Friday, March 15, 2013

Dan Klaidman Obama Use of Drones

CONAN: We're talking with Daniel Klaidman, author of "Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency." 

KLAIDMAN: Yeah, that's exactly right. This was three days after Barack Obama took office, only hours before he had signed these executive orders that rolled back some of the - what he viewed as the excesses of the previous administration's counterterrorism policies, Guantanamo, torture, shutting down the CIA detention facilities. And then, on January 23, John Brennan, his chief counterterrorism advisor, came to him and had to give him the news that the very first drone strike of his presidency had gone very badly wrong and a Pakistani tribal elder and much of his family, a pro-peace person, had been wiped out in this drone strike.

And the president was quite troubled by it. He called in the holdover CIA chief, Michael Hayden and his deputy, and he asked him what had happened here. And this was a kind of an important moment for him. Ironically, he ended up embracing the program, and it's also kind of an inflection point in his presidency.

CONAN: And we learn in your article that there are different types of strikes defined by the quality, I guess, of the intelligence that's involved in deciding what's a target and what isn't.
KLAIDMAN: That's exactly right. And this is what the president was learning in that meeting with Michael Hayden. He was learning the difference between a signature strike and a personality strike. And this particular strike was a signature strike in which they know that the people that they're going after have certain signatures or characteristics associated with terrorism, but they don't know exactly who they are. And Steve Kappes, who is the deputy CIA director, said to the president, we know there are a lot of men down there, military-age men, who could be associated with terrorism. We don't know their identities exactly.
The president cut him off and said, well, that's just not good enough for me. But over time, he was persuaded that this was a policy that, in the end, was rather effective, and not only did he accept it, but he ramped up those strikes in Pakistan.
KLAIDMAN: Well, he was always uncomfortable with it. According to some of his closest advisers, he would squirm. And, in fact, you know, the - his evolution on drones, it's not just a straight line. He would go back and forth and, you know, at times, he would say, I'm just not sure about this. I'm not sure if we're getting people who are genuinely - who are genuine threats to the United States. He was kind of a supple decision-maker when it came to these drone strikes.
There's one sort of instructive anecdote, which you can see him going back and forth. This is in late 2009, and he authorizes strikes against a certain number of members of al-Qaida in Yemen, but then says no to a couple of others. I think because it wasn't clear that they were demonstrable threats against the United States. But then in mid-operation, David Petraeus, who was then the general-in-charge of that area, had a clear - they had a clear shot at one of the individuals that the president had not approved. So John Brennan, the president's chief counterterrorism advisor, and Hoss Cartwright, then the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a hurry-up meeting with the president and said, you know, there's an opportunity to go after this person.
Now, you did not approve of this strike, but General Petraeus would like to be able to do this. And the president says, well, is it clear that this is who it is? Do we have the legal authority to do it? And will we - can we ensure that we will not kill civilians, women and children? And the answers were all yes to those questions. And he said, again, this was in mid-execution, OK, we can do it. And so they did. But when these kinds of things happen, the president sometimes would then, in quiet conversations with Cartwright or Brennan, sometimes turn these issues again over in his mind and say, well, you know, God, did we really - was that really an appropriate strike?
The president goes around the room to solicit the opinions of members of his national security team. There is a consensus, for the most part, that they can do this. And then he asks Hoss Cartwright, who's sitting along the wall, what he thinks. And Cartwright says, well, Mr. President, you need to think very carefully about these kinds of actions.

And, remember, this was a president who has been elected in part to wind down the wars of 9/11. He was very loath to risk opening up new fronts.
KLAIDMAN: This is just another turn in that evolution. This was something that the president had resisted for a long time. In one meeting with his counterterrorism advisors, when a military - one of the - his military advisors said, refer to the campaign in Yemen. The president cut him off and said, no, no, no. There's no campaign in Yemen. We're going to remain AQ focused, al-Qaida focused. But recently, really in the last couple of months, as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen has been able to take advantage of the turmoil in that country with the Arab Spring, with the fall of President Saleh there, they've managed to take a lot more territory.
They've seized territory in the strategic south near the Gulf of Aden. And the more territory they have, the more training camps they have, the better they - better ability that they have to plot and train and perhaps attack the United States, which is something we know that they want to do. And so the president was finally persuaded by the military that it had become a core United States interest, security interest, to begin dealing with that issue and to start helping the Yemeni army deal with the al-Qaida threat, not just worrying about whether they're going to be attacking the United States. That those two issues overlapped.

KLAIDMAN: Yeah. It's quite extraordinary. You know, there is a vigorous, to use the Washington term, interagency process, where individual targets will be nominated. That's the term that the military uses. And then it's subjected to some scrutiny and vetting by various agencies; the Pentagon, the state department, the CIA. The National Security Council's involved. They have these secure videoconferences where these things get debated. Individual cases can be debated for weeks before there's a decision. Do they have the legal justification? Is it the right policy?
But then ultimately, it goes to John Brennan and to Hoss Cartwright, and they would sometimes disappear into the Oval Office with the president, and the three of them would make the decision. Sometimes the president would scale back the list. And as I said before, occasionally he would widen the aperture, as the military likes to say, and increase the list. But the president also would sometimes have to be pulled out of black tie dinners or John Brennan sometimes would have to interrupt family time with the first lady and his children so that the president could come out and make these grim calls.
CONAN: There are two other main characters in this, and they are the legal advisers, the top lawyers at the State Department and the Pentagon, Harold Koh and Jeh Johnson, and very different people who sometimes allies, but more often adversaries.
KLAIDMAN: That's right. This is a fascinating part of the story, I think. Harold Koh is the former dean of the Yale Law School. He was the assistant secretary of state for human rights during the Clinton administration, probably one of the more revered human rights lawyers of his generation. And he would find himself in these killing meetings. 

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