Under Obama, more targeted killings than captures in counterterrorism efforts

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By Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010

When a window of opportunity opened to strike the leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa last September, U.S. Special Operations forces prepared several options. They could obliterate his vehicle with an airstrike as he drove through southern Somalia. Or they could fire from helicopters that could land at the scene to confirm the kill. Or they could try to take him alive.

The White House authorized the second option. On the morning of Sept. 14, helicopters flying from a U.S. ship off the Somali coast blew up a car carrying Saleh Ali Nabhan. While several hovered overhead, one set down long enough for troops to scoop up enough of the remains for DNA verification. Moments later, the helicopters were headed back to the ship.

The strike was considered a major success, according to senior administration and military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified operation and other sensitive matters. But the opportunity to interrogate one of the most wanted U.S. terrorism targets was gone forever.

The Nabhan decision was one of a number of similar choices the administration has faced over the past year as President Obama has escalated U.S. attacks on the leadership of al-Qaeda and its allies around the globe. The result has been dozens of targeted killings and no reports of high-value detentions.

Although senior administration officials say that no policy determination has been made to emphasize kills over captures, several factors appear to have tipped the balance in that direction. The Obama administration has authorized such attacks more frequently than the George W. Bush administration did in its final years, including in countries where U.S. ground operations are officially unwelcome or especially dangerous. Improvements in electronic surveillance and precision targeting have made killing from a distance much more of a sure thing. At the same time, options for where to keep U.S. captives have dwindled.

Republican critics, already scornful of limits placed on interrogation of the suspect in the Christmas Day bombing attempt, charge that the administration has been too reluctant to risk an international incident or a domestic lawsuit to capture senior terrorism figures alive and imprison them.

"Over a year after taking office, the administration has still failed to answer the hard questions about what to do if we have the opportunity to capture and detain a terrorist overseas, which has made our terror-fighters reluctant to capture and left our allies confused," Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Friday. "If given a choice between killing or capturing, we would probably kill."

Some military and intelligence officials, citing what they see as a new bias toward kills, questioned whether valuable intelligence is being lost in the process. "We wanted to take a prisoner," a senior military officer said of the Nabhan operation. "It was not a decision that we made."

Even during the Bush administration, "there was an inclination to 'just shoot the bastard,' " said a former intelligence official briefed on current operations. "But now there's an even greater proclivity for doing it that way. . . . We need to have the capability to snatch when the situation calls for it."

Lack of detention policy

One problem identified by those within and outside the government is the question of where to take captives apprehended outside established war zones and cooperating countries. "We've been trying to decide this for over a year," the senior military officer said. "When you don't have a detention policy or a set of facilities," he said, operational decisions become more difficult.

The administration has pledged to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Congress has resisted moving any of the about 190 detainees remaining there, let alone terrorism suspects who have been recently captured, to this country. All of the CIA's former "black site" prisons have been shut down, and a U.S. official involved in operations planning confirmed that the agency has no terrorism suspects in its custody. Although the CIA retains the right to briefly retain terrorism suspects, any detainees would be quickly transferred to a military prison or an allied government with jurisdiction over the case, the official said.

Military officials emphasized that terrorism suspects continue to be captured in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in Iraq, where counterterrorism operations must be approved in advance by its government and conducted with Iraqi forces in the lead, all prisoners must be turned over to Baghdad.


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