Was there ever an unlikelier pair to be leading a team of elite warriors? The man up on the screen was a pudgy, avuncular Californian, Leon Panetta, with a lifelong passion for environmental causes—in particular, protecting marine life (as in fish, not jarheads). The president who was watching him from a secure room inside the White House, Barack Obama, had so inspired the world with his give-peace-a-chance rhetoric that he’d won a Nobel Prize after only eight months in office. Yet here they were, the two of them, about to take out the world’s No. 1 terrorist, a task that all those bare-toothed Bushies had failed to accomplish.
The operation was CIA—that is to say, civilian. Though the Navy SEALs who carried it out were America’s fiercest fighters (their commander, Adm. Bill McRaven, can “drive a knife through your ribs in a nanosecond,” a colleague once said), the military had “loaned” Team Six to the CIA for this operation under Title 50 of the National Security Act. McRaven and the SEALs were in charge on the ground, but it was a supersecret unit within Panetta’s Central Intelligence Agency that had been pursuing, almost alone, this particular quarry in a manhunt that had dramatically accelerated since President Obama took office. Charged by Obama to find Osama bin Laden at all costs, the CIA had managed to track the Qaida leader’s chief courier to certain areas in Pakistan. And now, two years later, that painstaking hunt had led the agency to this moment—perhaps the greatest in the CIA’s storied history—with Panetta giving the “go” for the op on Obama’s direct orders.
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If you think it’s an accident that the May 1 takedown of bin Laden occurred on Obama’s watch, think again. The mission’s success followed a meeting that included the president and his new CIA director in October 2009, as the administration reviewed its Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. As usual, the agency put together a wish list of counterterrorist activities for Panetta to take to the president: adding more predator drones inside Pakistan; enlarging the areas in which they operated; and opening new facilities in the country, including CIA safe houses like the one set up to observe bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. The CIA hoped it might get, as usual, about half of the 10 items it wanted. “But at the end of the day, the president told Leon, ‘You’re getting everything you want, all 10 things,’ ” said a senior administration official who asked not to be named.
To many career spooks, the flowering of the Obama-Panetta partnership has been a revelation. “Let’s be candid,” the senior administration official said. “Some people had arched eyebrows” at the beginning, especially when Obama named the 72-year-old Panetta, a fairly liberal Democrat who, along with Obama, had criticized the agency’s interrogation practices and opposed the surge in Iraq. But Panetta “embraced the agency’s mission, and the president recognized very early on the capabilities that the CIA had to bring to bear.”
Some people may still be wondering: Is this really the president we elected? Obama, after all, was supposed to be the inspiring, transformational figure who would restore America’s image as a benign superpower. What is being transformed, instead, is our image of Obama. As it turns out, he is no liberal weenie abroad, no typical Democrat with a passion for human rights and international law. In recent months, Obama has also disappointed many of his fans with his tepid support of Arab democracy protesters. His passions appear to lie elsewhere. What Obama seems enthusiastic about is the use of hard power—lethal force. And the more precise and deadly, the better.
As long as it’s done covertly. And that’s the key.
We had forewarnings of this. During the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama pledged to go after al-Qaida more aggressively than President Bush had; as far back as the summer of 2007, Obama had stirred controversy by saying he would even send troops into Pakistan if he had to. The bin Laden mission was only the most dramatic illustration yet of a growing, although sub rosa, trend. Obama has narrowed his strategic focus on terrorism, zeroing in on the most-dangerous terrorists who can’t be rehabilitated, namely Qaida fighters; at the same time, he has dramatically multiplied the resources that his administration is devoting to the mission.
Consider: Although the administration does not publicly acknowledge the existence of the program, the number of Predator drone strikes on targets in Pakistan and elsewhere has more than tripled during Obama’s presidency—and he is now making drones available to NATO in Libya. The U.S. has increased its intelligence and special-operations forces in Somalia, Yemen, and Libya. But even that is only a small part of the story. Under Panetta, the CIA has conducted “the most aggressive counterterror ops in the agency’s history,” according to the senior administration official. He has knocked off not only bin Laden but also a key operative in Somalia—Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the leader of al-Qaida’s affiliate in East Africa—using special-operations forces. The agency has gotten a long list of other terrorists with Predators (although the government has acknowledged, reluctantly, that the drone strikes have killed many innocents along with thugs and bandits). Obama also secretly authorized the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an influential radical cleric—and an American citizen—thought to be living somewhere in Yemen; the president apparently came close to getting Awlaki in the same week he got bin Laden.
This article appears in the May 14, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.