from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

You Might Have Missed: David Sanger’s Revelations

June 22, 2012

U.S. president Barack Obama on the phone in the Oval Office in Washington, DC (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).
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This week, I’ve compiled highlights from David Sanger’s recently released book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, that address national security concerns, from cyberwars to drone strikes and targeted killings.

So now, every three months or so, the Americans try to meet the Pakistani nuclear establishment, as discreetly as possible. The United States is represented by Thomas D’Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, and Robert Einhorn at the State Department; the Pakistanis are represented by General Kidwai and his staff. Because of huge Pakistani sensitivities, the meetings are never announced, and to avoid discovery and the inevitable questions that would follow, they take place in cities where the participants can slip in and out unnoticed, from London to Abu Dhabi. One administration official said the process has impressed the White House with “how seriously the Pakistanis take nuclear security, perhaps more seriously than anyone else in the world.” Nevertheless, U.S. officials still fear things could rapidly spiral out of control if Pakistan ever imploded, an eventuality, he added, that “you can’t handle with better training and equipment.” (66-67)

(3PA: Sanger also points out, “Pakistan, as Obama told his staff in late 2011, could ‘disintegrate’ and set off a scramble for its weapons. It was his biggest single national security concern, he told them—and the scenario he had the least power to prevent.” [112])

They saw no other option: when they asked the CIA to bring them, one more time, the array of “kinetic options”—physical attacks on Iran’s facilities from the air or from the ground—none of them looked workable. “It was a very short conversation,” one participant in the review said later. (192-193)

And the core of the American argument [to Israel] was simple: attack Iran, and you set the program back a few years, but you solve nothing. “We wanted to make it abundantly clear that an attack would just drive the program more underground,” one of the key participants in the talks that day told me later. “The inspectors would be thrown out. The Iranians would rebuild, more determined than ever. And eventually, they would achieve their objective.” (229-230)

“But there are two big ways we can make mistakes,” he [senior intelligence official] added. “One is to forget that sometimes a light footprint can cost you more in the long run than going into a place with a much more decisive force—that was the lesson in Afghanistan. And the second is to fall in love with a whiz-bang technology, because it’s easy to justify relying on it more and more. And that’s when a tactical weapon can begin defining your strategy.” (244)

No one is more frustrated by this silence [over CIA drone strikes] than American diplomats in Islamabad. They argue—on background, of course, because they are taking on the White House—that Obama’s refusal to move at least some of the program out into the open is making it impossible to answer critics of the strikes who appear on Pakistani television several times a week, charging that a strike has killed children or other civilians. Oftentimes, the diplomats tell me, those charges are just wrong. “We are doing ourselves a disservice,” one senior American diplomat said to me. The secrecy prevents Americans from explaining who was hit, why they were on the list, and whether there was any collateral damage—and to admit to mistakes when they happen. The result is that the Taliban wins the propaganda war, fueling the argument inside Pakistan that culminated in the April 2012 vote in the Pakistani parliament to ban all drone strikes. (250-251)

It is a subject I have discussed at length with many different officials inside the government—from policymakers to intelligence officials to the lawyers who work on the elaborate legal rationales for what can be struck, and what cannot. And in the administration’s own deliberations on the policy, you can detect a distinct unease, because they know that while the weapon is far more accurate than it once was, they have become far more dependent on it—some say addicted to it—than ever before.

“Overdependent, in my mind,” one current official involved in the debate said to me late in 2011. “Let’s face it: These days, it’s our only way into Pakistan. We can’t put Special Forces on the ground—it was hard before the bin Laden raid, and it’s just about impossible now.” Impossible because the Pakistanis have thrown out most of the American trainers who helped Pakistani forces focus on insurgents, and Pakistan has denied visas for many CIA operatives. So, as the official said, “The only option, when you have actionable intelligence, is to send in a Predator and conduct the strike as accurately as you can. I think that’s a wise policy.” But he also acknowledged that “it’s hard to distinguish this, in a practical sense, from targeted assassination.” (254-255)

As the meeting of the NSC convened on the afternoon of March 15, Obama was presented with satellite photos and other intelligence that Qaddafi’s forces had already reached the town of Ajdabiya, the final stop on the way to Benghazi. It would be days, if not hours, before the Libyan military would launch an assault that could result in the massacre of thousands. But the only options presented to Obama involved doing nothing or enforcing a no-fly zone—which was close to doing nothing.

“What are we discussing at the UN? A no-fly zone?” Obama asked, turning to Admiral Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Mike, is a no fly zone going to stop anything we just heard about from happening?” Mullen shook his head. “No sir.”

“Well, then what we are even discussing here? Why are we even having this meeting? Obama snapped, according to participants in the session. “If you’re telling me that this guy is tearing through his country, about to overrun this city of seven hundred thousand people, and potentially kill thousands of people—why is the option I’m looking at one that will do nothing to stop that scenario?”

Nobody in the room knew what to say. (343)

(3PA: As I pointed out at the time, a no-fly zone (NFZ) would have a negligible impact on protecting civilians in Libya. Eventually, of course, a NFZ was implemented, albeit selectively enforced.)