When President Obama put an American-born radical imam named Anwar al-Awlaki on a list for assassination two years ago, liberal critics howled. Awlaki was a rock-star propagandist for al-Qaeda’s arm in Yemen who recruited new followers over the Internet. He posted fiery sermons in idiomatic English and called on all who listened to attack the West.
We already know how the story ends. A drone found Awlaki in the deserts of northern Yemen last September. And as two Hellfire missiles sealed his fate, he became the most controversial kill of the Obama presidency. Awlaki was a U.S. citizen summarily executed without due process or a day in court. For some of Obama’s early supporters, it seemed like deja vu all over again: A president who campaigned on hope and change appeared more like the status quo.
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.”
That session lead Koh to devise a four-part test to guide him when assessing possible action against individual terrorists. He had a set of cards that officials had dropped on him. Somewhat like trading cards, they carried the photographs and terrorism résumés of possible drone targets. Klaidman’s reporting provides the first clear accounting of the process by which the administration makes those decisions.
Under Koh’s criteria, the targets had to be clearly part of al-Qaeda and senior members of the organization, Klaidman writes. They had to be militants who were focused on attacking America and who were plotting to strike at U.S. targets. It was only under those conditions that Koh believed international law would permit the United States to kill in self-defense, even outside a traditional field of battle. Awlaki, and a small group of other men, met Koh’s criteria.
Klaidman’s account is supported by a another meticulously reported, immensely readable book from the New York Times’ chief Washington correspondent, David Sanger. In “Confront and Conceal,” Sanger provides details about a memo that administration lawyers wrote in 2010 with the goal of providing legal justification for the assassination of Awlaki. (The memo’s existence was first reported in the Times.)
Sanger writes that by the summer of 2010, support for the Awlaki kill mission was widespread within the administration: “Leon Panetta, then running the CIA, made it clear that if Awlaki were found, no one would hesitate to finish him off.”
While Sanger’s book is about national security more generally, he devotes a chapter to the dark side of what has become the administration’s “light footprint” strategy. Cyberwarfare and drones have dramatically expanded the United States’ ability to confront enemies with indirect action; now the president can wage a different kind of war 365 days a year.
The question, as the election draws near, is how Obama will explain this strategy to the American people. Those who thought he would be weak on national security might be pleasantly surprised. His base might view the administration’s secrecy and tactics as a breach of their faith.
Sanger addresses the problem. “Rather than explain his thinking in public, Obama has left the matter for others to argue about, and has often hidden behind the secrecy surrounding both programs,” he writes. “What is the difference — legally and morally — between a sticky bomb the Israelis place on the side of an Iranian scientist’s car and a Hellfire missile the United States launches at a car in Yemen from thirty thousand feet in the air. . . . These are all questions the Obama team discusses chiefly in classified briefings, not in public debates.”
Sanger’s point, of course, is that it’s not enough to say that the two are different simply because the United States was behind one operation and another country was behind the other. The Obama campaign will need to explain those distinctions in a way that the electorate can understand and potentially embrace.
Sanger’s extraordinary story about the administration’s decision to launch a cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear facilities has been the marquee headline out of “Confront and Conceal.” It has already garnered reams of coverage and is now the subject of a leaks investigation by the Justice Department.
What has attracted less attention are the details Sanger unearthed about the Obama administration’s more-targeted counterterrorism efforts. There were, for example, a few somewhat wacky ideas to jump-start the search for Osama bin Laden after years of chasing dead ends.
“Bin Laden loved nothing more than to make videos that kept his message alive,” Sanger writes, providing the details of a covert program for the first time. “So the labs came up with the idea of flooding Pakistan with new digital cameras in hopes that bin Laden’s videographers were eager for an upgrade. Each digital camera, the labs said, contained a unique signature with signals that are identifiable and, with luck, traceable.”
The United States began selling cameras equipped with tracking devices in the mountainous region of Peshawar, where bin Laden was thought (wrongly) to be hiding. The program didn’t work, but Sanger writes that it remains highly classified because similar operations exploiting the same technology are underway today.
The administration’s big break, Sanger writes, came roughly a year later, when the National Security Agency captured a cellphone conversation between a longtime courier for al-Qaeda named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti and a friend. It was that conversation that eventually helped lead U.S. officials to the al-Qaeda leader.
Klaidman and Sanger were clearly given extraordinary access to key players in the administration to write their books. In some cases, they appear to have talked to the same sources: Several of their stories track nearly word for word. The problem is that both authors, perhaps because of the access, provide a largely uncritical view of the Obama administration’s process. Fly-on-the-wall reporting, by its very nature, lacks skepticism.
For example, one key figure who makes only a cameo appearance in both volumes is former defense secretary Robert Gates. He was seen as the eminence gris in the administration (some in the White House affectionately called him “Yoda”), but his analysis of unfolding events in the books seems limited to stories we have read elsewhere.
Both books could have benefitted from more input from military and intelligence officials of Gates’s stature and caliber. If nothing else, it would have helped the authors blunt accusations that they are simply adding to the tough-guy narrative that Obama’s reelection team is in the midst of crafting.
But that shouldn’t diminish either book. Both Klaidman and Sanger provide scintillating details about internal deliberations that in some cases took place only months ago, giving their work an engaging sense of immediacy. Both authors also seem to have concluded that this president, who promised hope and change, has spent three-and-a-half years trying to balance his liberal ideology with old-fashioned pragmatism. For his supporters, that might be a disappointment. But among those on the fence, it could help him in November.
KILL OR CAPTURE
The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency
By Daniel Klaidman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 288 pp. $28
CONFRONT AND CONCEAL
Obama’s Secre t Wars and Surprising Use of American Power
By David E. Sanger
Crown. 476 pp. $28