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Slow Dance: Obama's Romance with the CIA Slow Dance: Obama's Romance with the CIA

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Magazine / National Security

Slow Dance: Obama's Romance with the CIA

How the president learned to stop worrying and love hard power—as long as it’s covert. The future of American-style war.

Tough but secret: Obama’s strategy relies on surprise airstrikes and stealth raids.(Photo by US Navy via ABACAPRESS.COM)

photo of Michael Hirsh
May 11, 2011

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.

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.

Apart from the killing of bin Laden, it’s hardly clear that Obama’s approach is effective, let alone ethical, most of the time. In the case of Nabhan, the Qaida leader in Somalia, U.S. special-operations forces apparently had the option to take him prisoner but were told to shoot, sacrificing not just a life but also a source of potentially valuable intelligence. In other respects, the policy simply may not be working. Those targets not marked for assassination in Afghanistan, for example, are often turned over to Afghan authorities when captured. As a result, U.S. military officials complain that they are rearresting the same jihadis in Afghanistan over and over, and several hundred recently escaped from a prison in Kandahar. Meanwhile, “collateral damage” from the massive drone campaign is responsible for hundreds of innocent casualties and is provoking new anti-Americanism; Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani native who tried to bomb Times Square a year ago, told authorities that he was motivated in part by the drone strikes.

Obama has been mostly lucky until now. A bin Laden-style raid can easily become a “Black Hawk Down” debacle, and this latest mission nearly did when Team Six lost a helicopter to equipment failure. A CIA safe house can remain secret, as it did in Abbottabad, or it can yield up a Raymond Davis, the agency contractor who almost scuttled U.S.-Pakistan relations when he shot two men in Lahore in January. “Will drone strikes become Obama’s Guantanamo?” Bellinger asks. “What seems to be reasonable today—will it become anathema tomorrow? Where this could really go off the rails and throw the drone policy into a ditch is if they hit the wrong thing. And then, suddenly, this sort of clean program could become a major millstone around the president’s neck.”

Still, the New America Foundation, which tracks covert strikes based on news accounts, suggests that the administration is killing fewer innocents than its predecessor; since 2004, the foundation estimates that as many as 20 percent of the fatalities were “nonmilitants,” but that in 2010, when drone strikes reached a height of 118 missions, the number was “more like 5 percent.” A U.S. official familiar with the details of the program says even those numbers are high; since the beginning of 2009, she says, 180 strikes have killed 1,200 “militants,” with only 30 “noncombatants” killed, none since the summer of 2010. The drone is “the most precise weapon in the history of warfare,” she says.

What also remains unclear is whether Obama’s covert approach to terrorism amounts to a formally thought-out set of principles. The White House won’t say—the program is covert, after all—and the president has resolutely resisted tying himself to any template that might be misconstrued as a doctrine. Indeed, much of Obama’s presidency has been about unwinding the damage from various iterations of the Bush Doctrine—the with-us-or-against-us message behind the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But today, says Seth Jones, an intel expert at Rand who works with the Pentagon, “it looks like perhaps the Obama doctrine is to respond to threats with a small footprint using intelligence and special-ops forces.”

The reason for this shift is obvious. Obama has already gone through a politically and economically painful process of expanding the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. In these budget-straitened times, after a decade of war and with little public appetite or resources for further military deployments, he understands that he’s pushing up against the limits of American tolerance for sending U.S. troops anywhere in the world. Yet Obama has also come to believe that lethal action is necessary in many places—not just Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the Middle East and Africa.

No Vietnam Baggage

In the administration’s first year or so, many critics said that the president was too untested and unformed on foreign policy. They were echoing what Obama’s own secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, had asserted during the 2008 primary campaign when she questioned her rival’s readiness to deal with a foreign-policy crisis at “3 a.m.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused Obama of “trying to pretend we are not at war” with terrorists. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden criticized the administration’s decision to release the Bush-era torture memos, warning that it would embolden terrorist groups by letting them know “the outer limits that any American would ever go to in terms of interrogating an al-Qaida terrorist.”

But Obama always had another approach in mind, according to national-security officials. He was concerned about interrogation methods, but not nearly as much as he was about removing al-Qaida from the battlefield. Although he clearly made mistakes early on—in particular, his pledge to close Gitmo—Obama quickly developed his harsh and rigorous focus on top Qaida leaders. Almost right away, he ordered Panetta to go after bin Laden, administration officials have said.

To some longtime observers and advisers, the president’s apparent comfort with the use of force is not surprising. “He’s of a generation that came of age after Vietnam, unlike, say, Bill Clinton,” says a former campaign adviser who would discuss Obama’s state of mind only on condition of anonymity. “He’s not mired in self-doubt like so many who came out of the Vietnam experience. He doesn’t carry all that baggage” of a failed war. President George H.W. Bush, after victory in the first Persian Gulf War, famously remarked, “We kicked the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ for good!” But Obama was only 14 when the Vietnam War ended; he suffered, at most, a brush with the Vietnam syndrome. Even in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, the president seemed to be admonishing the world that it was getting him all wrong, says former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., an intelligence expert who recently took over at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Read his speech. He said there is genuine evil in the world, [and] where there is, we have to confront it. And that was in the toughest forum possible—he was getting the Peace Prize.”

Obama is also following an old presidential pattern. One reason the CIA has been nicknamed “the president’s agency” is that chief executives often turn to it. “It’s more than diplomacy and less than war,” says one veteran intelligence official. Stephen S. Kaplan, who recently retired after 30 years at the CIA and is a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, says that Obama is coming to the same realization as his predecessors—but with even greater enthusiasm. “Democrats always come in skeptical of the CIA. Republicans always come in saying, ‘These are our guys.’ The Republicans inevitably get disappointed, and the Democrats get increasingly impressed” as they realize that no other outfit else can perform the necessary tasks.

If an Obama doctrine is cohering, it’s likely to become even clearer with the high-profile move of Petraeus to the CIA this summer and Panetta to the Pentagon. In the past, this celebrity general has managed to place himself at the center of the biggest fight out there. But Petraeus will be going about his new task with Panetta’s staff and strategy, according to officials who have talked to both men. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, says that Petraeus told him that not only was he retiring from the military, he wasn’t bringing any of his military staff with him. “He said, ‘I’m going to be relying on the current staff at CIA,’ which he knows is very well trained and very professional.” Petraeus also has extensive experience with special ops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Harman believes that as a result of all these moves, the administration’s policy will quickly shift away from traditional counterinsurgency—which targets both enemies and hearts and minds, and which requires a lot of troops—to a pared-back policy of covert counterterrorism policies, as advocated by Vice President Joe Biden. “When Petraeus switches to the CIA and Panetta goes from that to Defense, that combination, plus the focus of the [Counterterrorism Adviser John] Brennan-led team in the White House will increasingly come up with a CT strategy,” Harman says. Bin Laden’s death—and the pressure to withdraw from Afghanistan quickly—also accelerates the shift from counterinsurgency to smaller-force counterterrorism.

That is where warfare itself is going, says Bill Nolte, a former longtime official at the CIA and the National Security Agency. “Information is now just a much bigger part of the weapons set,” he says. “That’s the real issue. If you want to see it as competition between kinetic weapons and information weapons, a lot of kinetic weapons are depending on better information. We’re not just dropping bombs from a B-17 with a circular probability. We’re now filling the munitions themselves with information derived from a variety of sources.” And that requires tighter CIA-military coordination than ever before.

Strikingly, Obama’s approach has an ideological furtiveness to it: Even as he has hit Islamist terrorists hard, he has given Islam itself a broad pass. As the administration did with its recent national-security strategy—in which the enemy was identified only as al-Qaida and any reference to Islamism was left out—the Obama team seems eager to paint the Muslim world as largely blameless for the actions of a few deranged individuals. It is part of Obama’s broader strategy of winning back the affections of the Islamic world while clandestinely knocking off the extreme elements within it.

The Perils of Secrecy

Are we, as a nation, comfortable with such a global covert war? The jubilation over bin Laden’s demise buried a real discussion about it. What will happen as the CIA and special ops blend more operations overseas? The CIA operates under strict congressional oversight rules, but the military’s special-operations forces do not. The mixed approach seems to have very little accountability, says Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counterterrorism official. He points to the “multiple stories” that came out about the bin Laden raid, perhaps the most visible and talked-about in special-ops history. “I have to think this was all being recorded in real time, and we still don’t know the real story. As far as the drone strikes, I’m not sure how that’s being managed. The whole thing is kind of scary,” he says. “When I was in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, the station was loaded with special-ops guys and CIA paramilitaries. And, man, they weren’t accountable at all. I wouldn’t trust them to take the family dog around the block. They were kind of killers.”

According to a senior CIA lawyer, the statutes reining in the CIA, which date from the famous Church Committee hearings of the 1970s, have set up effective procedures—but only for the CIA under Title 50 of the National Security Act. “Now, almost 40 years later, we’re in a situation where the CIA has to go through this bureaucracy, and at the same time you have the [special-operations] military doing all sorts of things that present worse types of concerns with much less congressional notification.” Chambliss, Rogers, and others on Capitol Hill say they are comfortable with having just the CIA under oversight strictures, which involve regular reporting, and they trust that Petraeus won’t run afoul of them. Still, Rogers says, “I wish they wouldn’t talk about it so much. It’s just not healthy to talk about what specific things the agency is doing in country A or country B.”

But is it healthy not to talk about it? Clearly, this is the CIA’s moment as much as it is Obama’s, coming after years of humiliation over bad intelligence calls on Iraq and elsewhere. Yet lack of accountability, whether in peace or war, has too often caused grief in American history, having contributed to the CIA’s previous decades of mishaps, from the Bay of Pigs to the misguided assassination plots of the ’70s. Today, even legal opponents of the current covert war admit that it’s hard to bring cases when “no one knows who’s on the target list,” says Maria LaHood of the Center for Constitutional Rights. (One of the very few lawsuits against the drone program was filed in Pakistan by a journalist, Karim Khan, whose son and brother were killed in a drone strike.) “I think targeted killing is an outrage legally, and an outrage politically,” LaHood says.

LaHood is a minority voice, and, going forward, the CIA “will get the resources it needs,” Chambliss says. That’s all good news to Barack Obama, America’s covert-power president. But it’s reasonable to ask how long the good news can last—and if the costs of covert action will catch up to us.

__________

CORRECTION: The original version of this report gave an incorrect name for the journalist filing the lawsuit over drone strikes in Pakistan.

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