This weekend, the CIA continued its campaign against suspected militants in Pakistan with a drone strike that reportedly killed at least eight. I’ve compiled excerpts from Daniel Klaidman’s recently released book Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, which explores the inter-administration debate over the morality and effectiveness of targeted killings. The book is an expanded version of Klaidman’s excellent national security reporting in the Daily Beast.
There was one area where the two sides found common ground. Obama’s advisers were fascinated by the CIA’s targeted killing program and the ruthlessly effective use of drones. At a second meeting a few days later, they peppered their hosts with questions: How many al-Qaeda leaders had been neutralized? What was the civilian death toll? They were awed by the precision and lethality of the strikes—and by the successful recruitment of tribal spies in the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. John Rizzo, a longtime CIA lawyer known for his bespoke tailoring and sardonic wit, came away from the meeting thinking Obama would keep the program, and might even step it up. “I guess they’re not a bunch of left-wing pussies after all,” he thought to himself. (32)
The president was learning for the first time about a controversial practice known as signature strikes, the targeting of groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t necessarily known. They differed from “personality” or “high-value individual” strikes, in which a terrorist leader was positively identified before the missile was launched. Sometimes called crowd killing, signature strikes were deeply unpopular in Pakistan. Obama struggled to understand the concept. Steve Kappes, the CIA’s deputy director, offered a blunt explanation. “Mr. President, we can see that there are a lot of military-age males down there, men associated with terrorist activity, but we don’t necessarily know who they are.” Obama reacted sharply. “That’s not good enough for me,” he said. (41)
Obama’s approach to kinetic activity tended to be deliberative and careful, but it was also supple; “he was willing to change his mind,” in the words of one military source, occasional even “widening the aperture” based on new intelligence or the recommendations of his field commanders… But such calls took their toll. Obama would sometimes later reflect on whether they knew with certainty that the people they were targeting posed a genuine and specific threat to American interests. (52)
The debate eventually transformed into a full-blown argument on the merits of coercive interrogation procedures. [Director of National Intelligence Dennis] Blair had carefully examined the reports and was convinced that waterboarding and other harsh techniques had yielded important intelligence. What he did not know was whether that evidence could have been obtainable through noncoercive methods. He scoured the government and academia for any reliable research that established whether enhanced interrogations actually worked. At the next principals’ meeting he revealed the results of his inquiry. “There’s no body of knowledge that says here’s the right way to do it,” he told the group. Then, turning to Obama, he said, “Mr. President, we do not know if we could have gotten that information in other ways. We do know that we got valuable information using those techniques, but that’s as far as we can take it.” Obama, who was now leaning toward releasing the memos: “Well, if we don’t have any evidence that it works, you might as well stick with your principles.” (62)
Though initially skeptical of Panetta’s appointment as CIA director, agency veterans learned to appreciate his close ties to Obama. In October 2009 Panetta brought a CIA wish list of counterterrorist requests to a White House Situation Room meeting. He asked Obama for ten items, thinking he might get half of them. At the end of the meeting Obama said: “The CIA gets what it wants.” Panetta got everything, including more Predator drones, authority to go after larger “target boxes” in Pakistan (the designated areas in the tribal regions where the CIA was permitted to operate), and increased resources for the agency’s secret paramilitary forces. “We’re conducting the most aggressive operations in our history as an agency,” Panetta would comment. “That largely flows from this president and how he views the role of the CIA.” (121)
Some weeks earlier, Hoss Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had raised with Obama the conundrum they were facing. He warned the president that the military could not afford to be “trapped in a no-quarters environment.” Obama did not understand the military idiom. Cartwright explained that under the laws of war the military was required to take the target of an operation into custody if he surrendered or was wounded. “We do not have a plausible capture strategy,“ Cartwright told the president.
The inability to detain terrorist suspects was creating perverse incentives that favored killing or releasing suspected terrorists over capturing them. “We never talked about this openly, but it was always a back-of-the-mind thing for us,” recalled one of Obama’s top counterterrorism advisers. “Anyone who says it wasn’t is not being straight.” (125-127)
Obama was drawn to JSOC for many of the same reasons he found the CIA an attractive option. It was relatively small, nimble, and, while not covert in the legal sense, operated in a culture of near-total secrecy. Until recently, the Defense Department did not even officially acknowledge its existence. Some of its missions were so compartmentalized that they took place without the relevant combatant commander’s knowledge. Moreover, unlike the CIA, JSOC was not required by law to brief Congress on its clandestine operations. Law and politics so constrained Obama’s ability to influence counterterrorism policy, it’s easy to appreciate the lure of JSOC, which was sometimes referred to as the president’s “secret army.” (205)
On December 16, 2009, [General Counsel of the Defense Department] Jeh Johnson was in his Pentagon office when a military aide brought him a set of baseball cards [suspected terrorists nominated to be targeted]. Although he had served as general counsel to the air force during the Clinton administration, he had never had to weigh in on a lethal operation until he joined the Obama team. Now he had forty-five minutes to prepare for a meeting to approve the cards. The targets were Akron, Toledo, and Cleveland [code names for suspected terrorists]. He sat down with the deck and started cramming. (209)
Most lethal operations in Yemen had been conducted by the U.S. military. But in the summer of 2011, the Awlaki hit job was turned over to the CIA, for a highly pragmatic reason: the United States had built a new drone base in a strategically located Persian Gulf country. It was a regime with which the CIA had far better ties than the military, allowing it to conduct sensitive operations from certain locations that were off-limits to JSOC. The Defense Department turned over as many as eight of its drones to agency operators so that they could keep a bigger presence focused on Yemen. Meanwhile, the Pentagon put additional drones into nearby Djibouti, finished construction on a base in Ethiopia, and transferred drones there from the Seychelles. What was striking was that JSOC accepted the CIA’s primary role in the hunt for Awlaki without complaint. Like the bin Laden mission, it was an example of near-seamless integration of counterterrorism operations between the military and the CIA, a hallmark of Obama’s war. (261-262)