demanded my attention.
I visited a manufacturing plant in Buffalo to discuss the economic recovery and continued to work with a bipartisan fiscal commission that was looking for ways to stabilize the long-term U.S. deficit. There were calls to Merkel on Greece and Medvedev on the ratification of START, a formal state visit from President Felipe Calderón of Mexico focused on border cooperation, and a working lunch with President Karzai of Afghanistan. Along with the usual terrorist threat briefings, strategy sessions with my economic team, and a slew of ceremonial duties, I interviewed candidates for a Supreme Court seat that had opened up after Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement in early April. I settled on the brilliant young solicitor general and former Harvard Law School dean Elena Kagan, who, like Justice Sotomayor, would emerge from the Senate hearings relatively unscathed and be confirmed a few months later.
But no matter how many other plates I had spinning in the air, at the end of each day my mind would be pulled back to the Deepwater spill. If I squinted hard, I could tell myself there’d been some progress. BP had successfully shut off the smallest of the three underwater leaks, using robots to fit a valve on the ruptured pipe. Admiral Allen had brought a semblance of order to the cleanup efforts on the ocean surface, which by mid-May had grown to nearly a thousand vessels and an army of close to twenty thousand BP workers, members of the Coast Guard and National Guard, shrimpers, fishermen, and volunteers. Valerie did such an outstanding job of staying close to the five governors whose states were threatened by the spill that, despite their party affiliations, most had only good things to say about the federal response. (“Me and Bob Riley have become best buddies,” she said with a smile, referring to the Republican governor of Alabama.) The lone exception was Governor Jindal; Valerie reported that on several occasions, he’d make a request for White House help on some issue, only to put out a press release ten minutes later blasting us for ignoring Louisiana.
Still, the oil kept coming. BP’s robots couldn’t close the jammed blowout preventer, leaving the two main leaks unsealed. The company’s first effort to place a containment dome over the leaks also failed, due to issues caused by frigid temperatures so far down. It became increasingly obvious that BP’s team didn’t know exactly how to proceed—and that none of the federal agencies that typically handled spills did either. “We’re used to dealing with an oil slick from a tanker accident or a busted pipe,” Admiral Allen explained to me. “Trying to seal a live oil well a mile under the surface…this is more like a space mission.” It was an apt analogy—and the reason I decided to turn to Steve Chu for help. Despite the title, the secretary of energy doesn’t normally have jurisdiction over oil drilling. But we figured it couldn’t hurt to have a Nobel Prize–winning physicist involved in our response, and after discovering the underwater leaks, we asked Chu to brief the team on the science involved in shutting them down. Despite Carol’s warning to be succinct, his Situation Room presentation ran about twice as long as he’d been allotted and involved thirty slides. Most of the room was lost after the fifth one. Rather than waste all that brainpower on us, I instructed him to head down to Houston, where BP’s response team was headquartered, to work with the engineers there on a possible fix.
Meanwhile, public attitudes about the disaster began to shift. Throughout the first few weeks of the spill, BP bore the brunt of the blame. Not only did Americans tend to be skeptical of oil companies, but BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward, was a walking PR disaster—stating in the media that the spill involved a “relatively tiny” amount of oil in “a very big ocean”; arguing in another interview that no one wanted to see the hole plugged more than him because “I’d like my life back”; and generally living up to every stereotype of the arrogant, out-of-touch multinational executive. (His obtuseness reminded me that BP—previously known as British Petroleum—had started off as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company: the same company whose unwillingness to split royalties with Iran’s government in the 1950s had led to the coup that ultimately resulted in that country’s Islamic Revolution.) As the crisis passed the thirty-day mark, though, attention increasingly turned to my administration’s possible culpability for the mess. In particular, news stories and congressional hearings fastened on a series of exemptions from standard safety and environmental guidelines that BP had received from the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the subagency within the Interior Department responsible for granting leases, collecting royalties, and overseeing offshore drilling operations in federal waters. There hadn’t been anything unusual about the exemptions MMS had granted to BP on the Macondo well; when it came to managing the risks of deepwater drilling, the agency’s officials routinely ignored their staff scientists and engineers and deferred to industry experts they believed to be better versed in the latest processes and technologies.
Of course, that was exactly the problem. Before I had taken office, we’d heard about MMS’s coziness with the oil companies and its regulatory shortcomings—including a well-publicized scandal toward the end of the Bush administration involving kickbacks, drugs, and sexual favors—and we’d promised to reform the place. And, in fact, as soon as he’d taken over the Interior Department, Ken Salazar had cleaned up some of the more egregious problems. What he hadn’t had the time or resources to do was to fundamentally reorganize MMS so that it had the capacity to tightly regulate such a well-heeled and technologically complex industry.
I couldn’t really fault Salazar for this. Changing practices and culture inside government agencies was hard, and rarely completed in a matter of months. We were confronting similar issues at agencies charged with regulating the financial system, where overstretched and underpaid regulators could barely keep up with the sophisticated, constantly evolving operations of massive international financial institutions. But that didn’t excuse the fact that no one on my team had warned me that MMS still had such serious problems before recommending that I endorse Interior’s plan to open up additional areas to exploratory drilling. And anyway, in the middle of a crisis, no one wanted to hear about the need to put more money into federal agencies. Nor did they want to hear about how raising civil servants’ salaries would help those agencies improve management and compete with the private sector to attract topflight technical talent. Folks just wanted to know who had let BP drill a hole three and a half miles below the ocean’s surface without knowing how to plug it—and the bottom line was, it had happened on our watch.
While questions about MMS kept reporters busy, what really turned public attitudes was BP’s late-May decision—which I supported in the interest of transparency—to start releasing live, real-time video feeds of the leaks coming from the company’s underwater cameras. The early images of the burning Deepwater Horizon rig had received wide coverage. But footage of the spill itself—consisting mostly of overhead shots, faint streaks of crimson against the blue-green ocean—hadn’t fully captured the potential devastation. Even when oil-sheened waves and blobs of oil known as tar balls started reaching the outer shores of Louisiana and Alabama, camera crews didn’t have a lot of arresting visuals to work with—particularly since, after decades of offshore drilling, the waters of the Gulf weren’t all that pristine to begin with.
The underwater video feed changed all this. Suddenly people around the world could see the oil pulsing in thick columns from the surrounding wreckage. Sometimes it appeared sulfurous yellow, sometimes brown or black, depending on the lighting from the camera. The roiling plumes looked forceful, menacing, like emanations from hell. Cable news networks began broadcasting the footage in a corner of the screen around the clock, along with a digital timer reminding viewers of the number of days, minutes, and seconds since the spill had begun.
The videos seemed to confirm calculations that our own analysts had made, independent of BP: The leaks were likely pumping out anywhere between four and ten times the original estimate of five thousand barrels of oil daily. But more so than the frightening numbers, the images of the underwater gushers—along with a sudden increase in B-roll footage of pelicans coated in oil—made the crisis real in people’s minds. Folks who hadn’t been paying much attention to the spill suddenly wanted to know why we weren’t doing something to stop it. In the dentist’s office, Salazar found himself staring at the video feed on a ceiling-mounted TV as he underwent an emergency root canal. Republicans called the spill “Obama’s Katrina,” and soon we were under fire from Democrats as well—most notably former Clinton aide and longtime Louisianan James Carville, who, appearing on Good Morning America, issued a blistering, high-volume attack on our response, directing his criticism specifically at me: “Man, you got to get down here and take control of this! Put somebody in charge of this thing and get this moving!” A nine-year-old boy in a wheelchair who was visiting the Oval Office through the Make-a-Wish Foundation warned me that if I didn’t get the leak filled soon, I was “going to have a lot of political problems.” Even Sasha came into my bathroom one morning while I was shaving to ask, “Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?” In my own mind, those dark cyclones of oil came to symbolize the string of constant crises we were going through. More than that, they felt alive somehow—a malevolent presence, actively taunting me. To that point in my presidency, I’d maintained a fundamental confidence that no matter how bad things got, whether with the banks, the auto companies, Greece, or Afghanistan, I could always come up with a solution through sound process and smart choices. But these leaks seemed to defy a timely solution, no matter how hard I pushed BP or my team, and no matter how many meetings I held in the Sit Room, poring over data and diagrams as intently as I did in any war-planning session. With that feeling of temporary helplessness, a certain bitterness began creeping into my voice—a bitterness I recognized as a companion to self-doubt.
“What does he think I’m supposed to do?” I growled at Rahm after hearing of Carville’s broadside. “Put on my fucking Aquaman gear and swim down there myself with a wrench?”
The chorus of criticism culminated in a May 27 White House press conference that had me fielding tough questions on the oil spill for about an hour. I methodically listed everything we’d done since the Deepwater had exploded, and I described the technical intricacies of the various strategies being employed to cap the well. I acknowledged problems with MMS, as well as my own excessive confidence in the ability of companies like BP to safeguard against risk. I announced the formation of a national commission to review the disaster and figure out how such accidents could be prevented in the future, and I reemphasized the need for a long-term response that would make America less reliant on dirty fossil fuels.
Reading the transcript now, a decade later, I’m struck by how calm and cogent I sound. Maybe I’m surprised because the transcript doesn’t register what I remember feeling at the time or come close to capturing what I really wanted to say before the assembled White House press corps: That MMS wasn’t fully equipped to do its job, in large part because for the past thirty years a big chunk of American voters had bought into the Republican idea that government was the problem and that business always knew better, and had elected leaders who made it their mission to gut environmental regulations, starve agency budgets, denigrate civil servants, and allow industrial polluters do whatever the hell they wanted to do.
That the government didn’t have better technology than BP did to quickly plug the hole because it would be expensive to have such technology on hand, and we Americans didn’t like paying higher taxes—especially when it was to prepare for problems that hadn’t happened yet.
That it was hard to take seriously any criticism from a character like Bobby Jindal, who’d done Big Oil’s bidding throughout his career and would go on to support an oil industry lawsuit trying to get a federal court to lift our temporary drilling moratorium; and that if he and other Gulf-elected officials were truly concerned about the well-being of their constituents, they’d be urging their party to stop denying the effects of climate change, since it was precisely the people of the Gulf who were the most likely to lose homes or jobs as a result of rising global temperatures.
And that the only way to truly guarantee that we didn’t have another catastrophic oil spill in the future was to stop drilling entirely; but that wasn’t going to happen because at the end of the day we Americans loved our cheap gas and big cars more than we cared about the environment, except when a complete disaster was staring us in the face; and in the absence of such a disaster, the media rarely covered efforts to shift America off fossil fuels or pass climate legislation, since actually educating the public on long-term energy policy would be boring and bad for ratings; and the one thing I could be certain of was that for all the outrage being expressed at the moment about wetlands and sea turtles and pelicans, what the majority of us were really interested in was having the problem go away, for me to clean up yet one more mess decades in the making with some quick and easy fix, so that we could all go back to our carbon-spewing, energy-wasting ways without having to feel guilty about it.
I didn’t say any of that. Instead I somberly took responsibility and said it was my job to “get this fixed.” Afterward, I scolded my press team, suggesting that if they’d done better work telling the story of everything we were doing to clean up the spill, I wouldn’t have had to tap-dance for an hour while getting the crap kicked out of me. My press folks looked wounded. Sitting alone in the Treaty Room later that night, I felt bad about what I had said, knowing I’d misdirected my anger and frustration.
It was those damned plumes of oil that I really wanted to curse out.
FOR THE NEXT six weeks, the spill continued to dominate the news. As efforts to kill the well kept coming up short, we compensated by making more of a show of my personal involvement. I made two more trips to Louisiana, as well as visits to Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Working with Admiral Allen, who’d agreed to delay his retirement until the crisis was over, we found ways to meet every governor’s request, including a scaled-down plan for Jindal’s berm. Salazar had signed an order that effectively dissolved MMS, dividing responsibilities for energy development, safety regulation, and revenue collection between three new independent agencies. I announced the formation of a bipartisan commission tasked with recommending ways to prevent future offshore drilling disasters. I held a full cabinet meeting on the crisis and had a heart-wrenching visit with the families of the eleven Deepwater workers killed in the explosion. I even delivered an Oval Office address on the spill—the first such address of my presidency. The format, with me sitting behind the Resolute desk, felt stilted, of another era, and by all accounts I wasn’t very good.
The flood of appearances and announcements had the intended effect of muting, if not fully eliminating, the bad stories in the press. But it was the results of two earlier decisions I’d made that ultimately got us through the crisis.
The first involved making sure that BP followed through on its earlier promise to compensate third parties harmed by the spill. Typically the process for filing claims required victims to jump through a bunch of bureaucratic hoops or even hire a lawyer. Resolving those claims could take years, by which time a small tour-boat operator or restaurant owner might have already lost his or her business. We thought the victims in this case deserved more immediate relief. We also figured now was the time for maximum leverage: BP’s stock was tanking, its global image was being pummeled, the Justice Department was investigating the company for possible criminal negligence, and the federal drilling moratorium we’d imposed was creating huge uncertainty for shareholders.
“Can I squeeze the hell out of them?” Rahm asked.
“Please do,” I said.
Rahm went to work, badgering, cajoling, and threatening as only he could, and by the time I sat across the table from Tony Hayward and BP’s chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, for a June 16 meeting in the Roosevelt Room, they were ready to wave the white flag. (Hayward, who said little in the meeting, would announce his departure from the company a few weeks later.) Not only did BP agree to put $20 billion into a response fund to compensate victims of the spill, but we arranged for the money to be placed in escrow and administered independently by Ken Feinberg, the same lawyer who’d managed the fund for 9/11 victims and reviewed executive-compensation plans for banks receiving TARP money. The fund didn’t solve the environmental disaster. But it fulfilled my promise that all the fishermen, shrimpers, charter companies, and others who were racking up losses due to the crisis would get their due.
The second good decision I’d made was putting Steve Chu on the job. My energy secretary had been underwhelmed by his initial interactions with BP engineers (“They don’t know what they’re dealing with,” Chu said), and he was soon splitting his time between Houston and D.C., telling Thad Allen that BP “shouldn’t do anything unless they clear it with me.” In no time, he had recruited a team of independent geophysicists and hydrologists to work with him on the problem. He convinced BP to use gamma-ray imaging to help diagnose what had gone wrong with the blowout preventer and to install pressure gauges to get real data on what was happening at the base of the well. Chu and his team also hammered home the point that any effort to cap it should be preceded by a thorough consideration of how that work risked triggering a cascade of uncontrollable underground leaks—and an even worse catastrophe.
Chu and the BP engineers eventually agreed that the best solution was to fit a second, smaller blowout preventer—called a capping stack—on top of the one that had failed, using a series of sequential valves to shut down the leak. But after looking over BP’s initial design—and getting government scientists and engineers at Los Alamos National Laboratory and elsewhere to run a series of simulations on their supercomputers—Chu determined that it was inadequate, and the group quickly went to work on crafting a modified version. Axe stopped into the Oval one day and told me he’d just run into Chu at a nearby deli, sitting with his food barely touched, drawing various models of capping stacks on his napkin.
“He started trying to explain how the contraption worked,” Axe said, “and I told him I was having enough trouble figuring out what I should order for lunch.”
The final capping stack weighed seventy-five tons, stood thirty feet tall, and, because of Chu’s insistence, included multiple pressure gauges that would give us crucial data revealing its efficacy. Within weeks, the stack was in place above the well and ready to be tested. On July 15, BP engineers shut down the stack’s valves. The cap held. For the first time in eighty-seven days, oil wasn’t leaking from the Macondo well.
Consistent with the luck we’d been having, a tropical storm threatened to pass through the Macondo site the following week. Chu, Thad Allen, and BP’s managing director, Bob Dudley, had to quickly decide whether or not to reopen the valves before the vessels involved in the containment efforts and the BP staff members monitoring the integrity of the capping stack had to clear out of the storm path. If their calculations on subsurface pressure proved wrong, there was a risk that the stack wouldn’t hold and, worse, could cause the ocean floor to fracture, triggering even more problematic leaks. Loosening the valves, of course, meant we’d restart the flow of oil into the Gulf, which was something nobody wanted. After running a final set of numbers, Chu agreed that it was worth the gamble and we should keep the valves closed as the storm ripped through.
Once again, the cap held.
There were no celebrations in the White House when we heard the news—just enormous relief. It would take a couple more months and a series of additional procedures before BP declared the Macondo well permanently sealed, and cleanup efforts would continue through the end of the summer. The fishing ban was gradually lifted, and seafood from the Gulf was certified as safe. Beaches were reopened, and in August I took the family to Panama City Beach, Florida, for a two-day “holiday,” to boost the region’s tourism industry. A picture from that trip, taken by Pete Souza and later released by the White House, shows me and Sasha splashing in the water, a signal to Americans that it was safe to swim in the Gulf. Malia’s missing from the photo because she was away at summer camp. Michelle is missing because, as she had explained to me shortly after I was elected, “one of my main goals as First Lady is to never be photographed in a bathing suit.” In many ways, we had dodged the worst-case scenario, and in the months that followed even critics like James Carville would acknowledge that our response had been more effective than we’d been given credit for. The Gulf’s shorelines and beaches suffered less visible damage than expected, and just a year after the accident, the region would enjoy its biggest tourism season ever. We formed a Gulf coastline restoration project, funded by additional penalties levied against BP, allowing federal, state, and local authorities to start reversing some of the environmental degradation that had been taking place long before the explosion. With some nudging from federal courts, BP ultimately paid settlements in excess of what was in the $20 billion response fund. And although the preliminary report of the oil spill commission I had set up would rightly criticize MMS oversight of BP’s activities at the Macondo field, as well as our failure to accurately assess the enormity of the leaks immediately after the explosion, by the fall, both the press and the public had largely moved on.
Still, I continued to be haunted by the images of those plumes of oil rushing out of a cracked earth and into the sea’s ghostly depths. Experts inside the administration told me that it would take years to understand the true extent of the environmental damage resulting from the Deepwater spill. The best estimates concluded that the Macondo well had released at least four million barrels of oil into open waters, with at least two-thirds of that amount having been captured, burned off, or otherwise dispersed. Where the rest of the oil ended up, what gruesome toll it took on wildlife, how much oil would eventually settle back onto the ocean floor, and what long-term effect that might have on the entire Gulf ecosystem—it would be years before we’d have the full picture.
What wasn’t a mystery was the spill’s political impact. With the crisis behind us and the midterm elections now on the horizon, we felt ready to project a cautious optimism to the public—to argue that the country was finally turning a corner and to highlight all the work my administration had done in the previous sixteen months to make a concrete difference in people’s lives. But the only impression registering with voters was of yet one more calamity the government seemed powerless to solve. I asked Axe to give me his best assessment of the chances that Democrats would retain control of the House of Representatives. He looked at me like I was joking.
“We’re screwed,” he said.
FROM THE DAY I took office, we’d known that the midterms were going to be tough. Historically, the party controlling the White House almost always lost congressional seats after its first two years in power, as at least some voters found reason for disappointment. Voter turnout also dropped substantially in the midterm elections, and—thanks in part to America’s long history of voter discrimination, as well as many states’ continued use of complicated procedures that made casting a ballot more difficult than it needed to be—the falloff was most pronounced among younger, lower-income, and minority voters, demographic groups that tended to vote Democratic.
All this would have made the midterms challenging for us, even in a time of relative peace and prosperity. Which, of course, we weren’t in. Although companies had started hiring again, the unemployment rate remained stuck around 9.5 percent through June and July, mainly because cash-strapped state and local governments were still shedding employees. At least once a week, I’d huddle with my economic team in the Roosevelt Room, trying to come up with some variation on additional stimulus plans that we might shame at least a few Senate Republicans into supporting. But beyond a grudging extension of emergency unemployment insurance benefits before Congress adjourned for the August recess, McConnell generally managed to keep his caucus in line.
“I hate to say it,” a Republican senator told me when he came by the White House for another matter, “but the worse people feel right now, the better it is for us.”
The economy wasn’t the only headwind we faced. Public opinion polls typically gave Republicans an edge over Democrats when it came to national security, and from the day I’d taken office, the GOP had looked to press that advantage, seizing every opportunity to paint my administration as weak on defense and soft on terrorism. For the most part, the attacks had failed: As disenchanted as voters were with my economic stewardship, they’d continued to give me solid marks on keeping them safe. Those numbers had held steady after the attack at Fort Hood and the thwarted Christmas Day bombing; they even remained largely unchanged when, in May 2010, a man named Faisal Shahzad—a naturalized American citizen raised in Pakistan and trained by the Pakistani Taliban—tried unsuccessfully to detonate a car bomb in the middle of Times Square.
Still, the fact that 180,000 U.S. troops remained deployed in wars overseas cast a pall over the midterms. And while we were entering the final phase of withdrawal from Iraq, with the last combat brigades due home in August, the summer fighting season in Afghanistan was likely to once again bring about a distressing rise in U.S. casualties. I’d been impressed with Stan McChrystal’s leadership of coalition forces there: The additional troops I’d authorized had helped regain territory from the Taliban; the training of the Afghan army had ramped up; McChrystal had even convinced President Karzai to venture out beyond his palace and start engaging the population he claimed to represent.
And yet each time I met with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed and Bethesda, I was reminded of the awful costs of such incremental progress. Whereas my earlier visits had taken roughly an hour, I was more often spending at least twice that time, as the hospital appeared to be filled almost to capacity. On one visit, I entered a room to find the bedridden victim of an IED blast being tended to by his mother. Thick stitches ran along the side of the young man’s partially shaved head; his right eye appeared blinded and his body partly paralyzed, with one badly injured arm encased in a soft cast. According to the doctor who briefed me before I went in, the patient had spent three months in a coma before regaining consciousness. He’d suffered permanent brain damage and had just undergone surgery to rebuild his skull.
“Cory, the president’s here to see you,” the soldier’s mother said encouragingly. The young man couldn’t speak but registered a faint smile and nod.
“It’s great to meet you, Cory,” I said, gently shaking his free hand.
“Actually, you two have met before,” the mother said. “See?” She pointed to a photograph that had been taped to the wall, and I stepped closer to examine a picture of me with a group of smiling Army Rangers. It dawned on me then that the wounded soldier lying in the bed was Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg, the spirited young paratrooper I’d spoken with less than a year earlier, during the commemoration of the Allied landing at Normandy. The one who’d told me he was on his way to Afghanistan for his tenth deployment.
“Of course…Cory,” I said, glancing over at the mother. Her eyes forgave me for not having recognized her son. “How are you feeling, man?”
“Show him how you’re feeling, Cory,” the mother said.
Slowly and with great effort, he raised his arm and offered me a thumbs-up. Taking pictures of the two of us, Pete looked visibly shaken.
Maybe what had happened to Cory and so many like him didn’t sit at the forefront of voters’ minds the same way it did mine. Since the shift to an all-volunteer military in the 1970s, fewer Americans had family members, friends, or neighbors who served in combat. But at the very least, the mounting casualties left a weary nation as uncertain as ever about the direction of what increasingly seemed like an endless war. That uncertainty was only compounded in June when a lengthy Rolling Stone profile of Stan McChrystal hit the newsstands.
The article, titled “The Runaway General,” was largely critical of the U.S. war effort, suggesting that I’d been rolled by the Pentagon into doubling down on a hopeless cause. But that wasn’t new. Instead, what grabbed Washington’s attention was the access McChrystal had granted to the reporter and the slew of caustic remarks the general and his team had leveled at allies, elected officials, and members of the administration. In one scene, the reporter describes McChrystal and an aide joking about possible responses to questions about Vice President Biden. (“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal is quoted as saying. “Who’s that?” To which the aide chimes in, “Did you say: Bite Me?”) In another, McChrystal complains about having to have dinner with a French minister in Paris (“I’d rather have my ass kicked”) and groans over an email from Hillary’s special advisor, longtime diplomat Richard Holbrooke (“I don’t even want to open it”). And while I’m largely spared the worst of the mockery, a member of McChrystal’s team notes his boss’s disappointment in our meeting right before I appointed him coalition commander, suggesting that I should have given the general more personal attention.
Beyond the hard feelings the article was bound to generate—reopening divisions within the Afghan team that I’d hoped were behind us—it made McChrystal and his crew sound like a bunch of cocky frat boys. I could only imagine how Cory Remsburg’s parents would feel if they read the article.
“I don’t know what the hell he was thinking,” Gates said to me, making an effort at damage control.
“He wasn’t,” I said curtly. “He got played.”
My team asked me how I wanted to handle it. I told them I hadn’t decided but that while I made up my mind, I wanted McChrystal on the next flight back to Washington. At first, I was inclined to let the general off with a stern reprimand—and not just because Bob Gates insisted that he remained the best man to lead the war effort. I knew that if anyone ever recorded some of the private conversations that took place between me and my senior staff, we might sound pretty obnoxious ourselves. And although McChrystal and his inner circle had shown atrocious judgment in speaking like that in front of any reporter, whether out of carelessness or vanity, every one of us in the White House had said something on tape that we shouldn’t have at one time or another. If I wouldn’t fire Hillary, Rahm, Valerie, or Ben for telling tales out of school, why should I treat McChrystal any differently?
Over the course of twenty-four hours, I decided that this was different. As every military commander liked to remind me, America’s armed forces depended entirely on rigid discipline, clear codes of conduct, unit cohesion, and strict chains of command. Because the stakes were always higher. Because any failure to act as part of a team, any individual mistakes, didn’t just result in embarrassment or lost profits. People could die. Any corporal or captain who publicly disparaged a bunch of superior officers in such vivid terms would pay a grave price. I saw no way to apply a different set of rules to a four-star general, no matter how gifted, courageous, or decorated he was.
That need for accountability and discipline extended to matters of civilian control over the military—a point I’d emphasized in the Oval Office with Gates and Mullen, apparently to insufficient effect. I actually admired McChrystal’s rebel spirit, his apparent disdain for pretense and authority that, in his view, hadn’t been earned. It no doubt had made him a better leader—and accounted for the fierce loyalty he elicited from the troops under his command. But in that Rolling Stone article, I’d heard in him and his aides the same air of impunity that seemed to have taken hold among some in the military’s top ranks during the Bush years: a sense that once war began, those who fought it shouldn’t be questioned, that politicians should just give them what they ask for and get out of the way. It was a seductive view, especially coming from a man of McChrystal’s caliber. It also threatened to erode a bedrock principle of our representative democracy, and I was determined to put an end to it.
The morning was hot and muggy when McChrystal and I finally sat down alone in the Oval Office. He seemed chastened but composed. To his credit, he made no excuses for his remarks. He didn’t suggest that he’d been misquoted or taken out of context. He simply apologized for his mistake and offered his letter of resignation. I explained why, despite my admiration of him and my gratitude for his service, I had decided to accept it.
After McChrystal left, I held a press conference in the Rose Garden to outline the reasons for my decision and to announce that General Dave Petraeus would be assuming command of coalition forces in Afghanistan. It was Tom Donilon who’d come up with the idea of moving Petraeus into the job. Not only was he the country’s most widely known and respected military leader, but as the head of Central Command he was already intimately familiar with our Afghan strategy. The news went over about as well as we could have hoped for under the circumstances. Still, I walked out of the press conference feeling livid about the whole situation. I told Jim Jones to gather everyone on the national security team right away. The meeting didn’t last long.
“I’m putting everybody on notice that I am fed up,” I said, my voice steadily rising. “I don’t want to hear any commentary about McChrystal in the press. I don’t want any more spin or rumors or backbiting. What I want is for people to do their damn jobs. And if there are people here who can’t act like they’re on a team, then they’ll be gone too. I mean it.” The room fell silent. I turned around and left, with Ben trailing behind me; apparently we were scheduled to work on a speech.
“I liked Stan,” I said quietly as we walked.
“You didn’t really have a choice,” Ben said.
“Yeah,” I said, shaking my head. “I know. It doesn’t make it go down better.”
ALTHOUGH THE FIRING of McChrystal made headlines (and reinforced the conviction among the GOP faithful that I was unfit to serve as commander in chief), it wasn’t the kind of story that necessarily moved swing voters in an election. As the midterms approached, the Republicans instead focused on a national security issue that struck closer to home. It turned out that a solid majority of Americans really didn’t like the idea of trying terrorist suspects in civilian criminal courts on U.S. soil. In fact, most weren’t particularly concerned about giving them full or fair trials at all.
We’d gotten an early inkling of this as we’d tried to move forward with my pledge to close the detention center at Guantánamo. In the abstract, most congressional Democrats bought my argument that holding foreign prisoners there indefinitely without trial was a bad idea. The practice violated our constitutional traditions and flouted the Geneva Conventions; it complicated our foreign policy and discouraged even some of our closest allies from cooperating with us on anti-terrorism efforts; and, perversely, it boosted al-Qaeda’s recruitment and generally made us less safe. A few Republicans—most notably John McCain—agreed.
But to actually close the facility, we had to figure out what to do with the 242 detainees being held at Guantánamo when I took office. Many were ill-trained, low-level fighters who’d been randomly scooped up on the battlefield and posed little or no threat to the United States. (The Bush administration itself had previously released more than five hundred such detainees to their home countries or to a third country.) But a small number of Gitmo prisoners were sophisticated al-Qaeda operatives, known as high-value detainees (HVDs)—like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the self-professed masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks. The men in this category were accused of being directly responsible for the murder of innocent people, and as far as I was concerned, releasing them would be both dangerous and immoral.
The solution had seemed clear: We could repatriate the remaining low-level detainees to their home countries, where they would be monitored by their governments and slowly reintegrated into their societies, and put the HVDs on trial in U.S. criminal courts. Except the more we’d looked into it, the more roadblocks we’d encountered. When it came to repatriation, for instance, many low-level detainees came from countries that didn’t have the capacity to safely handle their return. In fact, the largest contingent—ninety-nine men—was from Yemen, a dirt-poor country with a barely functioning government, deep tribal conflicts, and the single most active al-Qaeda chapter outside Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
International law also prohibited us from repatriating detainees who we had grounds to believe might be abused, tortured, or killed by their own government. Such was the case with a group of Uighurs being held at Gitmo: members of a Muslim ethnic minority who had fled to Afghanistan because of brutal, long-standing repression in their native China. The Uighurs had no real beef with the United States. Beijing, however, considered them terrorists—and we had little doubt that they risked a rough reception if we sent them to China.
The prospect of bringing HVDs to trial in U.S. courts was perhaps even more complicated. For one thing, the Bush administration hadn’t placed a high priority on preserving chains of evidence or maintaining clear records regarding the circumstances in which detainees had been captured, so many prisoners’ files were a mess. Also, a number of HVDs, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, had been tortured during their interrogations, rendering not only their confessions but also any evidence linked to those interrogations inadmissible under the rules of ordinary criminal proceedings.
Bush administration officials hadn’t considered any of this to be a problem since, in their view, all Gitmo detainees qualified as “unlawful enemy combatants,” exempt from the protections of the Geneva Conventions and unentitled to civilian trials. Instead, to adjudicate cases, the administration had created an alternative system of “military commissions” in which U.S. military judges determined guilt or innocence and lower standards of evidence and weaker procedural safeguards prevailed. Few legal observers found the administration’s approach to adequately meet the minimum requirements of due process; and as a result of constant legal challenges, delays, and procedural snags, the commissions had managed to decide only three cases in two years. Meanwhile, a month before I was elected, lawyers representing seventeen Uighurs held at Gitmo had successfully petitioned a U.S. federal judge to review their detention, leading him to order their release from military custody and setting the stage for a lengthy legal battle over jurisdiction. Similar appeals on behalf of other prisoners were also pending.
“This isn’t just a turd sandwich,” Denis observed after one of our sessions on Gitmo. “It’s a turd smorgasbord.”
Despite these difficulties, we started chipping away at the problem. I ordered the suspension of any new cases being brought before military commissions—although in a nod to the Pentagon, I agreed to have an interagency team review whether the commissions could be reformed and used as a backup in the event that we couldn’t try certain detainees in civilian court. We set up a formal process to evaluate which detainees could be safely released, whether to their home countries or to other nations willing to take them. Working with lawyers at the Pentagon and the CIA, Attorney General Eric Holder and a team of Justice Department prosecutors began reviewing prisoner files to see what further evidence was required to bring to trial and convict each HVD at Gitmo. We began looking for a U.S. facility—whether on a military installation or within the existing federal prison system—that could immediately house transferred Gitmo detainees while we determined their ultimate dispositions.
That’s when Congress began to freak out. Republicans got wind of rumors that we were considering the possible resettlement of Uighurs in Virginia (most were ultimately sent to third countries, including Bermuda and the island nation of Palau) and took to the airwaves, warning voters that my administration planned to move terrorists into their neighborhoods—maybe even next door. This made congressional Democrats understandably nervous, and they ultimately agreed to a provision added to a defense spending bill that prohibited the use of any taxpayer funds for the transfer of detainees to the United States for anything but a trial; it also required Bob Gates to submit a formal plan to Congress before a new facility could be chosen and Guantánamo shut down. Dick Durbin approached us in the spring of 2010 with the possibility of using a largely vacant state prison in Thomson, Illinois, to house up to ninety Gitmo detainees. Despite the jobs it was likely to bring for residents of a rural town hard-hit by the economic crisis, Congress refused to fund the $350 million needed to buy and renovate the facility, with even some liberal Democrats echoing Republican arguments that any detention center located on U.S. soil would become a prime target for future terrorist attacks.
None of this made sense to me. Terrorist plotters weren’t Navy SEALs; if al-Qaeda were to plan another attack in the United States, detonating a crude explosive in a New York subway or crowded Los Angeles mall would be far more devastating—and a lot easier—than trying to mount an assault on a hardened correctional facility in the middle of nowhere staffed by heavily armed U.S. military personnel. In fact, well over a hundred convicted terrorists were already serving time without incident in federal prisons scattered across the country. “We’re acting like these guys are a bunch of supervillains straight out of a James Bond movie,” I said to Denis in exasperation. “The average inmate at a supermax prison would eat these detainees for lunch.” Nonetheless, I could understand that people had very real fears—fears born of the lingering trauma of 9/11 and continually stoked by the previous administration and much of the media (not to mention countless movies and TV shows) for almost a decade. Indeed, several Bush administration alumni—in particular, former vice president Dick Cheney—made it their mission to keep fanning those fears, viewing my decisions to revamp the handling of terrorist suspects as an attack on their legacy. In a series of speeches and television appearances, Cheney insisted that the use of tactics like waterboarding and indefinite detention had prevented “something much bigger and far worse” than the 9/11 attacks. He accused me of reverting to a pre-2001 “law enforcement mode” in dealing with terrorists rather than understanding the “concept of military threat,” and he claimed that in doing this, I was increasing the risk of another attack.
Cheney’s assertion that my administration wasn’t treating al-Qaeda as a military threat was hard to square with the additional battalions I’d deployed to Afghanistan or the scores of al-Qaeda operatives we were targeting with drone strikes. And Cheney probably wasn’t the best messenger for any argument, given how personally unpopular he was with the American public—thanks in large part to his catastrophic judgment on Iraq. Still, the idea that we shouldn’t treat terrorists like “ordinary criminals” did resonate with a lot of voters. And it had gotten even more traction in the aftermath of “Underwear Bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to bring down a jet the previous Christmas.
In handling that case, both the Justice Department and the FBI had followed procedure. At Eric Holder’s direction, and with the concurrence of the Pentagon and the CIA, federal officials had arrested the Nigerian-born Abdulmutallab as a criminal suspect as soon as the Northwest Airlines plane landed in Detroit and had transported him to receive medical care. Because the top priority was ascertaining that there were no further immediate threats to public safety—other bombers on other planes, for example—the first team of FBI agents questioning Abdulmutallab did so without reading him the Miranda warnings, using a well-established legal precedent that allowed law enforcement an exception when neutralizing an active threat. Speaking to agents for nearly an hour, the suspect provided valuable intelligence about his al-Qaeda connections, his training in Yemen, the source of his explosive device, and what he knew of other plots. He was later read his rights and given access to counsel.
According to our critics, we had practically set the man free. “Why in God’s name would you stop questioning a terrorist?!” former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani declared on TV. Joe Lieberman insisted that Abdulmutallab qualified as an enemy combatant and, as such, should have been turned over to military authorities for interrogation and detention. And in the heated Massachusetts Senate race that was going on at the time, Republican Scott Brown used our handling of the case to put Democrat Martha Coakley on the defensive.
The irony, as Eric Holder liked to point out, was that the Bush administration had handled almost every case involving terrorist suspects apprehended on U.S. soil (including Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the planners behind 9/11) in exactly the same way. They’d done so because the U.S. Constitution demanded it: In the two instances where the Bush administration had declared terrorist suspects arrested in the United States “enemy combatants” subject to indefinite detention, the federal courts had stepped in and forced their return to the criminal system. Moreover, following the law actually worked. Bush’s Justice Department had successfully convicted more than a hundred terrorist suspects, with sentences at least as tough as the few that had been handed down through military commissions. Moussaoui, for example, was serving multiple life sentences in federal prison. These lawful criminal prosecutions had in the past drawn lavish praise from conservatives, including Mr. Giuliani.
“It wouldn’t be so aggravating,” Eric told me one day, “if Giuliani and some of these other critics actually believed the stuff they’re saying. But he’s a former prosecutor. He knows better. It’s just shameless.”
As the point person in our effort to bring America’s counterterrorism practices into alignment with its constitutional principles, Eric would bear the brunt of this manufactured outrage. He didn’t seem to mind, knowing it came with the job—although he didn’t consider it entirely a coincidence that he was the favorite target in my administration for much of the Republican vitriol and Fox News conspiracy theorizing.
“When they’re yelling at me, brother,” Eric would say, patting my back with a wry smile, “I know they’re thinking of you.”
I could see why those who opposed my presidency might have considered Eric a handy stand-in. Tall and even-tempered, he’d grown up in Queens, New York, the son of middle-class parents of Barbadian descent. (“They gave you that island vibe,” I told him.) He’d attended my alma mater, Columbia University, a decade before I got there, where he’d played basketball and participated in campus sit-ins; while at law school, he’d become interested in civil rights, interning one summer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. And, like me, he’d chosen public service rather than a job in a corporate law firm, working as a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section and later as a federal judge on the D.C. Superior Court. Bill Clinton eventually nominated him to be the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and, later, the deputy attorney general of the United States—the first African American to serve in either position.
Eric and I both had an abiding faith in the law, a belief—tempered by personal experience and our knowledge of history—that through reasoned argument and fidelity to the ideals and institutions of our democracy, America could be made better. It was on the basis of those shared assumptions, more than our friendship or any particular agreement on issues, that I’d wanted him as my attorney general. It was also why I would end up being so scrupulous about shielding his office from White House interference in pending cases and investigations.
There was no law expressly prohibiting such interference. At the end of the day, the AG and his or her deputies were part of the executive branch and thus served at the pleasure of the president. But the AG was first and foremost the people’s lawyer, not the president’s consigliere. Keeping politics out of the Justice Department’s investigative and prosecutorial decisions was a crucial democratic imperative, made glaringly apparent when the Watergate hearings revealed that Richard Nixon’s AG, John Mitchell, had actively participated in the cover-up of White House misdeeds and initiated criminal investigations into the president’s enemies. The Bush administration had been accused of violating that norm in 2006 when it fired nine U.S. attorneys whom it apparently considered insufficiently committed to its ideological agenda; and the one blemish on Eric Holder’s otherwise spotless record was the suggestion that he’d succumbed to political pressure when, as deputy AG, he’d supported Bill Clinton’s criminal pardon of a major donor in the waning days of the administration. Eric later said he regretted the decision, and it was precisely the kind of situation I was intent on avoiding. So, while he and I regularly discussed broad Justice Department policy, we were careful to steer clear of any topic that would even appear to compromise his independence as America’s top law enforcement officer.
Still, there was no getting around the fact that any attorney general’s decisions had political ramifications—as my White House team liked to remind me and as Eric sometimes forgot. He was surprised and offended, for example, when, a month into my presidency, Axe took him to task for failing to clear a Black History Month speech in which he referred to America as “a nation of cowards” when it came to its unwillingness to discuss race issues—a true enough observation but not necessarily the headline we were looking for at the end of my first few weeks in office. The heat we took at the White House for the Justice Department’s legally sound but politically toxic decision not to indict any of the bank executives for their role in the financial crisis also seemed to catch him off guard. And maybe it was this guilelessness, his confidence that logic and reason would ultimately prevail, that led Eric to miss how quickly the political ground was shifting when he announced late in 2009 that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other 9/11 co-conspirators would finally go on trial in a lower Manhattan courtroom.
On paper, we all thought the idea made sense. Why not use the prosecution of Guantánamo’s most notorious prisoners to showcase the U.S. criminal justice system’s ability to handle terrorist cases in a fair, aboveboard manner? And what better venue to deliver justice than one in the city that had suffered the most from that horrific crime, in a courtroom just a few blocks from Ground Zero? After months of painstaking work, Eric and his team felt sure that the case against the 9/11 plotters could be made without relying on information obtained through “enhanced interrogations”—in part because we now had more cooperation from other countries that had previously been reluctant to get involved. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg had endorsed Eric’s plan. So had New York’s senior senator, Democrat Chuck Schumer.
Then, in the weeks surrounding the attempted Christmas Day bombing, the prevailing opinion in New York spun a dizzying 180 degrees. A group of families of 9/11 victims organized a series of demonstrations to protest Eric’s decision. We found out later that its leader, the sister of one of the pilots killed in the Pentagon attack, had formed an organization dedicated to opposing any and all efforts to reverse Bush-era national security policies—and funded by conservative donors and supported by prominent Republicans (including Liz Cheney, the former vice president’s daughter). Next, Mayor Bloomberg—who was reportedly getting pressure from real estate interests concerned about what a trial might do to their redevelopment plans—abruptly withdrew his support, claiming a trial would be too expensive and disruptive. Chuck Schumer quickly followed suit, as did Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein. With New York officials, a vocal contingent of 9/11 families, and influential members of our own party all lined up against us, Eric felt he had no choice but to beat a tactical retreat, confirming that while he remained determined to try the 9/11 co-conspirators in civilian rather than military courts, the Justice Department would explore venues outside of New York.
It was a significant setback for our overall strategy to close Gitmo, and civil liberties groups and progressive columnists faulted me and the rest of the White House for not having anticipated political pushback to the trials, and for not mounting a more vigorous defense once the plan ran into trouble. They may have been right. Maybe if we had focused all of our attention on it for a month or so, to the exclusion of our efforts on healthcare or financial reform or climate change or the economy, we might have rallied the public to our side and forced New York City officials to back down. I would have enjoyed that fight. No doubt, it was a fight worth having.
But at the time, at least, it was a fight that none of us in the White House thought we could win. Certainly, Rahm was happy to see Eric’s plan tabled, since he was the one who had to field calls all day from terrified congressional Democrats, begging us to stop trying to push so many boulders up the hill. For the truth was, after an ambitious first year in office, I didn’t have a lot of political capital left—and what little remained we were husbanding to try to get as many initiatives as we could through Congress before the 2010 midterms brought about a possible shift in party control.
In fact, Rahm would get frustrated with me for wading into a related controversy at the end of that summer, when the same group of 9/11 families that opposed the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Manhattan launched a campaign to block the construction of an Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero, saying it was offensive to them and the memory of those who’d died in the World Trade Center attacks. To his credit, Mayor Bloomberg forcefully defended the project on the grounds of religious freedom, as did other city officials and even some 9/11 families. Nevertheless, right-wing commentators quickly seized on the issue, often in nakedly anti-Islamic terms; national polls showed that a majority of Americans were opposed to the mosque’s location; and GOP political operatives spotted an opportunity to make life uncomfortable for Democrats running in the midterms.
As it so happened, the controversy reached a boiling point the same week we had a scheduled White House iftar dinner with an assortment of Muslim American leaders to mark the month of Ramadan. The gathering was meant to be a low-key affair, a way to extend the same recognition to Muslims that we did to members of other faiths during their key religious holidays—but the next time Rahm and I talked, I told him that I intended to use the occasion to publicly come down on the side of those building the mosque.
“Last I checked, this is America,” I said, stuffing files in my briefcase before I headed up to the residence for dinner. “And in America, you can’t single out one religious group and tell them they can’t build a house of worship on their own property.” “I get it, Mr. President,” Rahm said. “But you need to know that if you say something, it’s going to be hung around the necks of our candidates in every swing district around the country.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I answered as I walked to the door. “But if we can’t speak out on something this basic, then I don’t know what the point is of us being here.”
Rahm sighed. “At the rate we’re going,” he said, “we may not be.”
IN AUGUST, MY FAMILY and I flew up to Martha’s Vineyard for a ten-day vacation. We’d first visited the island off the coast of Cape Cod fifteen or so years earlier, at the invitation of one of my law firm’s partners, Allison Davis, and with the encouragement of Valerie, who’d spent summers there with her family when she was growing up. With its broad beaches and windswept dunes, the fishing boats coming into dock, the small farms and green meadows framed by oak forests and old stone walls, the place had a quiet beauty and unhurried vibe that suited us. We appreciated, as well, the Vineyard’s history: Freed slaves had been part of its earliest settlements, and Black families had rented summer homes there for generations, making it that rare resort community where Blacks and whites seemed equally at home. We had taken the girls there for a week or two every other summer, usually renting a small place in Oak Bluffs, close enough to town that you could bike there and with a porch where you could sit and watch the sun go down. Together with Valerie and other friends, we’d spend lazy days with our feet in the sand and a book in hand, swimming in water that the girls loved but was a little too cold for my Hawaiian tastes, sometimes spotting a pod of seals close to shore. Later, we’d walk to Nancy’s to eat the best fried shrimp on earth, and then Malia and Sasha would run off with their friends to get ice cream or ride the small carousel or play games at the local arcade.
We couldn’t do things quite the same way now that we were the First Family. Instead of taking the ferry into Oak Bluffs, we now arrived on the Marine One helicopter. The house we now rented was a twenty-eight-acre estate on a tonier part of the island, large enough to accommodate staff and Secret Service and isolated enough to maintain a secure perimeter. Arrangements were made for us to go to a private beach, empty for a mile in either direction; our bike rides now followed a tightly prescribed loop, which the girls rode exactly once to indulge me before declaring it “kind of lame.” Even on vacation, I started my day with the PDB and a briefing from Denis or John Brennan concerning the assorted mayhem transpiring around the world, and crowds of people and TV crews were always waiting for us when we went to a restaurant for dinner.
Still, the smell of the ocean and sparkle of sunlight against the late summer leaves, the walks along the beach with Michelle, and the sight of Malia and Sasha toasting marshmallows around a bonfire, their faces set in Zen-like concentration—those things remained. And with each day of extra sleep, laughter, and uninterrupted time with those I loved, I could feel my energy returning, my confidence restored. So much so that by the time we returned to Washington, on August 29, 2010, I’d managed to convince myself that we still had a chance to win the midterms and keep Democrats in charge of both the House and the Senate, the polls and conventional wisdom be damned.
And why not? The truth was that we had saved the economy from a likely depression. We had stabilized the global financial system and yanked the U.S. auto industry back from the brink of collapse. We had put guardrails on Wall Street and made historic investments in clean energy and the nation’s infrastructure; protected public lands and reduced air pollution; connected rural schools to the internet and reformed student loan programs so that tens of billions of dollars that had once gone into bank coffers would instead be used to provide direct grants to thousands of young people who otherwise might not be able to afford college.
Taken together, our administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress could rightly claim to have gotten more done, to have delivered more significant legislation that made a real impact on the lives of the American people, than any single session of Congress in the past forty years. And if we had much work yet to do—if too many people were still out of work and at risk of losing their homes; if we hadn’t yet passed climate change legislation or fixed a broken immigration system—then it was directly attributable to the size of the mess we’d inherited, along with Republican obstruction and filibusters, all of which American voters could change by casting their ballots in November.
“The problem is I’ve been cooped up in this building,” I said to Favs as we sat together in the Oval working up my stump speech. “Voters just hear these sound bites coming out of Washington—Pelosi said this, McConnell said that—and they have no way to sort out what’s true and what’s not. This is our chance to get back out there and find a way to cut through that. Tell a clear story about what’s really happened to the economy—how the last time Republicans were behind the wheel, they drove the car into the ditch, and how we’ve spent the last two years pushing it out…and now that we’ve just about got the car running again, the last thing the American people can afford to do is to give them back the keys!” I paused to look at Favs, who’d been busy typing on his computer. “What do you think? I think that works.” “It might,” Favs said, although not as enthusiastically as I would have hoped.
In the six weeks leading up to the election, I barnstormed the country, trying to rally support for Democratic candidates, from Portland, Oregon, to Richmond, Virginia, from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Coral Gables, Florida. The crowds were energized, filling up basketball auditoriums and public parks, chanting, “Yes we can!” and “Fired up! Ready to go!” as loudly as they had when I ran for president, hoisting signs, cheering wildly when I introduced the Democratic congresswoman or governor who needed their vote, having a hoot as I told them we couldn’t afford to give the keys to the car back to Republicans. On the surface, at least, it was just like old times.
But even without looking at the polls, I could sense a change in the atmosphere on the campaign trail: an air of doubt hovering over each rally, a forced, almost desperate quality to the cheers and laughter, as if the crowds and I were a couple at the end of a whirlwind romance, trying to muster up feelings that had started to fade. How could I blame them? They had expected my election to transform our country, to make government work for ordinary people, to restore some sense of civility in Washington. Instead, many of their lives had grown harder, and Washington seemed just as broken, distant, and bitterly partisan as ever.
During the presidential campaign, I’d grown accustomed to the occasional heckler or two turning up at our rallies, usually anti-abortion protesters who’d shout at me before being drowned out by a chorus of boos and gently escorted out by security. But more often now the hecklers would turn out to be those whose causes I supported—activists let down by what they considered to be a lack of progress on their issues. I was greeted at several stops by protesters holding up signs calling for an end to “Obama’s wars.” Young Hispanics asked why my administration was still deporting undocumented workers and separating families at the border. LGBTQ activists demanded to know why I hadn’t ended the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which forced non-straight members of the military to hide their sexual orientation. A group of particularly loud and persistent college students shouted about AIDS funding for Africa.
“Didn’t we increase AIDS funding?” I asked Gibbs as we left a rally where I’d been interrupted three or four times.
“We did,” he said. “They’re saying you didn’t increase it enough.”
I soldiered on through the end of October, coming off the trail only to spend a day or two in meetings at the White House before hitting the road again, my voice increasingly hoarse as I made my last-minute appeals. Whatever irrational optimism I’d carried with me from vacation had been long extinguished, and by Election Day—November 2, 2010—the question was no longer whether we’d lose the House, but only how badly. Moving between a terrorism threat briefing in the Situation Room and a session in the Oval with Bob Gates, I stopped by Axe’s office, where he and Jim Messina had been tracking early turnout data coming in from swing districts across the country.
“What’s it looking like?” I asked.
Axe shook his head. “We’ll lose at least thirty seats. Maybe more.”
Rather than stick around for the wake, I headed up to the residence at my usual time, telling Axe I’d check in once most of the polls had closed and asking my assistant Katie to send up a list of likely calls I’d have to make that night—first to the four congressional leaders, and later to any Democratic incumbents who’d lost. Not until I’d had dinner and tucked in the girls at bedtime did I call Axe from the Treaty Room to receive the news: Turnout had been low, with only four out of every ten eligible voters casting ballots, and a profound drop in the numbers of young people voting. The Democrats had been routed, tracking toward a loss of sixty-three House seats, the worst beating the party had taken since sacrificing seventy-two seats at the midpoint of FDR’s second term. Worse yet, many of our most promising young House members had gone down, folks like Tom Perriello of Virginia and John Boccieri of Ohio, Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania and Betsy Markey of Colorado—the ones who had taken the tough votes on healthcare and the Recovery Act; the ones who, despite being from swing districts, had consistently stood up to lobbyists’ pressure and the polls and even the advice of their political staffs to do what they thought was right.
“They all deserved better,” I said to Axe.
“Yes,” he said. “They did.”
Axe signed off, promising to give me a more detailed readout in the morning. I sat alone with the phone receiver in my hand, one finger depressing the switch hook, my head congested with thoughts. After a minute, I dialed the White House operator.
“I’ve got some calls I need to make,” I said.
“Yes, Mr. President,” she said. “Katie sent us the list. Who would you like to start with?”
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