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Views From the Newsroom: Challenges to American Power

Moderator: Jonathan Tepperman, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations
Speakers: David E. Sanger, Chief Washington Correspondent, The New York Times Co, and Daniel Klaidman, Special Correspondent, Newsweek
June 19, 2012
Council on Foreign Relations



JONATHAN TEPPERMAN: Well, it's 6:04, so given the council's preoccupation with punctuality, I think we should start. Welcome, everyone, to tonight's Council on Foreign Relations meeting entitled "Views from the Newsroom: Challenges to American Power," although given what we're going to be talking about tonight, it could equally be called challenges of American power.

I'm Jonathan Tepperman. I'm the managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. Before we get started, I just have to review the house rules with you, which I'm sure most of you know already. Tonight's meeting is on the record. Nonetheless, although I'm sure you're all dying to live tweet it, I have to ask you to please turn off your cellphones and iPhones and Blackberries because they may interfere with the sound system.

And then, the procedure for tonight will be as follows. I'll start by engaging our guests in questions for about 30 minutes. And then, I'm going to open up the floor to questions from members. When I do, please wait for me to call on you. Wait for the microphone. When you get it, stand, state your name and affiliation and ask one brief question, and the operative words there are brief and question.

Now, on with the show. It's my great pleasure to be up here tonight with two of the country's top reporters. You have their bios in front of you, so I'll just say a few words about them. On my immediate left, of course, is David Sanger. David is currently the New York Times chief Washington correspondent. He's also a Pulitzer Prize winner and a former Times Tokyo Bureau chief.

On the far left, Dan Klaidman. Dan's currently a special correspondent at Newsweek magazine. It's about the 10th job he's held at Newsweek over the years, including managing editor, Washington Bureau chief, Middle East Bureau chief; I'm sure I'm leaving something off. Dan also has the rare distinction of having been a former boss of mine when I was at Newsweek. And don't be misled by his cuddly exterior. He can be intimidating at times. (Laughter.)

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: Cuddly? (Chuckles.)

TEPPERMAN: This is just the latest stop on what's becoming the Sanger-Klaidman road tour. Unless you've been living under a cave for the last few weeks, you know that they've just come out with two books on Obama's shadow wars, David's "Confront and Conceal," and Daniel's "Kill and Capture" -- "Kill or Capture."

These books are taking the country by storm. They've often mentioned in the same breath. The two men were recently on Face the Nation together. They're rapidly becoming the most famous journalistic tandem act since Woodward and Bernstein. And if certain Senate Republicans have their way, their last joint appearance may be on trial, although we hope it won't come to that.

OK, gentlemen, I want to start with a couple of questions about process since the access that you got for these books and the revelations are nothing short of remarkable. At the end of movies, it's common to see a disclaimer saying: no animal was harmed in the shooting of this film. Can you say the procedural equivalent for your books, that no crimes were committed in the research and reporting? And I don't mean by you, of course. I mean by the people who told you what they told you.

DAVID SANGER: You want to start with me?


SANGER: This was completely ordinary reporting which means that you start from the ground up. You try to figure out a set of events and then the people that would be involved in them. And you know, what's amused me most about this discussion of leaks -- first, I'm not a great fan of the phrase leaks because it makes it sound like you're sitting on your back porch drinking an iced tea and somebody calls you up and says, can I drop a big file on you.

TEPPERMAN: You mean it doesn't work that way?

SANGER: It doesn't work -- well, it does in the movies. It's just I'm just about to hit 30 years at the New York Times and it hasn't happened to me yet. But you know, hope springs eternal because it would be a lot easier that way. But it doesn't happen that way.

And so there was one big leak in the cyber side of this. It was the leak of what became known as the Stuxnet virus out of the Natanz nuclear establishment and out into the world where it replicated itself hundreds and then thousands and then millions of times.

So at that moment, the Iranians were aware that they were under attack. It's just that the incoming in this case was computer code, which was what made it so fascinating. And you know, then you pull on that string. But the big revelation here which was that the United States and Israel were behind these attacks, we actually reported in January of 2011.

KLAIDMAN: Well, I concur with everything David just said. The days of Dean Acheson calling up Scotty Weston are over. And I was working on my book for two years. Like David, it's traditional reporting from the ground up.

You know, basically the way it worked with me -- and I don't think I'm revealing a whole lot to say this -- is that I went out and I reported throughout the national security bureaucracy to learn about how these decisions get made, whether it's drone strikes, other kinetic activity, as the military calls it, or some of the other big policy questions having to do with Barack Obama's war on terror.

And you typically -- you're sort of like a prosecutor. You work your way from the outside toward your target and in that sense I just mean that you don't walk through the front door and start asking the White House to start disclosing intimate details about Situation Room meetings. You learn what you can from sources who have a whole range of motivations to talk to you.

And I'm always amused when people -- politicians, others -- try to define the motivations of sources because they never know. And then, you know, ultimately you try to confirm the information you have. You try to get more. The White House, you know, participates sometimes. Other times they don't.

And I'll just say one thing about, in my case, why, I think, people were willing to talk and how it runs counter to this narrative that you're hearing largely from politicians that this was all about the White House wanting to bolster the credentials of Obama's national security credentials.

First of all, I'm shocked. There's gambling in the casinos. Of course the White House wants to do that. But you know, I think for the most part sources talked to me -- some combination of -- there's was vanity involved. But I think largely it was because these people spent a lot of time and struggle with very, very difficult decisions.

Sometimes they're decisions that have life and death consequences. There are moral dilemmas. There are legal challenges. There are enormous policy challenges. And I think they want people to understand that they don't make these decisions lightly. And I think David and I and all the other journalists who work on national security reporting can help them make that case.

TEPPERMAN: Let me turn to a more general question about the revelations in both of your books. And David, I want to start with you. And that's simply what does the administration's handling of Olympic Games, of its cyber campaign against Iran as well as drones tell us about Obama as a foreign policy president. You write in your book that you can distill from what you've observed the emergence of an Obama doctrine. What does that mean?

SANGER: Well, the president himself has not talked about an Obama doctrine. And no president would want to because then, you know, people like Dan come along -- I would never do this -- and say does the thing you just did actually fit even slightly with your doctrine. So they don't like to talk in those terms.

But it seems pretty clear that the first element of it is that when there are direct threats to the United States, President Obama has no compunction about unilateral action, despite what you may have heard about engagement and so forth during the campaign. He just never talked about the unilateral action part. So bin Laden raid is an easy example. But drone strikes in Pakistan are a second.

There were 48 or 49 in the entire Bush administration. When I closed out "Confront and Conceal," they were about to hit 250 for the Obama administration. So that gives you a sense of how the use of the tool has been expanded. And then cyber, in the case of Iran, is certainly a case of direct action.

Where he differs from President Bush, quite strongly I think, is that he's got a very strong feeling that the United States can no longer afford to be the policeman of the world and that we can no longer afford to send a hundred thousand troops into countries we barely understand and spend a trillion dollars and end up in a four- or five-year occupation which ends wondering whether or not you've actually changed the wiring of the society that you've just invaded. And so he has moved very much to a position that if the interests of the United States are not directly threatened, it's up to other countries to take the lead if their interests are greater.

And that's a big difference from the Bush administration. President Bush often took the position -- I think you've heard Governor Romney take this position as well -- that United States leadership means that the U.S. leads at almost all times. Sometimes this has worked.

In Libya, if you just set aside the fact that NATO ran out of ammunition -- that can happen -- but that the U.S. had to go resupply and it basically wanted to force NATO and the Arab League to take the lead. It hasn't worked in Syria. And that's a case where you see the limits of the doctrine because if the U.S. isn't going to take the lead and anybody else steps in the way, it's sort of like watching Congress when you can't put 60 votes together.

KLAIDMAN: Yeah, I think how David describes the Obama doctrine is exactly right. When he took office, I think he realized very quickly that there were these capabilities that were very much in line with his basic approach toward foreign policy. He wanted to be surgical. He wanted to be precise. He wanted to do it without -- he had a term that he used. Sometimes it was mission creep. Sometimes he called it requirement-creep. But the meaning is the same.

You know, he had been elected in part to wind down the wars of 9/11. And he was very wary of opening up new fronts. He was wary that he had inherited a military shaped by Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush that was still very much on the offensive. And he very early on -- I think this was in March of 2009, early March of 2009 -- there's one moment that I think's instructive.

It's a Situation Room meeting with Mullen -- Admiral Mullen and other members of the Joint Chiefs and some of the other brass. And they have an opportunity -- a kinetic opportunity to go after a particular suspected terrorist in Somalia. And they don't know exactly where he is. But they think he's somewhere in this sort of series of training camps in southern Somalia. And so the proposal is, well, why don't we just take out the entire series of camps.

We know that the only people who are there are military-age males. So we'll probably get him. But whoever else we get, you know, that's fine too. And Obama basically invites dissent from anybody else there who might be willing to offer that. And General Cartwright -- Hoss Cartwright, who was the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs -- speaks up and he says, you know, well, we have to think about what our goal is here and where we're going with this.

And carpet bombing a country sets a pretty bad precedent. And Obama said, well, that's exactly where I am. And he -- throughout most of his presidency so far, until recently, he held the line of these kind of sort of signature strikes because he was worried about getting sucked in. And you know, I think cyber is the same thing. Here was an opportunity to deal with a real threat without going to war in a traditional way.

SANGER: And maybe stopping a war because he believed Olympic Games was the best bet at keeping the Israelis from attacking. And it may have been. That won't mean the Israelis won't attack at some point in the future. But he bought some time.

KLAIDMAN: Right, right.

TEPPERMAN: Well, let me ask a related question that has to do with the similarities or the dissimilarities or similarities between Bush and Obama. Both the operations that you write about take the United States into areas with very little law to cover them.

And what's especially striking about this, of course, is that the commander-in-chief happens to be a constitutional law professor who nonetheless seems to be fairly comfortable with the idea that we don't need formal transparent legal processes to govern these decisions and that the president's direct participation and consultation with a few highly placed figures, including some lawyers, is enough. What do you make of this and do you worry about the precedents being set?

SANGER: Well, if your concern is that every succeeding president we've had from Roosevelt on has tried to expand the powers of the presidency, then, you know, you could put this in that same line, that he is seeing himself very much as the judge and then the decider. And you almost see him play two roles in these Situation Room meetings.

In cyber, you know, he gets himself very easily past the question that we are invading the sovereignty of another country. But he's quite concerned that we don't do it in a way that shuts down hospitals or injures in some way civilians. And you see the same thing every day in the debates that take place on the drone strikes.

So he steps out of the commander-in-chief role for a bit, steps into his lawyer role and then back in the commander-in-chief role to decide. And I think many of the times that he's going through these kill lists -- and this is really Daniel's territory, not mine -- my sense is it was to narrow them. It wasn't to expand them.

KLAIDMAN: Exactly right. Yeah, that's exactly right. You know, actually I would say that Obama, unlike Bush, was actually much more tolerant of very vigorous debate on the legal issues surrounding these decisions. I have a chapter in my book in which I write about a conflict between the top lawyer at the State Department, Harold Koh, former dean of the Yale Law School, and the top lawyer at the Defense Department, Jay Johnson. And they are at loggerheads.

Obviously they represent different institutional interests. But they're also very different personalities. And they spend -- they and the people who work for them spend enormous amounts of time debating the legality of individual strikes, sometimes weeks, months about a particular case and very fine-grained distinctions about, you know, whether you can go after this particular person, whether he's actually covered under the authorization for the use of military force, whether -- what is the definition under international law of imminence in terms of imminent threats, all of these kinds of questions.

I was sort of struck by how much time is spent debating these issues. Obama is a little bit different. Yes, he's a constitutional law professor, thinks deeply about these issues. But Larry Tribe, the Yale constitutional -- Harvard constitutional lawyer, law professor -- described Obama to me as a functionalist, not a formalist in terms of the law, by which he meant he has a commonsense approach to the law. He does not get hung up on, you know, nitpicking little technicalities.

He wants to know, as David was saying, is this -- is this legal, is it authorized under international law in the sense that, you know, we're not going to be killing a lot of civilians, we're going to be in line with all these issues of proportionality and necessity and all those kind of questions that international lawyers are preoccupied with. But ultimately, he's thinking about core national interests and whether it's a policy that makes sense.

TEPPERMAN: Let's set aside the legal and even moral questions for a moment and just talk about efficacy. And Dan, here I want you to talk first. On the one hand, it seems there's no question that the drones have been remarkably successful in disrupting and decapitating al-Qaida.

On the other hand, of course, there's this great risk of blowback which is so severe that last week the Times quotes Robert Grenier, the former head of the CIA's counterterrorism center saying the drone program in Yemen risks turning it into a safe haven for al-Qaida and in the tribal areas -- like in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

KLAIDMAN: Yeah, and I think that is something that weighed on President Obama when he first came to office. He talked -- when he did talk about these issues, he gave one major counterterrorism speech during the campaign in August of 2007. And he was already talking about blowback in terms of the Bush -- the Bush-Cheney policies. And so, you know, he's a thoughtful man.

It's inconceivable to me that he has not also thought about blowback with regard to both drones and the cyber program. I think he's just made the decision, you know, when you become president and you assume the sobering responsibilities to protect the homeland and you get -- start getting all the intelligence about the threats that are out there.

I think he's just made the decision that this is an extremely effective weapon, perhaps more a tactical weapon than strategic, although he's being told on a regular basis that we've effectively reached the point where al-Qaida has been strategically defeated, at least the core organization in Pakistan.

And, look, it is a tool that if awfully seductive to presidents. And I imagine that if -- you know, George Bush did not use drones as much as Obama did. I think that is largely because -- it's partly a question of the technology, which hadn't advanced quite as much as it has now.

But it's largely because the human intelligence got so much better in the latter years of the Bush presidency and the numbers of drone strikes started going up precipitously toward the end of the Bush administration. If John McCain had become president, I suspect he would have done the same thing. I suspect future presidents will also avail themselves of this.

TEPPERMAN: David, we know that the drone campaign is ongoing. But what's the status of America's cyber war at the moment against Iran, to start? Are these recent flame attacks that we've heard about evidence of further U.S. action?

In your reporting, did you discover whether attacks have been contemplated against other U.S. enemies -- Libya, North Korea, Syria? And finally, how is the administration thinking about cyber as cyber? Is there any policy thinking about a doctrine and when to use and when not, et cetera?

SANGER: Well, the thing that has kept so much of this debate from playing out is that the United States has never acknowledged having or using cyber weapons. They have acknowledged just last year doing research on cyber weapons. And by that time, Olympic Games was in its third or fourth year.

So that gives you a little bit of a sense of how hard it is to have a doctrinal conversation when you haven't admitted to the weapon. And that's different for us. I mean, we spent much of the Cold War debating atomic weapons. But after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was pretty obvious what we had. We spent some time debating intercontinental ballistic missiles and then, of course, chemical weapons and landmines and drones.

But in each of those cases, with the exception of drones, the programs -- the existence of programs was out in the open. The U.S. has considered using cyber weapons many more times than they've actually used them. Now, sometimes they haven't used them because of these concerns about collateral damage.

Sometimes they haven't used them because it's simply been too hard. Libya was a classic example where they were thinking of opening the campaign in Libya with a cyber-attack on the air defense system that Gadhafi had.

And then, they discovered that it was so disconnected from the Internet that it was going to take them a huge amount of time to actually figure out even how to go in and go do it. And that's a difficulty. Cyber in a battlefield situation has to be done instantaneously. If you're doing something like Olympic Games against a long-running program, you have the benefit of time. So it's a different game.

TEPPERMAN: Now, let me ask you a related question which you raised in your recent Sunday review piece which is what is the United States doing on the defensive end of cyber and are American defensive capabilities keeping up with the offensive ones.

SANGER: Well, the defensive capabilities are difficult because while the U.S. government has got the purview to solidify its own installations -- everything in the dot-mil world and the dot-gov world -- and it's made a lot of progress in doing that and President Obama pushed that along and I think President Bush did as well, although it's really gone into overdrive.

And of course, contractors have all learned at a moment that we are getting out of the, you know, heavy bomber, fighter, all the equipment that we used in Iraq and Afghanistan, that if you can start up a cyber-unit, your chances of attracting several billion dollars in contracts quickly are pretty good and then you can figure out later on what part of it you're going to go do. So there's a lot of money flowing around in cyber defense.

But the place where we are most vulnerable, of course, is in the private sector. It's in the dot-com area and the dot-net area. And there, there are enormous vulnerabilities because the U.S. government does not have the authority to go in and tell a power company or NASDAQ or Chase and Citibank and others how they're going to go do this. And there's a big battle underway in Congress right now over a piece of legislation that would essentially give the U.S. government more say on that issue.

And at the end of -- at the end of "Confront and Conceal," I described the scene where they gathered as many senators as they could pull together for a classified briefing in which they turn all the lights off in New York, except the Council on Foreign Relations, of course. Critical infrastructure has to keep moving. And the difficulties they would have in even having the U.S. government sort of go in to try to both stop this and restore it.

So that's been difficult. The related issue with offense, though, has been that President Obama was quite concerned during the debates they had that if the U.S. used these weapons regularly and it became known they were using them regularly, it could create a pretense for other countries to attack the United States. And you've heard a lot of that in the criticism of our coverage of these issues.

A couple of people in the intel and military communities said to me, how naive can we be. The Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians, others, they know exactly what it is we can do or they've got a pretty good idea. It's not as if they're waiting around for us to do it before they get started. And just think about the number of cyber-attacks you see on the U.S. infrastructure.

But they have not been of the kind that Olympic Games was which was half-designed to bring out -- bring down infrastructure in a way that previously we could only do by bombing something or blowing it up from the ground.

TEPPERMAN: And why is that, that we haven't seen the jump from the virtual to the physical world yet?

SANGER: Well, I think that a lot of other countries are concerned about retaliation. They don't know how good our forensic ability is to figure out where an attack came from. The fact of the matter is, in those cases where we've had to go do it in recent time, it hasn't been that good in real time.

It took a while to figure out where the Google attack in 2009 came from. Ultimately they concluded that it did come from China but there's some debate about the degree to which it was state-sponsored. And that becomes a big issue because supposing there's an attack on New York and you trace it back to China and you can't figure out if it was a group of organized criminals, a group of hackers or the state itself. And then, how do you respond? Do you turn off the lights in Beijing, you know? So it's a -- it's similar to the problem you have with a loose nuclear weapon where you're not sure if the state itself has delivered it.

TEPPERMAN: Let's take some questions from members on the floor. As a reminder, please wait until I call on you and then wait for the microphone and stand and give us your name and affiliation. Any questions please? Please?

QUESTIONER: My name is Ishaq Nadiri from New York University. I have a question about the future. This technology is evolving and everybody -- and it's become sort of a household among the states as we go along.

Now, would this mean that basically our warfare activity in the world would become basically drone and cyber activity and less of sending military people and so forth on the ground some years from now? And that -- what will this do to our peace and prosperity in the world if this technology just evolves the way we are describing? Thank you.

TEPPERMAN: Are we entering a world of war-by-remote-control?

SANGER: Well, I have a chapter that's actually called the remote-controlled war. It's to ask that question because President Obama has clearly embraced something that in the White House -- I don't know if frequently you heard this phrase as well, Dan -- but they called it a light footprint strategy.

KLAIDMAN: Absolutely, yeah.

SANGER: And the strategy is don't send troops if you can find a way to do it with drones, with cyber or with Special Forces. And the difference for Special Forces versus regular forces is they go in, you know, think the bin Laden raid -- they do what they need to do and they get out of town. They're not interested in being an occupying force.

And for the U.S. military, this is a very big change in thinking because I think many in the military viewed Afghanistan as the last big test of counterinsurgency. And what light footprint doesn't do is what counterinsurgency does.

It doesn't secure a population, doesn't make people feel safer. It doesn't build a school. It doesn't teach a community how to build power plants or do agriculture. It gets in and it gets out. And it may be very effective in some situations and not at all effective in others.

KLAIDMAN: Yeah, I agree with that. And I think, you know, it's very difficult to predict what the nature of the threat is going to be. And more conventional kind of warfare, you know, might end up being the best option for this president at this particular moment, given 10 years of land wars and occupations. It's what he's chosen as the most effective way to fight the threats that he thinks the country is confronting. But that could change.

TEPPERMAN: Next question, please? The lady in the second row?


TEPPERMAN: Just wait for the microphone please.

QUESTIONER: My name is Rita O'Connor. I know that the books -- or I think -- I haven't read either of the books so excuse me for that. But I think that they're not really about the political aspects of this. But I'd be interested in hearing your comments on this portrait of Obama that is suddenly emerging as a -- you know, aggressively embracing this drone strategy and how that plays out into his presidential race.

KLAIDMAN: Yeah, you know, it's interesting because I think over the past few months, maybe since the bin Laden operation, the White House -- now the Obama campaign -- has been very happy to let this president be portrayed as a steely commander, sort of, you know, unflinching in his pursuits of terrorists.

I'd say a couple of things. First of all, the Obama that I learned about in my reporting is a more complex character and in some ways more reassuring. You know, he does that this -- he is willing to pull the trigger and bin Laden operation and many other things that he's done in the shadows is evidence of that.

But he is also someone who kind of turns these issues over and over again in his head and has struggled with them. And sometimes, he's even sort of in quiet conversations with his closest aides wondered whether a particular drone strike was actually the right thing to do. How do we know he would say that this person was not involved in a local civil war as opposed to being a sort of demonstrable threat to the United States?

So I think that's admirable. In terms of the politics, I don't know what David thinks, but I think you'd really have to go back, you know, sort of two generations when Gene McCarthy, you know, pushed the Democratic Party to break with the Vietnam War when a Democratic president has been as strong on national security as Barack Obama. And people will pick apart his approach to the Arab Spring, his managing of the relationships with Russia and China.

But at the end of the day, in terms of pure electoral politics, I think people vote on national security in visceral terms. And they will say he kept the country strong. He projected strength and Mitt Romney can say as much as he wants, that he hasn't shown leadership, that he's been apologizing. And I don't think that's going to affect a whole lot of independents. So I think he's pretty strong on national security.

TEPPERMAN: David, just jump in there because it does seem that politically the White House has managed to neutralize defense and national security as a vulnerability.

SANGER: Well, you know, the polls would show that this is one of the few areas where he seems to be significantly ahead of Mitt Romney. Certainly in management of the economy he hasn't gotten very high grades compared to what voters think Mr. Romney could do. But in national security he has. Two quick things -- Dan alluded to this earlier. For the -- one of the things we've heard was these Situation Room conversations get laid out.

I think you heard several senators say, you know, make Obama sound strong and so forth and so on. Well, I covered the Clinton administration. I covered the Bush administration. I found the same thing in both.

You know, when there was a big problem that the president had to go deal with, whether it was Bosnia or whether it was the decision to invade Iraq or whatever, you would always get these readouts in which the president, you know, is making the decision against the dissent of several advisors who are telling him, oh, this could be too risky and you usually hear this, you know, when it works out well.

Well, that's what -- I'm sure if we had reporters here who covered the Jefferson administration and had there been a Situation Room there instead of a root cellar at the time, you would have heard the same things. I don't find that to be particularly remarkable.

But I do think what is interesting in this particular case is that you have the unique combination of a new president with very little experience in this and a series of new technologies that no one's ever had to go deal with before. And I think that's created some of these challenges and explains a little bit about why books like this are suddenly getting written.

TEPPERMAN: Next question. Here in the front please?

QUESTIONER: Thank you. My name is Roland Paul and I'm a lawyer. It's good to see you both here. I think this is in the context of what we're talking about. But President Obama made a speech I think it was before APAC, in which he said -- this has to do with Iran -- my policy is not containment and I am not kidding. What did he mean by that, as far as a prescription for action?

SANGER: We spent a lot of time trying to figure that out because he had not used the word containment publicly, although certainly he had expressed similar sentiments about the end of 2009. He said that he did not believe that he could contain a nuclear-armed Iran.

When I asked him in an interview in 2010 whether he thought it was possible to contain a nuclear-capable Iran -- that is, an Iran that builds right up to the line but doesn't quite put the weapon together -- he stopped for a moment and he said, I'm not going to parse that for you. And he hasn't parsed it since.

So I think the really interesting question that we simply don't know the answer to yet is was his statement limited to containment was not possible in the way that we contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

And when I've asked the question, the answer I've gotten back is that the president didn't believe that containment was possible against a nuclear-armed Iran because he believes it would be impossible to stop the onward proliferation that a nuclear-armed Iran would cause. Saudi Arabia, Egypt -- although they seem preoccupied with other problems right now -- many others in the region who would arm up against Iran, mostly Sunni states.

TEPPERMAN: Let's take another question please. All the way in the back, the gentleman on the right?

QUESTIONER: Josh Harlan, Harlan Capital Partners. In the last decade, there's been some pretty major changes to the national security apparatus, the creation of Homeland Security, the creation of the directorate of national intelligence. Having reported on national security for years and now that some years have passed since those changes were made, how do you assess the performance of these new organizations?

KLAIDMAN: A work in progress and they're still working out. You know, my book does not deal a whole lot with Homeland Security, the bureaucracy. But I know that it was a very difficult transition. There was a lot of opposition to Homeland Security.

And there was a lot of opposition to the DNI -- concerns about creating new layers of bureaucracy. And I think there's no question that that was true. I think in the case of Homeland Security, I can't remember what the exact number is. But hundreds of different committees and subcommittees of Congress have jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security.

And I've talked to people there who say that, you know, they spend all of their time responding to congressional committees and testifying on the Hill as opposed to worrying about the security of the United States. That's an oversimplification. But I think they are beginning to make progress. I'm not an expert on this area.

So I can't say for sure. But my sense is that they have begun to sort of streamline. In terms of the DNI, that's been a very difficult position. I don't know how many there've been now. There was Denny Blair, who didn't last very long.

SANGER: Negroponte before him.

KLAIDMAN: Negroponte before that. You know, I think that in some ways whoever -- the success of that organization depends on the character and the forcefulness of whoever leads it and if that person is able to get -- you know, to have influence with the president and the White House. And I think so it's in some ways going to depend on who leads those organizations. But in terms of the success of them structurally, I think it's too early to tell.

SANGER: Just a quick note on the DNI's office, when the idea first came up, the idea was to have a very small office, 50 or 60 people and to whom all of these, what, 16 or 17 intelligence agencies would report into. And they actually put them for a while into that collection of charming old buildings where the CIA started right opposite the State Department.

And then, it got a little bit bigger and they moved them out to Bowling Air Force Base. And now, you go out to the DNI's office, it's out past the CIA. It's in this huge office park. There are two towers. You get lost. You can't find it. You know, there are restaurants inside. And you say to yourself we built the super-bureaucracy to try to trim the super-bureaucracy. Now, maybe that's working but I haven't found many people in the intel world who sound totally satisfied with it.

TEPPERMAN: Next question, please? The lady in the second row here.

QUESTIONER: Thanks. Esther Dyson. This is almost the same question but not. Obama has disappointed a lot of people by going after whistleblowers and classifying even more information than people expected and I wondered if you could comment on that and how it affects your reporting.

SANGER: Esther, there have been more prosecutions of leakers in the Obama administration than I think all the previous administrations. There are some people who believe that it's something of a happenstance. A lot of cases that were sort of sitting around have come together at one time. But certainly the president has made statements that make it sound as if he's quite determined on this.

And what I haven't seen similar energy on is the question of narrowing -- there's been a little bit of movement but not much -- narrowing the number of things that they're classifying so that you're actually just classifying things that are truly, truly important. And when we did WikiLeaks a year-and-a-half or two years ago, I had the distinct privilege of being among the first to go through the 250,000 documents.

And fortunately, we had some big search engines to go do this. But the first thing we were able to sort out was that about 20 percent of the content roughly was local news reports that had been gathered up by embassies -- you know, some columnist in Portugal writing about politics in Lisbon. And then somebody in the embassy stamps it secret before they cable it back to Washington.

And you know, you begin at that point to wonder whether or not -- you know, just how broken the system is. I suspect Dan went through the same process, though. And just for those who wonder, in the case of WikiLeaks and certainly in the work I did for "Confront and Conceal," I went through the process the New York Times goes through, I suspect Newsweek goes through, which is you do your reporting and then you try to go to somebody fairly senior in the government and you say, OK, here is the story we are getting ready to put together.

If there is concern about lives, ongoing operations, future operations, it would be a really good time to have that conversation before we publish it instead of after it. and you know, I think that's a very important channel to keep open because that's really where the most important thing is done which is sorting out what's merely classified by reflex or what may be ancient history even though it's still classified from what is actually operationally important.

TEPPERMAN: And were there parts that you chose to leave out of your book?

SANGER: There were some technical details that I was asked if I could keep out and did.

KLAIDMAN: I went through the same process. In my case, it mostly had to do with sources and methods, particular source on an operation sometimes -- you know, something technical having to do with special operations forces do their work. And only in one instance did they actually ask me to hold something back. And you know, I completely agree with David. I mean, that is a channel that needs to remain open and --

TEPPERMAN: And you didn't fight back?

KLAIDMAN: I'm sorry?

TEPPERMAN: Did you hold back?

KLAIDMAN: I did. You know, and typically if I'm doing it for Newsweek, when the government says it would be harmful to national security if you printed that, you know, you don't just say OK.

That begins a conversation, a debate and then, you know, you exercise responsible judgment. Sometimes you find a way to report it without revealing everything. Sometimes you report it even though they've asked you not to but you've satisfied yourself that you won't be harming national security. So those conversations take place all the time.

SANGER: And sometimes you hold it for too long. I held for three years a story about the secret U.S. program to help the Pakistanis secure their nuclear weapons.

And finally, something happened in Pakistan and we went back to the government again and said, is there -- we withheld it because they didn't want the Taliban to realize how vulnerable some of these weapons were. And I went back and they said, oh yeah. They said, you guys haven't run that story yet? Yeah, you can run that. And they'd completely forgotten about it and so had I.

TEPPERMAN: So in that spirit, Dan, are you going to tell us what you held back?

KLAIDMAN: (Chuckles.) Well, I will tell you a funny story about something that the CIA asked -- I believe the CIA asked me to hold back which was I was reporting -- and the Times actually reported this in their story on Obama and his kill lists.

In the past month or two -- two months maybe -- Obama has relented on these -- you've probably read the stories -- on these signature strikes in Yemen, these strikes where you don't necessarily know the exact identity of the people you're going after. And signature strike has gotten to be, you know, sort of a pejorative term. They sometimes call it crowd killing.

And it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. If you don't have positive ID on the people you're targeting with these drone strikes. So the CIA actually changed the name of signature strikes from signature strikes to something called TADS -- T-A-D-S. And I had the acronym but I didn't know what it stood for. I had a couple of words. I kind of figured it out. Terrorist, T for terrorist, strike, S for strike and I was trying to find out, well, what does the A-D stand for.

And eventually I figured it out. It was Terrorist -- and now I'm -- it's terrorist attack disruption strike. And I was going to put it in my -- in Newsweek. And actually it was the excerpt from my book. And various agencies from the government were very unhappy about that. And I sort of could not understand why.

And they said, well, it's a classified term. And I said, well, why would it be classified? It doesn't make any sense. It's just a term to describe, you know, a particular kind of activity that we know takes place. And they asked me not to print it.

You know, I printed it anyway. And you know, so you can't just take on face value when the government says to you that's classified, that's going to harm national security. But they will ask often for you not to print things where there's no reason that they shouldn't be printed.

TEPPERMAN: Let's take another question please. This lady in the third row?

QUESTIONER: I'm Dina Temple-Raston with National Public Radio. And the question I have is kind of a 20,000-foot question, having read both your books. And I wonder if what you discovered overall is that the Obama administration is sort of grappling with the role America has as a post-superpower-power or whether it's too early to ask that question. The light footprint seems to fit into that.

SANGER: Dina, I don't think it's too early to ask that question at all because I think that's really the subtext of both of these books. If you think about those two elements I described of the Obama doctrine -- so, you know, what president wouldn't act if we're facing a direct threat. Of course you do.

But the definition of what's an indirect threat where we can pull back, that's where you really being to separate out different visions of what the American role in the world is. And for President Obama, I think that he has taken very much a position that the U.S. can neither afford nor has the political will anymore to take the kind of steps that we did before.

So in some cases, I think many Americans fully understood when he said in the Libya case there was no direct threat to the United States and it was time that if NATO, which was under it felt much more direct threat, or the Arab League was going to have to get in there and play the lead. And I think people understood that. I think it's a harder thing when you get to something like the Arab Spring.

So here the president gave a really rousing speech about the defense of democracy in May 2011 a few months after most of the Arab Spring states had begun to go. And something he had thought about a lot, he had commissioned a presidential study directive secretly in 2010. I write about this some to try to understand what would happen if these states collapsed.

But then you look out at the action side since May 2011 when he gave that speech and we have committed very few funds. I mean, we're not talking about Marshall Plans here. We're barely talking anything at all. And we forget we're in a competitive world on this. I went to Egypt in January and Tom Friedman and David Kirkpatrick, our bureau chief -- wonderful bureau chief in Cairo, we all went together to the Muslim Brotherhood party headquarters. And we had a nice chat with them about what their plans were for the elections and how they weren't going to run a candidate for president. He won yesterday, by the way, and so forth.

And at the end of the conversation, one of the people we were interviewing turned to me and said, you know, it's interesting you're up here in this conference room. You know who was here two days ago? And I said, no, who? And he said, the Chinese.

And I said, what did they have to say? And he said, well, they think the Suez Canal's looking pretty shabby, and you know, it may be time for some new cargo handling. They can't get their big tankers in, stuff getting -- slowing things down to Wal-Mart, they're really getting angry. And you know, they might even be willing to go manage the canal as well.

Now, very possible the Chinese were blowing smoke. They say they're going to go off and do a lot of things but in some places they go off and do them. but it's a reminder that in this idea that we can just sort of pull back, just use light footprint, there are going to be some other areas of competition, most of them in the economic world, where we will see our influence decline if we just decide that we're not playing.

TEPPERMAN: All the way in the back on the left please?

QUESTIONER: I'm Tony Miller with PAG based in Asia. Apropos of Mr. Sanger's statement, it seems today we have a substantial competitive advantage, technological competitive advantage in cyber war and in drones.

It's inconceivable that the Chinese won't be able to catch up with that relatively quickly. Would either of you care to speculate on what the world looks like when we have a bipolar world with two countries with equal capacity in cyber war and in drone warfare?

SANGER: Dan can probably speak better to drones than I can, but on cyber, I'm not sure we've got much of a technological advantage. It seems to me the Chinese are doing pretty well.

KLAIDMAN: On drones, you know, we probably still do a little bit. It won't last, as you say. That's something that actually people inside the administration who deal with this stuff sometimes would debate, particularly in the Chinese context.

And there's a term that you sometimes hear -- reciprocity -- which is that if we're doing this, if we're going after the people who we deem to be terrorists around the world, what's to stop the Chinese from doing the same thing to those who they believe are terrorists -- saw the Uyghurs, you know, who are -- we consider to be dissidents, although we held a whole lot of them in Guantanamo for eight years.

But you know, this isn't going to happen but there are Uyghur communities in Northern Virginia and California and are we providing the justification for the Chinese to go after their terrorists the way we go after ours. It's a concern. I don't think that's a real threat. But that concept is something that's being discussed.

QUESTIONER: Will it be a more bipolar world when the Chinese have comparable capabilities to our own?

SANGER: You know, I think drones and cyber are both cheap enough and the technology broad enough that it will probably be -- it's much more multipolar. I think it's going to spread much faster than, say, nuclear did. It may be more like biological weapons or chemical weapons in that regard. And you know, the U.S. is doing everything it can to stay out ahead too.

If you go out to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which is where Wilbur and Orville Wright actually did their early airplane test, they now have something called the aviary which is full of all of the coolest tiniest little drones, some of them down to sort of butterfly size, to do surveillance.

KLAIDMAN: Or these switchblade drones, I think they're called --

SANGER: Right.

KLAIDMAN: -- which soldiers can carry in their backpacks.

SANGER: We should have forgotten about the books and gone right to the T.V. series. Clearly I'm not part of it.

TEPPERMAN: Let's take two last questions please -- the gentleman here and then the gentleman here.

QUESTIONER: Edward Bleier. Would you go back to Pakistan please? For a president so concerned about nuclear proliferation, why is he being so aggressive with the leakiest nuclear nation in the world, Pakistan?

TEPPERMAN: Let's take the next question together and then you can answer them both.

QUESTIONER: Ron Jacobs, the East Wind Advisors. Earlier on, you had made an oblique reference to CISPA. Do you support CISPA or do you think it's a violation of our constitutional right to privacy?

SANGER: Pakistan -- on Pakistan, I take it your question is why are we pushing the Pakistanis so hard when they have so many nuclear weapons. And I think I might flip the question around, which is what is it that you have not heard from President Obama.

I mean, here you have a president who declared that he wanted to bring nuclear weapons down to zero around the world, maybe not in his lifetime but at least move in that direction. And Pakistan is the fastest growing nuclear country on Earth. And not only are they building quickly -- they only have a hundred or so or a hundred and twenty at this point -- but they're building a more mobile tactical weapon that they can move right up to the Indian border.

And the concern is it's much easier to steal as well. And yet, you've never heard these discussions out of the White House, at least publicly. And the contrast is between what the president has said publicly, which is we have no concerns about Pakistani nuclear security.

And the WikiLeaks cables from Anne Patterson, the American ambassador until a year ago -- she's now in Cairo -- that showed extraordinary concern about what was happening in the laboratories, the failure of the Pakistanis to return some American-owned nuclear material.

And then there's a chapter in "Confront and Conceal" called bomb scare which is all about four days in 2009 when the administration was concerned that the Taliban -- Pakistani Taliban -- may have actually obtained a nuclear weapon or the material for a dirty bomb. It turned out to be a false alarm but they sent a nuclear search team out to the Gulf.

And it really changed the way they thought about the Pakistani problem. And it was I think a big element in their coming to the conclusion that Afghanistan is not strategically vital to the United States over the next few years but Pakistan really is.

TEPPERMAN: Dan, last word on this or --

KLAIDMAN: Just that, you know, they would be pushing the Pakistanis a lot harder if they didn't have nuclear weapons. And I think it was Biden when he first came in who coined the term PakAf as opposed to AfPak. They, I think, have understood how high stakes this is.

TEPPERMAN: We're out of time. Thank you all for coming. Please join me in thanking our guests. (Applause.)






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