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How The President Decides To Make Drone Strikes


Yesterday, the White House reported that one of the seven drone strikes in Pakistan over the past two weeks killed al-Qaida's number two leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi. The Pakistani government called in a senior U.S. diplomat in Islamabad to protest, yet again, that the strikes violate international law and Pakistan's national sovereignty. In India today, though, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made it clear that these targeted attacks on terrorists will continue. This, he said, is about our sovereignty as well.

Last week, Newsweek excerpted a portion of Daniel Klaidman's new book, "Kill or Capture," that pulls back the curtain on the Obama administration's intense closed-door process of deciding where to strike and whom to kill. The author joins us now from our bureau in New York. And, Daniel Klaidman, thanks very much for being with us today.

DANIEL KLAIDMAN: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And there's a couple of meetings that you described in some detail, but, perhaps, this was a policy that was in place in the Bush administration. It was one that President Obama inherited, and, indeed, one of the very first strikes that happened after his administration took office went terribly wrong.

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.

CONAN: And it was a policy, I guess, he once described as kill'em now and sort'em out later.

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?

How do we know that this particular individual was not involved in a local insurgency or a civil war? So he was wrestling with these issues all the way through. And yet, there is this kind of inexorable momentum toward more violence rather than less, and you can see that sort of trend through his presidency.

CONAN: You mentioned earlier John Brennan, the anti-terrorism advisor. The other man you mentioned, Cartwright, was Hoss Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who plays a critical role in the president's evolution as they're considering a strike in Somalia.

KLAIDMAN: That's right. And one important distinction is between CIA drone strikes and the military's program. The CIA program is covert. The president has generally approved the program, but he does not sign off on individual strikes. The military program, however, Obama insisted that he sign off on those individual targeted killings. And very early in his presidency, in March of 2009, he has a meeting with the military brass, and they present to him what they call a kinetic opportunity, an opportunity to go after a particular militant in Somalia associated with the Shabab, which is the al-Qaida-linked organization in Somalia.

They don't know exactly where he is, but they believe he's in - there's a sort of a series of training camps in the south of the country. But the thinking is, well, we can just go after these camps. The only people who are going to be there are military-age males. So basically it's one of the signature strikes that they're proposing. 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 he very carefully uses the phase carpet bombing and says, you know, we want to go after people who we know are clear and demonstrable threats against the United States. But carpet bombing a country sets a very bad precedent. And the president said, I'm with you on that. And that was an important moment as well because the president, for most of his first term, did resist these signature strikes in places like Yemen and Somalia. He allowed the CIA to do it in Pakistan where our intelligence was much better because have been doing it for so long. But he resisted signature strikes in Somalia and Yemen, and only recently has he begun to relent on that point.

He was worried about what he would call mission creep or sometimes requirement creep, and it was this idea that, you know, if he start going after large numbers of suspected terrorists or militants in these countries that also have their local insurgencies, you might get sucked into those civil conflicts. 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.

CONAN: Which raises the question of Yemen. There have been more strikes this year in Yemen than in Pakistan, and that is significant. And there are those who say, wait a minute. Yes, the campaigns are taking out important officials of al-Qaida; AQAP, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. On the other hand, they are also creating martyrs. And, look, the situation is getting worse. They're helping AQAP recruit.

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.

CONAN: We're talking with Daniel Klaidman, author of "Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And there is a picture you paint of these three men. Brennan and Cartwright and the president of the United States become sort of this triumvirate who have to make decisions about whether to kill people or not from a great distance away based on information that is, well, intelligence reports.

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.

It's quite extraordinary and also extraordinary that the president himself insisted on making the decisions himself. There's some precedent for that. It happens sometimes, but never quite as systematic as in the case of President Obama.

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. And at first, I think he found them to be quite intimidating. They were run by the military, and the military has all of its jargon and this ability to create a sense of kind of do-or-die urgency. And, you know, Harold Koh was no wallflower, but he was - he had a hard time speaking up early on in these meetings.

And, you know, he would ask himself, how did I go from being a law professor to being someone involved in killing? I used to memorize the names and faces of my law students, these sort of, you know, bright-eyed idealists who wanted to use the law to change the world, and now I'm memorizing my own government's kill lists. Jeh Johnson, on the other hand, had been in government before. He was more of a centrist, and he was the general counsel at the Pentagon. And so institutionally, he was a little bit more conservative than Harold Koh. But he went though his own transformation.

And he went - participated in his first - one of these kill meetings. They call them civitses(ph). He had about 45 minutes before the meeting to decide whether it would be legal to go after a series of targets. And when he was asked by Tom Donilon, the national security advisor, he said, is Jeh Johnson on the line? And Johnson said, yes. And Donilon said, well, what's it going to be? Can we take the shot? And Johnson said, well, yes, we can. But afterwards, he felt somewhat uncomfortable about it. He didn't know whether he had all of the facts. He didn't know whether he understood the laws well enough.

And late that evening, he actually went up to the command center at the Pentagon, and he was able to see this particular strike in real time. He watched it on what the military calls Kill TV. It's a live feed from the battlefield. This was a training camp in Yemen. And he could see this sort of - look like toy soldiers scurrying around a, you know, a grainy landscape. And then all of a sudden, there's a big flash of light, and then they're gone. And he went home late that night drained and exhausted. And at one point, he said to a friend, if I were Catholic, I'd have to go to confession. He had learned that in that particular case, a large number of civilians were killed, many women and children.

So there's an emotional toll on these people who are making these decisions. You know, we sometimes think about these drone strikes, people firing these missiles from thousands of miles away and that they're morally detached. My sense from a lot of reporting for this book is that these decisions are not made lightly. There's an enormous amount of debate and, quite frankly, a fair amount of angst as well.

CONAN: Daniel Klaidman, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate that look inside.

KLAIDMAN: Happy to be with you.

CONAN: Daniel Klaidman's book, "Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency." He joined us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, we'll talk about how you prove you're an American Indian. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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