by Jo Becker and
May 29, 2012
Pete Souza/The White House
President Obama in the Oval Office with Thomas E. Donilon,
left, the national security
adviser, and John O. Brennan, his top counterterrorism adviser.
This was the enemy, served up in the latest
chart from the intelligence agencies: 15 Qaeda suspects in Yemen with
The mug shots and brief biographies resembled a
high school yearbook layout. Several were Americans. Two were teenagers,
including a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years.
President Obama, overseeing the regular Tuesday counterterrorism meeting of
two dozen security officials in the White House Situation Room, took a
moment to study the faces.
It was Jan. 19, 2010, the end of a first year in
office punctuated by terrorist plots and culminating in a brush with
catastrophe over Detroit on Christmas Day, a reminder that a successful
attack could derail his presidency.
Yet he faced adversaries without uniforms, often
indistinguishable from the civilians around them.
“How old are these people?” he asked,
according to two officials present. “If they are starting to use
children,” he said of Al Qaeda, “we are moving into a whole different
It was not a theoretical question: Mr. Obama has
placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to
designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has
become largely theoretical.
He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda
with American values; the chart, introducing people whose deaths he might
soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum
this could be.
Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war
and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding
“kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one
official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war.
When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a
top terrorist arises - but his family is with him - it is the president who
has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.
“He is determined that he will make these
decisions about how far and wide these operations will go,” said Thomas
E. Donilon, his national security adviser.
“His view is that he’s responsible for the
position of the United States in the world.”
He added, “He’s determined to keep the
tether pretty short.”
Nothing else in Mr. Obama’s first term has
baffled liberal supporters and confounded conservative critics alike as his
aggressive counterterrorism record.
His actions have often remained inscrutable,
obscured by awkward secrecy rules, polarized political commentary and the
president’s own deep reserve.
In interviews with The New York Times, three dozen of his current and former
advisers described Mr. Obama’s evolution since taking on the role, without
precedent in presidential history, of personally overseeing the shadow war
with Al Qaeda.
They describe a paradoxical leader who shunned the legislative deal-making
required to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, but
approves lethal action without hand-wringing. While he was adamant about
narrowing the fight and improving relations with the Muslim world, he has
followed the metastasizing enemy into new and dangerous lands.
When he applies his lawyering skills to
counterterrorism, it is usually to enable, not constrain, his ferocious
campaign against Al Qaeda - even when it comes to killing an American cleric
in Yemen, a decision that Mr. Obama told colleagues was “an easy one.”
His first term has seen private warnings from top officials about a
“Whac-A-Mole” approach to counterterrorism; the invention of a new category
of aerial attack following complaints of careless targeting; and
presidential acquiescence in a formula for counting civilian deaths that
some officials think is skewed to produce low numbers.
The administration’s failure to forge a clear detention policy has created
the impression among some members of Congress of a take-no-prisoners policy.
And Mr. Obama’s ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron P. Munter, has complained to
colleagues that the C.I.A.’s strikes drive American policy there, saying,
“he didn’t realize his main job was to kill
people,” a colleague said.
Beside the president at every step is his
counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, who is variously compared
by colleagues to a dogged police detective, tracking terrorists from his
cavelike office in the White House basement, or a priest whose blessing has
become indispensable to Mr. Obama, echoing the president’s attempt to apply
the “just war” theories of Christian philosophers to a brutal modern
But the strikes that have eviscerated Al Qaeda - just since April, there
have been 14 in Yemen, and 6 in Pakistan - have also tested both men’s
commitment to the principles they have repeatedly said are necessary to
defeat the enemy in the long term.
Drones have replaced Guantánamo as the
recruiting tool of choice for militants; in his 2010 guilty plea, Faisal Shahzad, who had tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square, justified
targeting civilians by telling the judge,
“When the drones hit, they don’t see
Dennis C. Blair, director of national
intelligence until he
was fired in May 2010, said that
discussions inside the White House of long-term strategy against Al Qaeda
were sidelined by the intense focus on strikes.
“The steady refrain in the White House was,
‘This is the only game in town’ - reminded me of body counts in
Vietnam,” said Mr. Blair, a retired admiral who began his Navy service
during that war.
Mr. Blair’s criticism, dismissed by White House
officials as personal pique, nonetheless resonates inside the government.
William M. Daley, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff in 2011, said the
president and his advisers understood that they could not keep adding new
names to a kill list, from ever lower on the Qaeda totem pole.
What remains unanswered is how much killing will
“One guy gets knocked off, and the guy’s
driver, who’s No. 21, becomes 20?” Mr. Daley said, describing the
“At what point are you just filling the
bucket with numbers?”
‘Maintain My Options’
A phalanx of retired generals and admirals stood behind Mr. Obama on the
second day of his presidency, providing martial cover as he signed several
executive orders to make good on campaign pledges.
Brutal interrogation techniques were banned, he
declared. And the prison at Guantánamo Bay would be closed.
What the new president did not say was that the orders contained a few
subtle loopholes. They reflected a still unfamiliar Barack Obama, a realist
who, unlike some of his fervent supporters, was never carried away by his
own rhetoric. Instead, he was already putting his lawyerly mind to carving
out the maximum amount of maneuvering room to fight terrorism as he saw fit.
It was a pattern that would be seen repeatedly, from his response to
Republican complaints that he wanted to read terrorists their rights, to his
acceptance of the C.I.A.’s method for counting civilian casualties in drone
The day before the executive orders were issued, the C.I.A.’s top lawyer,
John A. Rizzo, had called the White House in a panic.
The order prohibited the agency from operating
detention facilities, closing once and for all the secret overseas “black
sites” where interrogators had brutalized terrorist suspects.
“The way this is written, you are going to
take us out of the rendition business,” Mr. Rizzo told Gregory B. Craig,
Mr. Obama’s White House counsel, referring to the much-criticized
practice of grabbing a terrorist suspect abroad and delivering him to
another country for interrogation or trial.
The problem, Mr. Rizzo explained, was that the
C.I.A. sometimes held such suspects for a day or two while awaiting a
flight. The order appeared to outlaw that.
Mr. Craig assured him that the new president had no intention of ending
rendition - only its abuse, which could lead to American complicity in
torture abroad. So a new definition of “detention facility” was inserted,
excluding places used to hold people “on a short-term, transitory basis.”
Problem solved - and no messy public explanation
damped Mr. Obama’s celebration.
“Pragmatism over ideology,” his campaign
national security team had advised in a memo in March 2008.
It was counsel that only reinforced the
Even before he was sworn in, Mr. Obama’s advisers had warned him against
taking a categorical position on what would be done with Guantánamo
detainees. The deft insertion of some wiggle words in the president’s order
showed that the advice was followed.
Some detainees would be transferred to prisons in other countries, or
released, it said. Some would be prosecuted - if “feasible” - in criminal
Military commissions, which Mr. Obama had
criticized, were not mentioned - and thus not ruled out.
As for those who could not be transferred or tried but were judged too
dangerous for release?
Their “disposition” would be handled by,
“lawful means, consistent with the national
security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the
interests of justice.”
A few sharp-eyed observers inside and outside
the government understood what the public did not.
Without showing his hand, Mr. Obama had
preserved three major policies - rendition, military commissions and
indefinite detention - that have been targets of human rights groups since
the 2001 terrorist attacks.
But a year later, with Congress trying to force him to try all terrorism
suspects using revamped military commissions, he deployed his legal skills
differently - to preserve trials in civilian courts.
It was shortly after Dec. 25, 2009, following a close call in which a
Qaeda-trained operative named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had boarded a
Detroit-bound airliner with a bomb sewn
into his underwear.
Mr. Obama was taking a drubbing from Republicans over the government’s
decision to read the suspect his rights, a prerequisite for bringing
criminal charges against him in civilian court.
“seems to think that if he gives terrorists
the rights of Americans, lets them lawyer up and reads them their
Miranda rights, we won’t be at war,” former Vice President Dick Cheney
Sensing vulnerability on both a practical and
political level, the president summoned his attorney general, Eric H.
Holder Jr., to the White House.
F.B.I. agents had questioned Mr. Abdulmutallab for 50 minutes and gained
valuable intelligence before giving him the warning. They had relied on a
1984 case called New York v. Quarles, in which the Supreme Court ruled that
statements made by a suspect in response to urgent public safety questions -
the case involved the location of a gun - could be introduced into evidence
even if the suspect had not been advised of the right to remain silent.
Mr. Obama, who Mr. Holder said misses the legal profession, got into a
colloquy with the attorney general. How far, he asked, could Quarles be
stretched? Mr. Holder felt that in terrorism cases, the court would allow
indefinite questioning on a fairly broad range of subjects.
Satisfied with the edgy new interpretation, Mr. Obama gave his blessing, Mr.
“Barack Obama believes in options: ‘Maintain
my options,’ “ said Jeh C. Johnson, a campaign adviser and now general
counsel of the Defense Department.
‘They Must All Be
That same mind-set would be brought to bear as the president intensified
what would become a withering campaign to use unmanned aircraft to kill
Just days after taking office, the president got word that the first strike
under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis.
“The president was very sharp on the thing,
and said, ‘I want to know how this happened,’ “ a top White House
In response to his concern, the C.I.A. downsized
its munitions for more pinpoint strikes.
In addition, the president tightened standards,
aides say: If the agency did not have a “near certainty” that a strike would
result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally
whether to go ahead.
The president’s directive reinforced the need for caution, counterterrorism
officials said, but did not significantly change the program. In part, that
is because “the protection of innocent life was always a critical
consideration,” said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under
President George W. Bush.
It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting
civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all
military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several
administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously
proving them innocent.
Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic:
people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda
operative, are probably up to no good.
“Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid
organization - innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of
trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official,
who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified
This counting method may partly explain the
official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths.
In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s
trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a
year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official
said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under
Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” - and that independent counts of scores
or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims
But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed
disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so
troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have
brought their concerns to the White House.
One called it “guilt by association” that has
led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.
“It bothers me when they say there were
seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They
count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”
About four months into his presidency, as Republicans accused him of
reckless naïveté on terrorism, Mr. Obama quickly pulled together
a speech defending his policies.
Standing before the Constitution at the National
Archives in Washington, he mentioned Guantánamo 28 times, repeating his
campaign pledge to close the prison.
But it was too late, and his defensive tone suggested that Mr. Obama knew
Though President George W. Bush and Senator John
McCain, the 2008 Republican candidate, had supported closing the Guantánamo
prison, Republicans in Congress had reversed course and discovered they
could use the issue to portray Mr. Obama as soft on terrorism.
Gen. James L. Jones
Walking out of the Archives, the president
turned to his national security adviser at the time, Gen. James L. Jones,
and admitted that he had never devised a plan to persuade Congress to shut
down the prison.
“We’re never going to make that mistake
again,” Mr. Obama told the retired Marine general.
General Jones said the president and his aides
had assumed that closing the prison was,
“a no-brainer - the United States will look
good around the world.”
The trouble was, he added,
“nobody asked, ‘O.K., let’s assume it’s a
good idea, how are you going to do this?’ “
It was not only Mr. Obama’s distaste for
legislative backslapping and arm-twisting, but also part of a deeper
pattern, said an administration official who has watched him closely: the
president seemed to have,
“a sense that if he sketches a vision, it
will happen - without his really having thought through the mechanism by
which it will happen.”
In fact, both Secretary of State Hillary
Rodham Clinton and the attorney general, Mr. Holder, had warned that the
plan to close the Guantánamo prison was in peril, and they volunteered to
fight for it on Capitol Hill, according to officials.
But with Mr. Obama’s backing, his chief of
staff, Rahm Emanuel, blocked them, saying health care reform had to
When the administration floated a plan to transfer from Guantánamo to
Northern Virginia two
Uighurs, members of a largely Muslim ethnic
minority from China who
are considered no threat to the United
States, Virginia Republicans led by Representative Frank R. Wolf
denounced the idea.
The administration backed down.
That show of weakness doomed the effort to close Guantánamo, the same
administration official said.
“Lyndon Johnson would have steamrolled the
guy,” he said. “That’s not what happened. It’s like a boxing match where
a cut opens over a guy’s eye.”
The Use of Force
It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100
members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by
secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies
and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.
This secret “nominations” process is an invention of the Obama
administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides
bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al
Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia.
The video conferences are run by the Pentagon, which oversees strikes in
those countries, and participants do not hesitate to call out a challenge,
pressing for the evidence behind accusations of ties to Al Qaeda.
“What’s a Qaeda facilitator?” asked one
participant, illustrating the spirit of the exchanges. “If I open a gate
and you drive through it, am I a facilitator?”
Given the contentious discussions, it can take
five or six sessions for a name to be approved, and names go off the list if
a suspect no longer appears to pose an imminent threat, the official said.
A parallel, more cloistered selection process at
the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan, where that agency conducts strikes.
The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and
guided by Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name. He signs off on
every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky
strikes in Pakistan - about a third of the total.
Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal
counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and
Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for
And he knows that bad strikes can tarnish
America’s image and derail diplomacy.
“He realizes this isn’t science, this is
judgments made off of, most of the time, human intelligence,” said Mr.
Daley, the former chief of staff. “The president accepts as a fact that
a certain amount of screw-ups are going to happen, and to him, that
calls for a more judicious process.”
But the control he exercises also appears to
reflect Mr. Obama’s striking self-confidence: he believes, according to
several people who have worked closely with him, that his own judgment
should be brought to bear on strikes.
Asked what surprised him most about Mr. Obama, Mr. Donilon, the national
security adviser, answered immediately:
“He’s a president who is quite comfortable
with the use of force on behalf of the United States.”
In fact, in a 2007 campaign speech in which he
vowed to pull the United States out of Iraq and refocus on Al Qaeda, Mr.
Obama had trumpeted his plan to go after terrorist bases in Pakistan - even
if Pakistani leaders objected.
His rivals at the time, including Mitt Romney,
Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Mrs. Clinton, had all pounced on what they
considered a greenhorn’s campaign bluster. (Mr. Romney said Mr.
Obama had become “Dr. Strangelove.”)
In office, however, Mr. Obama has done exactly what he had promised, coming
quickly to rely on the judgment of Mr. Brennan.
Mr. Brennan, a son of Irish immigrants, is a grizzled 25-year veteran of the
C.I.A. whose work as a top agency official during the brutal interrogations
of the Bush administration made him a target of fierce criticism from the
left. He had been forced, under fire, to withdraw his name from
consideration to lead the C.I.A. under Mr. Obama, becoming counterterrorism
Some critics of the drone strategy still vilify Mr. Brennan, suggesting that
he is the C.I.A.’s agent in the White House, steering Mr. Obama to a
targeted killing strategy.
But in office, Mr. Brennan has surprised many
former detractors by speaking forcefully for closing Guantánamo and
respecting civil liberties.
Harold H. Koh, for instance, as dean of Yale Law School was a leading
liberal critic of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies. But
since becoming the State Department’s top lawyer, Mr. Koh said, he has found
in Mr. Brennan a principled ally.
“If John Brennan is the last guy in the room
with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of
genuine moral rectitude,” Mr. Koh said.
“It’s as though you had a priest with
extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a
The president values Mr. Brennan’s experience in
assessing intelligence, from his own agency or others, and for the sobriety
with which he approaches lethal operations, other aides say.
“The purpose of these actions is to mitigate
threats to U.S. persons’ lives,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview.
“It is the option of last recourse. So the
president, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people
have to die. And so he wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous
checklist: The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the
intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”
Yet the administration’s very success at killing
terrorism suspects has been shadowed by a suspicion: that Mr. Obama has
avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no
While scores of suspects have been killed under
Mr. Obama, only one has been taken into American custody, and the president
has balked at adding new prisoners to Guantánamo.
“Their policy is to take out high-value
targets, versus capturing high-value targets,” said Senator Saxby
Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the intelligence committee.
“They are not going to advertise that, but
that’s what they are doing.”
Mr. Obama’s aides deny such a policy, arguing
that capture is often impossible in the rugged tribal areas of Pakistan and
Yemen and that many terrorist suspects are in foreign prisons because of
Still, senior officials at the Justice
Department and the Pentagon acknowledge that they worry about the public
“We have to be vigilant to avoid a
no-quarter, or take-no-prisoners policy,” said Mr. Johnson, the
Pentagon’s chief lawyer.
The care that Mr. Obama and his counterterrorism chief take in choosing
targets, and their reliance on a precision weapon, the drone, reflect his
pledge at the outset of his presidency to reject what he called the Bush
“false choice between our safety and our
Striking Al Qaeda
President Obama inherited the drone program but drastically increased the
number of strikes.
In late 2009, as plots
increasingly emanated from Yemen, the president began a broader aerial
But he has found that war is a messy business,
and his actions show that pursuing an enemy unbound by rules has required
moral, legal and practical trade-offs that his speeches did not envision.
One early test involved Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani
Taliban. The case was problematic on two fronts, according to interviews
with both administration and Pakistani sources.
The C.I.A. worried that Mr. Mehsud, whose group then mainly targeted the
Pakistan government, did not meet the Obama administration’s criteria for
targeted killing: he was not an imminent threat to the United States. But
Pakistani officials wanted him dead, and the American drone program rested
on their tacit approval.
The issue was resolved after the president and
his advisers found that he represented a threat, if not to the homeland, to
American personnel in Pakistan.
Then, in August 2009, the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, told Mr. Brennan
that the agency had Mr. Mehsud in its sights. But taking out the Pakistani
Taliban leader, Mr. Panetta warned, did not meet Mr. Obama’s standard of
“near certainty” of no innocents being killed.
In fact, a strike would certainly result in such
deaths: he was with his wife at his in-laws’ home.
“Many times,” General Jones said, in similar
circumstances, “at the 11th hour we waved off a mission
simply because the target had people around them and we were able to
loiter on station until they didn’t.”
But not this time.
Mr. Obama, through Mr. Brennan, told the C.I.A.
to take the shot, and Mr. Mehsud was killed, along with his wife and, by
some reports, other family members as well, said a senior intelligence
attempted bombing of an airliner a few months later, on Dec. 25,
stiffened the president’s resolve, aides say. It was the culmination of a
series of plots, including the
killing of 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex. by an
Army psychiatrist who had embraced radical Islam.
Mr. Obama is a good poker player, but he has a tell when he is angry.
His questions become rapid-fire, said his
attorney general, Mr. Holder.
“He’ll inject the phrase, ‘I just want to
make sure you understand that.’ “
And it was clear to everyone, Mr. Holder said,
that he was simmering about how a 23-year-old bomber had penetrated billions
of dollars worth of American security measures.
When a few officials tentatively offered a defense, noting that the attack
had failed because the terrorists were forced to rely on a novice bomber and
an untested formula because of stepped-up airport security, Mr. Obama cut
“Well, he could have gotten it right and
we’d all be sitting here with an airplane that blew up and killed over a
hundred people,” he said, according to a participant.
He asked them to use the close call to imagine
in detail the consequences if the bomb had detonated.
In characteristic fashion, he went around the
room, asking each official to explain what had gone wrong and what needed to
be done about it.
“After that, as president, it seemed like he
felt in his gut the threat to the United States,” said Michael E. Leiter,
then director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
“Even John Brennan, someone who was already
a hardened veteran of counterterrorism, tightened the straps on his
rucksack after that.”
David Axelrod, the president’s closest
political adviser, began showing up at the “Terror Tuesday” meetings, his
unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a
successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and
In the most dramatic possible way, the Fort Hood shootings in November and
the attempted Christmas Day bombing had shown the new danger from Yemen. Mr.
Obama, who had rejected the Bush-era concept of a global war on terrorism
and had promised to narrow the American focus to Al Qaeda’s core, suddenly
found himself directing strikes in another complicated Muslim country.
The very first strike under his watch in Yemen, on Dec. 17, 2009, offered a
stark example of the difficulties of operating in what General Jones
described as an “embryonic theater that we weren’t really familiar with.”
It killed not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families,
and left behind a
trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more
It was hardly the kind of precise operation that
Mr. Obama favored. Videos of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding
up American missile parts flooded You Tube, fueling a ferocious backlash
that Yemeni officials said bolstered Al Qaeda.
The sloppy strike shook Mr. Obama and Mr. Brennan, officials said, and once
again they tried to impose some discipline.
In Pakistan, Mr. Obama had approved not only “personality” strikes aimed at
named, high-value terrorists, but “signature” strikes that targeted training
camps and suspicious compounds in areas controlled by militants.
But some State Department officials have complained to the White House that
the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist “signature” were
too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping
jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior
official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers - but they
might also be farmers, skeptics argued.
Now, in the wake of the bad first strike in Yemen, Mr. Obama overruled
military and intelligence commanders who were pushing to use signature
strikes there as well.
“We are not going to war with Yemen,” he
admonished in one meeting, according to participants.
His guidance was formalized in a memo by General
Jones, who called it a “governor, if you will, on the throttle,” intended to
remind everyone that,
“one should not assume that it’s just O.K.
to do these things because we spot a bad guy somewhere in the world.”
Mr. Obama had drawn a line.
But within two years, he stepped across it.
Signature strikes in Pakistan were killing a large number of terrorist
suspects, even when C.I.A. analysts were not certain beforehand of their
presence. And in Yemen, roiled by the Arab Spring unrest, the Qaeda
affiliate was seizing territory.
Today, the Defense Department can target suspects in Yemen whose names they
do not know. Officials say the criteria are tighter than those for signature
strikes, requiring evidence of a threat to the United States, and they have
even given them a new name - TADS, for Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes.
But the details are a closely guarded secret -
part of a pattern for a president who came into office promising
The Ultimate Test
On that front, perhaps no case would test Mr. Obama’s principles as starkly
as that of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric and Qaeda
propagandist hiding in Yemen, who had recently risen to prominence and had
taunted the president by name in some of his online screeds.
Site Intelligence, via
European Pressphoto Agency
The cleric Anwar al-Awlaki,
who coached Umar Farouk
Abdulmutallab in his plot
to blow up an American
airliner over Detroit.
“was very interested in obviously trying to
understand how a guy like Awlaki developed,” said General Jones.
The cleric’s fiery sermons had helped inspire a
dozen plots, including the shootings at Fort Hood.
Then he had gone “operational,”
Mr. Abdulmutallab and coaching him to ignite his explosives only after the
airliner was over the United States.
That record, and Mr. Awlaki’s calls for more attacks, presented Mr. Obama
with an urgent question: Could he order the targeted killing of an American
citizen, in a country with which the United States was not at war, in secret
and without the benefit of a trial?
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo
justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth
Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by
internal deliberations in the executive branch.
Mr. Obama gave his approval, and Mr.
Awlaki was killed in September 2011,
along with a fellow propagandist, Samir Khan, an American citizen who was
not on the target list but was traveling with him.
If the president had qualms about this momentous step, aides said he did not
Mr. Obama focused instead on the weight of the
evidence showing that the cleric had joined the enemy and was plotting more
“This is an easy one,” Mr. Daley recalled
him saying, though the president warned that in future cases, the
evidence might well not be so clear.
In the wake of Mr. Awlaki’s death, some
administration officials, including the attorney general, argued that the
legal memo should be made public.
In 2009, after all, Mr. Obama had released Bush
administration legal opinions on interrogation over the vociferous
objections of six former C.I.A. directors.
This time, contemplating his own secrets, he chose to keep the Awlaki
“Once it’s your pop stand, you look at
things a little differently,” said Mr. Rizzo, the C.I.A.’s former
Mr. Hayden, the former C.I.A. director and now
an adviser to Mr. Obama’s Republican challenger, Mr. Romney, commended the
president’s aggressive counterterrorism record, which he said had a “Nixon
to China” quality.
But, he said, “secrecy has its costs” and Mr.
Obama should open the strike strategy up to public scrutiny.
“This program rests on the personal
legitimacy of the president, and that’s not sustainable,” Mr. Hayden
“I have lived the life of someone taking
action on the basis of secret O.L.C. memos, and it ain’t a good life.
Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a
Tactics Over Strategy
June 2009 speech in Cairo, aimed at resetting relations with the
Muslim world, Mr. Obama had spoken eloquently of his childhood years in
Indonesia, hearing the call to prayer,
“at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk.”
“The United States is not - and never will be - at war with Islam,” he
But in the months that followed, some officials
felt the urgency of counterterrorism strikes was crowding out consideration
of a broader strategy against radicalization.
Though Mrs. Clinton strongly supported the
strikes, she complained to colleagues about the drones-only approach at
Situation Room meetings, in which discussion would focus exclusively on the
pros, cons and timing of particular strikes.
At their weekly lunch, Mrs. Clinton told the president she thought there
should be more attention paid to the root causes of radicalization, and Mr.
But it was September 2011 before he issued an
executive order setting up a sophisticated, interagency war room at the
State Department to counter the jihadi narrative on an hour-by-hour basis,
posting messages and video online and providing talking points to embassies.
Mr. Obama was heartened, aides say, by a letter discovered in the raid on
Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
It complained that the American president had
undermined Al Qaeda’s support by repeatedly declaring that the United States
was at war not with Islam, but with the terrorist network.
“We must be doing a good job,” Mr. Obama
told his secretary of state.
Moreover, Mr. Obama’s record has not drawn
anything like the sweeping criticism from allies that his predecessor faced.
John B. Bellinger III, a top national
security lawyer under the Bush administration, said that was because Mr.
Obama’s liberal reputation and “softer packaging” have protected him.
“After the global outrage over Guantánamo,
it’s remarkable that the rest of the world has looked the other way
while the Obama administration has conducted hundreds of drone strikes
in several different countries, including killing at least some
civilians,” said Mr. Bellinger, who supports the strikes.
By withdrawing from Iraq and preparing to
withdraw from Afghanistan, Mr. Obama has refocused the fight on Al Qaeda and
hugely reduced the death toll both of American soldiers and Muslim
But in moments of reflection, Mr. Obama may have
reason to wonder about unfinished business and unintended consequences.
His focus on strikes has made it impossible to forge, for now, the new
relationship with the Muslim world that he had envisioned. Both Pakistan and
Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than
when Mr. Obama became president.
Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power,
running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents. With
China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international
precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies.
Mr. Blair, the former director of national intelligence, said the strike
campaign was dangerously seductive.
“It is the politically advantageous thing to
do - low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,”
“It plays well domestically, and it is
unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national
interest only shows up over the long term.”
But Mr. Blair’s dissent puts him in a small
minority of security experts.
Mr. Obama’s record has eroded the political
perception that Democrats are weak on national security. No one would have
imagined four years ago that his counterterrorism policies would come under
far more fierce attack from the American Civil Liberties Union than from Mr.
Aides say that Mr. Obama’s choices, though, are not surprising.
The president’s reliance on strikes, said Mr.
Leiter, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center,
“is far from a lurid fascination with covert
action and special forces. It’s much more practical. He’s the president.
He faces a post-Abdulmutallab situation, where he’s being told people
might attack the United States tomorrow.”
“You can pass a lot of laws,” Mr. Leiter said, “Those laws are not going
to get Bin Laden dead.”