“It’s going to take a long time to win this war,” President George W. Bush told a group of Pentagon employees on September 17, 2001, six days after the terrorist attacks that marked a new era in global history. “Americans should not expect one battle but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen,” he said, three days later, at a joint session of Congress. Bush was right. More than a decade after 9/11, Osama Bin Laden is dead and many of his top associates have been killed or captured. And yet the endless war against Islamist terrorists—already the longest war in American history—continues on several fronts, in several countries, with no end in sight.
An endless war, and an endless emergency too. “A national emergency exists by reason of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, New York, New York, and the Pentagon, and the continuing and immediate threat of further attacks on the United States,” Bush declared, three days after 9/11. Bush renewed the emergency declaration every subsequent year of his presidency. President Barack Obama renewed it as well every year in office. “The terrorist threat that led to the declaration on September 14, 2001, of a national emergency continues,” he proclaimed. “For this reason, I have determined that it is necessary to continue in effect … the national emergency with respect to the terrorist threat.”
War and emergency invariably shift power to the presidency. Permanent war and permanent emergency threaten to make the shift permanent. George W. Bush’s counterterrorism initiatives—warrantless surveillance, targeted killings, detention without trial, military commissions, limitations on habeas corpus, aggressive interrogations, and much more—were unthinkable on September 10, 2001. Bush succeeded in preventing another attack on the homeland, an accomplishment he described as the “most meaningful” of his presidency.
But many believe that his success came at an unacceptable cost to American legal traditions, and that he destroyed the constitutional separation of powers by violating scores of laws and snubbing Congress. “Decades from now,” said Republican Senator Arlen Specter at the twilight of the Bush presidency, “historians will look back on the period from 9/11 to the present as an era of unbridled executive power and Congressional ineffectiveness.”