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Atlantic: Obama's Romance With the CIA

May 13, 2011

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In a post for the Atlantic, Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent for the National Journal, looks at the Obama administration's growing reliance on hard power and the relationship developing between the U.S. military and the CIA.

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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