Even some Republicans are impressed. “They have been very aggressive,” Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told National Journal. “They have expanded the programs that worked” under the Bush administration. Bush himself raised the role of the CIA and special ops in 2008, when he loosened the rules of engagement in Pakistan to allow Predators to fly their deadly missions.
The Secret War
Obama’s expansion has been so dramatic that it almost amounts to a whole new program. The “operational tempo” for such covert attacks is expected to increase even more in the next two years—as will the CIA’s role under its incoming director, Gen. David Petraeus. As U.S. combat troops withdraw from Iraq and then, at least partially, from Afghanistan, senior CIA officials acknowledge that they will shoulder more of the war against the terrorists. The U.S. security presence in Iraq will center on clandestine action and surveillance overseen by the CIA. Afghanistan already has the agency’s largest-ever presence in any one country, and when NATO evacuates in 2014, the agency will re-inherit a fight that it once owned. Even after U.S. forces depart, “do not expect a significant drawdown in CIA resources in Afghanistan,” the senior administration official says. Currently, the CIA runs one drone program in Pakistan, and the U.S. military runs a separate one in Afghanistan; eventually, the agency will take up that burden as well.
Obama has also demonstrated a take-no-prisoners ruthlessness (literally) that has surprised even some inside the intelligence community. Whether it is because Obama simply wants to get the “war on terror” off America’s front-burner as quickly as possible, or because the administration has not decided what to do with detainees, few, if any, senior militants have been arrested since he took office. Many have been killed.
One senior official inside the CIA is forthright about the issue, at least when speaking anonymously. “It’s a lot simpler and easier for a sniper to shoot or to use a Predator to launch a lawful attack than to detain and interrogate prisoners,” he says. “Once they’re dead, then Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International doesn’t bring a habeas [corpus] case for them. If we’re not going to hold them, we’re ‘pure.’ We may not have information or intelligence, but we do ensure that no one in the human-rights community is yelling and screaming at us.” In addition, the official says, not dealing with detainees has freed up the agency’s resources to focus on the hunt for more terrorists.
The policy also casts some on the left as hypocrites. A few longtime observers, such as Bill Roggio of The Long War Journal, think it’s ironic that the Bush administration’s policies provoked such controversy over torture and treatment, when Obama’s sometimes harsher policies do not. “Why is it more humane to kill people than put them in a prison? But can you blame him? He’s not getting any pushback on it,” says Roggio, who suggests the reason has a lot to do with Obama’s being a Democrat.
John Bellinger, who was chief counsel for the National Security Council and the State Department under George W. Bush, suggests that the Obama approach has mainly to do with the confusion over whether to try detainees at Guantanamo—which Obama had promised to shut down by now. “There does appear to be a conscious effort to avoid detaining members of the Taliban and al-Qaida, or at least to limit their numbers,” Bellinger says. Harold Koh, a prominent Yale scholar who once inveighed against the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation policies, has found himself lampooned by some of his former colleagues since taking over for Bellinger at State. Much as the Bush team once did, Koh has merely asserted the “legality” of his boss’s program.
Tom Malinowski, who runs the Washington office of Human Rights Watch (and occasionally advises the administration), disagrees that Obama is killing suspected terrorists to avoid imprisoning them. “There has been no case that I know about in which this administration used deadly force in circumstances in which the Bush administration would have tried to make an arrest,” Malinowski says. “The drone attacks have taken place in parts of Pakistan and Yemen where taking prisoners was not an option.” Asked whether Human Rights Watch supports Obama’s policy, Malinowski replied, “We have not opposed the policy. The argument that I’ve made is, there are circumstances under which the use of lethal force to take out suspected terrorists would be justified under international law.”
Still, Malinowski added, “I can’t say every specific drone strike is lawful,” and he acknowledged that the administration achieved a high-water mark of aggression with the bin Laden strike. “I think it’s the first time they have killed someone, or launched operations where lethal force was the expected method, in a part of the world that is under the firm control of a stable government” and an ally, at that. Indeed, Obama had even prepared a U.S. force to battle the Pakistani military if Islamabad interfered with the bin Laden mission.