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


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.

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.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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