December 7, 2011


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. The future of American-style war. (Michael Hirsh, May 15, 2011, National Journal)

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.

Posted by at December 7, 2011 5:43 AM

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