For those of us covering the events, there was a general sense that the decision to target Awlaki had been difficult for the White House. Now, with the publication of two new books, it appears that we may have had it all wrong and that Obama is more aggressive in his counterterrorism policy than any of us thought he would be.
“Kill or Capture” by Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman focuses on the president’s counterterrorism policy specifically, from the hand-wringing over the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison to the development of drone policies. The book makes clear that Obama had no qualms about killing Awlaki.
“US intelligence had been tracking Anwar al-Awlaki for years, but in the wake of the bin Laden operation, Obama had become fixated on taking out the charismatic cleric,” Klaidman writes. “During one briefing, Obama told his counterterrorism advisers that Awlaki was his top priority, even over Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had succeeded bin Laden as the leader of al-Qaeda.”
Klaidman reports that the president’s focus on Awlaki was so intense, one of his briefers, Gen.James Cartwright, thought that “Obama’s rhetoric was starting to sound like George W. Bush’s, whom he had briefed on many occasions. ‘Do you have everything you need to get this guy?’ Obama would ask.”
What is clear is that the president found Awlaki’s American citizenship, in Klaidman’s words, “immaterial.”
Another of Obama’s key advisers, a liberal lawyer at the State Department named Harold Koh, was a little queasier about the whole killing enterprise. Koh was skeptical of the counterterrorism community’s conclusions about Awlaki, so he went to study the intelligence reports on the radical cleric for himself in a “crappy little room” in the State Department reserved for reading classified material.
“If Awlaki wasn’t going to be able to defend himself in a court of law, then perhaps Koh could at least ensure that the government’s case against him was legitimate,” Klaidman writes. Koh spent five hours poring over stacks of intelligence. “There were plans to poison Western water and food supplies with botulinum tox, as well as attack Americans with ricin and cyanide,” Klaidman writes. “Koh was shaken when he left the room. Awlaki was not just evil, he was satanic.”