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Obama's evolution on assassination

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 28: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War during a Memorial Day event a the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall.
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 28: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War during a Memorial Day event a the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Barack Obama has made headlines recently for his so-called “evolution” on the issue of same-sex marriage. While initially against it during the 2008 campaign the president came out forcefully on the other side during an interview a few weeks ago. While it is unknown if this decision was politically motivated it was still a commendable action in favor of civil rights by a sitting president. A lesser known evolution of thought by Obama was over the matter of targeted assassinations in the “War on Terror.” In the recent issue of Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman helpfully explains (via a book excerpt) this transition of the constitutional-lawyer-in-chief. Klaidman gives a wealth of information surrounding the legal processes of the White House, CIA and Pentagon for drone strikes but does little to provide a wider context to these issues of life and death.

The piece begins with a trial by fire of the new president. Klaidman describes a drone strike in Pakistan gone wrong, killing a tribal elder and his family. There is no discussion about how these types of attacks only serve to enrich the animosity in which the people of these countries direct at the country behind such devastating assaults. But there is a revealing exchange involving a high-level CIA officer explaining how that agency decides who shall live and die in foreign lands:

Sometimes called “crowd killing,” signature strikes are 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 always know who they are.” Obama reacted sharply. “That’s not good enough for me,” he said. But he was still listening. Hayden forcefully defended the signature approach. You could take out a lot more bad guys when you targeted groups instead of individuals, he said. And there was another benefit: the more afraid militants were to congregate, the harder it would be for them to plot, plan, or train for attacks against America and its interests.

Obama remained unsettled. “The president’s view was ‘OK, but what assurances do I have that there aren’t women and children there?’” according to a source familiar with his thinking. “‘How do I know that this is working? Who makes these decisions? Where do they make them, and where’s my opportunity to intervene?’”

This part is remarkable if only to describe what little thought the CIA puts into these matters. If “bad guys” congregate around an area they ought to be taken out, regardless of whom else may be around the area. And those “bad guys” (it is imaginable that the CIA knew the exact details of each person they were targeting, but doubtful) must naturally be planning attacks against America; otherwise there may not be any reason to simply eradicate them from the sky. This simplistic process helps to explain why so many drone strikes result in civilian casualties. It is nice to read about Obama’s pushback against this, but he would eventually go on to authorize almost all of it.

These matters become even more convoluted when dealing with nations the U S is not even officially at war with, including Yemen and Somalia. Jeremy Scahill has documented the CIA’s involvement in Somalia, but this article highlights the military discussions about attacking an already destabilized country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Klaidman writes of Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, describing a “kinetic opportunity” to wipe out dozens of people at an al-Shabab training camp and the pushback from Vice Chairman James Cartwright. Cartwright would go on to play a key role with John Brennan in a “troika” of minds that were to determine when and how to use these drone strikes. Brennan was a CIA holdover from the Bush administration notorious for claiming last year that not a single civilian had been killed in a drone strike. He is described here by David Axelrod as a “John Wayne character,” which is ironic given that the actor himself was more or less a caricature. Cartwright and Brennan were advised by senior administration lawyers Harold Koh and Jeh Johnson. Koh had an interesting transition from vehement critic to legal enabler but according to this piece had extensive arguments with Johnson over who the US could target. The military ultimately won out with Johnson by painting an increasingly bleak picture of “bad things:”

The amity didn’t last, however. The military kept up its pressure on Johnson, and mounted a fierce campaign to persuade him to change his position on Al-Shabab. Officers brought him intelligence and “threat streams” about terrorist activities, and told him “bad things” would happen if they couldn’t act first. Johnson understood the political risks. There would be an uproar if Al-Shabab launched a successful attack against the United States and it later turned out that Obama administration lawyers had declared the group off limits. Finally, some months after Al-Shabab militants bombed a soccer stadium in Uganda, killing 74 people, he changed tack.

The legal ramifications of drone strikes in Somalia are still being debated in the Obama administration. One debate that seems to have ceased is that over Yemen. Klaidman outlines how the assassination of Osama bin Laden bolstered the military to “run the table” in this country, including the use of “signature strikes.” And it was Obama himself who decided that Anwar al-Awlaki was to be eliminated. Klaidman contends, with little evidence, that Awlaki was the mastermind behind terror plots:

In Barack Obama’s mind, Anwar al-Awlaki was threat No. 1. The Yemen-based leader of AQAP had grown up in the United States, spoke fluent American-accented English, and had a charisma similar to that of Osama bin Laden: soft eyes, a mastery of language, and a sickening capacity for terror. Obama told his advisers that Awlaki was a higher priority than even Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had succeeded bin Laden as al Qaeda’s top commander. “Awlaki had things on the stove that were ready to boil over,” one of Obama’s national-security advisers observed. “Zawahiri was still looking for ingredients in the cupboard.”

Although the allusion to terrorism as a home-cooked meal is quaint, it begs the question of how scrutinized these claims by the government against Awalki really were. The article claims that AQAP’s bomb maker was working on explosives that could be “surgically implanted” in a human body. Whether or not that was the case, given the failure of many of the organization’s previous bomb plots was it really necessary to justify the death of an American citizen? General Cartwright apparently saw similarities to a previous era:

The president made sure he got updates on Awlaki at every Terror Tuesday briefing. “I want Awlaki,” he said at one. “Don’t let up on him.” Hoss Cartwright even thought Obama’s rhetoric was starting to sound like that of George W. Bush, whom Cartwright had also briefed on many occasions. “Do you have everything you need to get this guy?” Obama would ask.

That Obama would act similarly to Bush is hardly news. But it is interesting to see a military official draw the same parallels. And of the assassination itself, Klaidman quotes an anonymous official saying the president had “no qualms.” And there is no mention here of the blatant murder of Awalaki’s son a week later. But it is in the conclusion of the piece that the scariest part of Obama’s legacy comes into clear view:

By 2012 Obama was getting regular updates on a Saudi double agent who’d managed to penetrate AQAP. He had volunteered to be a suicide operative for al-Asiri, AQAP’s master bomb maker, and instead delivered the latest underwear-style explosive device to his handlers. By then the military and CIA were pushing again for signature-style strikes, but they’d given them a new name: terrorist-attack-disruption strikes, or TADS. And this time, after resisting for the first three years of his presidency, Obama gave his approval.

This administration is no stranger to Orwellian terminology, but this is a masterful turn. It already had turned “people who look and act like terrorists” into “signature strikes.” Now in the pre-emptive vein they have become “terrorist-attack-disruption-strikes.” Who could argue with that? It is truly amazing that the lasting heritage of the Obama administration will be to solidify the most pernicious aspects of the “War on Terror” into permanent bipartisan concrete. The president’s change of heart on gay marriage may have gotten the most headlines recently, and rightfully so. But the development of thought spelled out in this excerpt is a more nefarious and enduring one for a man who came into office committed to “change.”


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