Obama’s war on terrorism: “take no prisoners” execution

In the war on terrorism, the Bush priority was to capture & interrogate – for Obama it is execution

by Eric Shierman

The New York Times broke an interesting story over the weekend about how the Obama administration became so concerned that Romney might win that it suddenly began cramming to formulate rules for the use of drones in targeted killings lest the acceptance of Obama’s unprecedented use of this lethal new method of assassination fall into Republican hands.

armed drone

Lethal it is. Over the course of two terms Bush authorized just 40 drone strikes; Obama has already authorized 300 before being sworn into his second term. Bush approved several messy shots that ended up killing innocent bystanders, but for the most part Bush’s parsimonious use of armed drones were one-shot-one-kill events. Obama’s eagerness to take nearly any shot, even on some of the flimsiest intelligence has been documented to have killed at least 2,500 people, a tremendous amount of collateral damage in the pursuit of a small number of isolated asymmetric warriors.


The now non-existent anti-war movement that dissolved itself upon Obama’s election in 2008, folks like Portland Peaceful Response who began protesting our invasion of Afghanistan in September 2001 before it even began, probably had no idea Obama would be willing to sacrifice the lives of so many innocent women and children who happened to be selling goat milk to the wrong guy at the wrong time. In his book Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, Newsweek’s Daniel Klaidman brilliantly connects the dots between Obama’s detention policy and his trigger-happy use of armed drones.

kill or capture_0

A lesser concern over collateral damage is not what sets the Obama administration apart from its predecessor. The major difference in the Bush years was a priority to capture terrorists without firing a shot and interrogate them so as to understand the enemy and proactively deter them as an organization. The Bush administration was thus disposed toward cooperating with unseemly regimes and even more unseemly non-state actors so the CIA could get its hands on high level Al Qaeda operatives from what were by definition non-lethal kidnappings.

One of the first things the Obama administration did was to not only put an end to this, and the CIA’s special interrogation techniques, but to put the CIA out of the detention business entirely. The new administration also sought to close down the military’s Guantanamo Bay prison and transfer all existing and future detainees into our civilian court system. Klaidman’s book details the internal debates where Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and Rahm Emanuel stood united in opposition but Eric Holder forcefully pushed this change of policy through using his close personal relationship with Obama to full advantage. It was politically unpopular at the time, but out of principle the new attorney general willingly stepped on to one public opinion land mine after another.

While this great expenditure of political capital was going on however, our war against Al Qaeda had not exactly ended. There was still a great deal of what Holder considered to be ill-gotten intelligence in the pipeline to apprehend more terrorists, but what could we do with them? The Department of Justice was still wracking its brain trying to figure out how to try these people in a civilian court without compromising classified sources and methods. Without the secret evidence, a guy like Khalid Sheikh Muhammad would walk, and it’s hard to see how under our Fourth Amendment a confession could be accepted from a guy that was waterboarded. Meanwhile more targets of opportunity were presenting themselves, including a target that could not have been made possible without waterboarding, Osama Bin Laden himself. By default, Obama’s war on terrorism was quite literally being forced into a “take no prisoners” execution.

It helped that a loyal Democratic pol was in charge at the CIA as Klaidman reports:

Though initially skeptical of Panetta’s appointment as CIA director, agency veterans learned to appreciate his close ties to Obama. In October 2009 Panetta brought a CIA wish list of counterterrorist requests to a White House Situation Room meeting. He asked Obama for ten items, thinking he might get half of them. At the end of the meeting Obama said: “The CIA gets what it wants.” Panetta got everything, including more Predator drones, authority to go after larger “target boxes” in Pakistan (the designated areas in the tribal regions where the CIA was permitted to operate), and increased resources for the agency’s secret paramilitary forces. “We’re conducting the most aggressive operations in our history as an agency,” Panetta would comment. “That largely flows from this president and how he views the role of the CIA.”

Obama followed the CIA operations closely, but the program became a quasi obsession for Rahm Emanuel. The White House chief of staff kept tabs on the hunt for high-value targets with an avidity that left even some CIA veterans uncomfortable. He was especially attentive during the summer of 2009 when Predator and Reaper drones were prowling the skies high above the Hindu Kush on the lookout for Baiullah Mehsud, the bloodthirsty leader of the Pakistani Taliban who was believed to be behind the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and scores of suicide bombings, The CIA had taken more than a dozen shots without striking their quarry. Emanuel repeatedly called Panetta or his chief of staff, Jeremy Bash, to see if they’d had a successful hit. When they finally took Mehsud out in August 2009, Emanuel celebrated. He had a hawkish side to him, having volunteered with the Israeli Defense Forces as a civilian during the 1991 Gulf War. But above all, Emanuel recognized that the muscular attacks could have a huge political upside for Obama, insulating him against charges that he was weak on terror. “Rahm was transactional about these operational issues,” recalled a senior Pentagon official. “He always wanted to know ‘how’s this going to help my guy’ the president.”

Though the program was covert, Emanuel pushed the CIA to publicize its kinetic successes. When Mehsud was killed, agency public affairs officers anonymously trumpeted their triumph, leaking colorful tidbits to trusted reporters on the intelligence beat. Newspapers described the hit in cinematic detail, including the fact that Mehsud was blown up on the roof of his father-in-law’s compound while his wife was massaging his legs.

What didn’t get publicized by the Obama administration was those eleven prior Hellfire missiles fired at innocent men and their families who turned out not to be Mehsud, but every one of these mistakes is publicized very dramatically in the Islamic world’s media, inspiring the next generation of Bin Ladens.


Bush’s secret but quiet kidnappings using shady methods had far less an impact on the noncombatants our enemies are naturally surrounded by. Somehow killing far more innocent people than we need to became preferred to imprisoning our enemies. What a classic case of the unintended consequences of government policy that Klaidman has uncovered:

While Washington was erupting in partisan fury over Guantanamo and detainees, the war on terror was accelerating in quiet, distant, yet deadly fashion. Barack Obama’s ferocious campaign of targeted killings was for many the central paradox of his war on terror. While running for president, he had railed against waterboarding, illegal detentions, and the Bush administration’s penchant for secrecy. In lofty speeches, he promised to restore America’s reputation as a benign superpower, a paragon of international law and human rights. But a year into his presidency, the most noticeable strategic shift in his fight against Al Qaeda was the unrelenting use of hard, lethal power in the form of the CIA’s covert drone program. By the time Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009, he had authorized more drone strikes than George W. Bush had approved during his entire presidency. (There were only 9 strikes conducted in Pakistan between 2004 and 2007. In 2010 there were 111.) By his third year in office, Obama had approved the killings of twice as many suspected terrorists as had ever been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

Beyond the noted loss of potential human intelligence from captured terrorists, the CIA has been quite comfortable with this state of affairs, but the military has not. It came to a head in September 2009 when sudden actionable intelligence emerged to target Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan who was believed to be involved in the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Drones were not available and the weather in Somalia at the time prevented the use of a fixed wing airstrike. Klaidman reports that Joint Special Operations Commander Admiral William McRaven gave the White House three options: a cruise missile strike with thermal targeting that could pierce the cloud cover but might miss this small moving target, use attack helicopters which would guarantee a confirmed kill but also kill everyone around him, or execute a “snatch and grab” to take him alive.

As the cruise missile strike was ruled out in favor of an up close and personal direct action, Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General James Cartwright became worried about how dismissive the White House was of making a capture and he confronted the president about it. What if Nabhan surrendered or was only wounded, then what?

The CIA was out of the interrogation business, its secret black sites shut down by Obama’s executive order. Moving Nabhan to Guantanamo was out of the question, since the administration’s committed policy was to transfer detainees out of there, not in. The detention facility at the US air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, wouldn’t work either; the White House didn’t want the prison to become the new Guantanamo. Turning him over to the host government, as they might have done in Pakistan or Afghanistan, was also not an option in anarchic Somalia. Finally, bringing Nabhan to the United States for prosecution or prolonged detention was a political nonstarter for the Obama White House.

Given these circumstances, Kleidman reports General Cartwright felt he had to be very clear and direct with Obama:

He warned the president that the military could not afford to be “trapped in a no-quarters environment.” Obama did not understand the military idiom. Cartwright explained that under the laws of war the military was required to take the target of an operation into custody if he surrendered or was wounded. “We do not have a plausible capture strategy,” Cartwright told the president.

Kleidman found that no one was surprised by the president’s final decision:

As everyone left the meeting that evening, it was clear that the only viable plan was the lethal one. That night, Obama signed off on Operation “Celestial Balance.” The next morning Somali villagers saw several low-flying attack helicopters emerging over the horizon. Several AH-6 Little Birds, deployed from US naval ships off the Somali coast, approached the convoy, strafing Nabhan’s jeep and another vehicle. Nabhan and three other people were killed. One of the helicopters landed long enough for a small team of commandos to scoop up some of Nabhan’s remains – the DNA needed to prove he was dead.

I have a great deal of sympathy for what Eric Holder has been trying to do, but it’s hard to see how it is possible for us to remain fully compliant with our own laws and treaty commitments while remaining fully engaged in trying to influence the Middle East in a way that will continue to make us a target of stateless combatants like Al Qaeda and whatever will eventually replace them. Symbolic liberal gestures about not illegally detaining people, demanding that we subject accused terrorists’ confinement to the due process of law has managed to create a presidential authority that now regularly imparts arbitrary capital punishment on people whose names deservedly or not find their way onto a “kill list” some of whom are American citizens. In this global Star Chamber it is not just the accused that get executed; every death sentence the president signs off on involves the killing of a significant number of innocent bystanders. This could very well be the American way for decades upon decades to come.

Rather than worry about this power falling into Republican hands, perhaps Obama might consider how this is being driven by the contradiction of his detention policy and his foreign policy. Obama wants to side with Eric Holder, but he also wants to bask in the glory of exercising American military power. Obama cannot have it both ways. If he does not like Bush’s secret prisons, the president needs to consider how America’s intervention in world affairs makes them inevitable.

Eric Shierman lives in southwest Portland and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change. He also writes for the Oregonian’s My Oregon blog. 

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Posted by at 05:00 | Posted in President Obama, Terrorism | 108 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Rupert in Springfield

    It’s nice to see more people pointing this out. During the Bush administration the main drone attacks were from the sanctimonious. We constantly heard how concerned they were about peoples rights. The “horrors” of waterboarding.

    In the Obama world we now find out all those people were complete and utter stooges. They didn’t give a rip about waterboarding. They didn’t care at all about peoples “rights”. Oh sure you will here the mealy mouthed mumbling from some that there are those displeased with Obama on these issues as well. However that’s all crap. Where are they with the parades of skull faced figures burning Obama in effigy as they did Bush then?

    The answer is nowhere. The answer is, as I said before the election, in the end the 99% will vote 99% for Obama. Like those who whored the GITMO prisoners because their supposed suffering suited the lefts political ends – the occupy crowd was the same thing. A group of stooges who professed rage at the lack of corporate accountability yet would in the end bow down before a man who has not had one single prosecution of a major corporate officer of a major financial institution.

    These groups, the perpetually indignant, will be quiet for now. The drone strikes will continue and Obamas notorious crony capitalism will likely increase. In about three years time, when a Repbulican candidate emerges, the droning will begin anew. The professed concern about ties to large corporations or war mongering that had been supresed will re emerge. The perpetually indignant will be reinforced by the professionally indignant. Moral apoplexy will ensure and righteousness will be asserted. The quadrenial silly season will have begun anew and the drones can feel good about themselves, superior, all over again.

    • crabman34

      You are both being so revisionist it is infuriating. In fact, this conversation is precisely why this blog, and Rupert and Shierman specifically, is/are so irritating. Your (very-warranted) criticisms are both completely right and terribly cynical. You seem to now be finding your anti-war hat and it conveniently appears at a time when you can criticize the current reckless president and somehow manage to lionize the reckless former.

      Let’s not pretend that Bush was some paragon of restraint in the “war on terror.” Yes, he used drone attacks far less than Obama and that is an issue that should be hammered more. He also started a war, in the name of combatting fundamentalistic islamic terrorism, with a country that had no links to terrorism and no weapons or money to with which to support terrorism.

      Yes, the anti-war movement and the progressives should be hammering Obama more, but if you paid closer attention to those communities, you’d see that they have been struggling with this. Obama should not be forgiven for continuing Bush’s war on terror, for failing to dismantle Cheney’s expansion of executive power, for failing to close Gitmo. Period. But don’t act like this is something that he created out of whole cloth. This is Bush’s child, he does not get a pass for having used the power less than Obama. They are both war criminals in my mind.

      What galls in both this column and Rupert’s comment is that you cloak your conservative scorn for Obama and liberals in a false concern over drone warfare and collateral damage (especially you Rupert, who spend most of your comment attacking the people who you think should be more concerned, rather than expressing concern yourself).

      • http://www.facebook.com/eshierman Eric Shierman

        I think you need to read my last two paragraphs again. If you have been familiar with my writing, you would know I have been very critical of Bush for many things, the invasion of Iraq among them.

        The invasion of Iraq was one of the greatest strategic errors in American history. I actually marched with Portland Peaceful Response against it while Senate Democrats like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were voting for it. In 2002 the most influential book on this matter was Kennith Pollack’s The Threatening Storm: the case for Invading Iraq. He was Al Gore’s chief Middle East policy advisor during the 2000 presidential campaign and was the front-runner to become his National Security Advisor. Pollack later headed the Sabin Center for Mideast Policy at the Brookings Institute and remains a pillar of the Democratic Party’s foreign affairs establishment.

        The root problem here is that the world is a terrible and nasty place and as long as the United States chooses to attempt the central planing of geopolitics from Washington our government will have to do terrible and nasty things to people regardless of what party controls the White House. From Clinton to Obama what we are seeing is the American left returning to its hawkish Wilsonian roots now that the Cold War has been taken out of the picture. Somewhere along the way they figured out that American military leadership of the world is the most popular New Deal jobs program.

        I reject American hegemony not out of a spit on the veterans and burn the American flag way pioneered by the New Left in the Anti-Vietnam War era. I reject American military leadership of the world for the same reason that I reject government subsidies for wind farms; the costs exceed the benefits.

        • valley person

          So Eric, there is no ethical or moral issue here? Costs and benefits? That’s all you care about?

          If true, that is sad dude.

          My own take, as one who also protested against the Iraq invasion, but who supported the initial Afghan war, is that Obama’s use of drones has been measured. 300 strikes in 4 years is not very many. Bush did fewer, but drone technology was still new, and we can suppose he would have done more had he had (God forbid) another term. Drones allow us to hit targets pretty much anywhere.

          I’ve argued on other blogs with my fellow leftists about Obama and drones. I always come back to, “what is your alternative?” Withdrawing from the field, as Eric suggests, is something I could support if we really were willing to turn the Us into Canada or Norway, which would be fine by me on many fronts. But if we are going to be the world’s cop, I’d rather be that cop using drones than invading countries. Its a lot less lethal method for ll concerned, including the goat milk sellers.

          • jeannie

            So Valley Person, what is the ethical or moral issue here? Is “humanitarian” war morally superior to the old-fashioned variety? How about aiding and abetting proxy “rebels” to overthrow secular Arab states? Plenty of collateral damage with that continuing fiasco. Not to mention an ambassador and his would-be rescuers sacrificed for the greater good – of the administration, that is.

        • Rupert in Springfield

          >The invasion of Iraq was one of the greatest strategic errors in American history.

          Yet another example.

          “Mr. Sulu – Please note in the ships log we have encountered yet another example of a conservative being honest and forthright in criticism of a Republican policy that was in fact wrong.”

          • 3H

            LOL.. wow.

            Do you believe that the Left doesn’t criticize Obama?

          • UnitedWeStand

            To think that there is a difference between a Democrat or Republican is pretty naive. They are professional politicians who will change their positions as quick as a chameleon will change color to blend into his environment, or in the politicians case to acheive power. The uniformed voters either has MSNBC = (D) or FoxNews = (R) tuned on the TV to do their thinking for them, and then absorb those “talking points” as facts. I’m OK with colonialism, just give it to me straight and be honest with me, tell me how in the end its going to be for my best interest.

      • Rupert in Springfield

        >You are both being so revisionist it is infuriating.

        I’m not sure you understand what the word “revisionist” means since my post was about events happening now, not in the past.

        That is, unless you are going to contend it is revisionist to assert the left went gaga over GITMO, waterboarding et. al under Bush.

        >You seem to now be finding your anti-war hat and it conveniently

        Can you point out where I made any anti war statements?

        Again this is a word usage problem.

        My post was not about being “anti war”. It was about being “anti whore”.

        As in the way the left pimped out the GITMO prisoners, waterboarding subjects etc. when it suited them, but now such matters are of so much less concern to them.

        >Let’s not pretend that Bush was some paragon of restraint in the “war on terror.”

        Who ever said that.

        Your thoughts are uncoordinated. My post had nothing to do with any assertion Bush was restrained. My most was about how the left were stooges as revealed by the disparities in their criticism between presidents.

        >Yes, the anti-war movement and the progressives should be hammering
        Obama more, but if you paid closer attention to those communities, you’d
        see that they have been struggling with this.

        My wife is a left wing Democrat. Virtually all my friends are left wing. I live just moments outside of Eugene.

        Please, don’t be an idiot here.

        Your assertion that I would have to “pay close attention” to notice the lefts angst now, when under Bush all I had to do was turn on the news to watch a parade of protests in the streets is indictment enough.

        The bottom line is the left never really gave a crap about any of this under Bush. What they wanted was the issue, so they whored out the supposed victims and then after the election they said “screw em”.

        You want to maintain otherwise?

        You want to maintain the left really cared about the issue? Then explain why there is nowhere near the public condemnation of Obama that there was under Bush.

        Go ahead. It will give me another opportunity to say whore, which, by the way, you should hear me say in real life. Because I can say “whore” in a manner unparalleled. And that’s exactly what the left did here.

        • valley person

          Rupert, you are aware that Obama ended the CIA use of so called enhanced interrogation techniques, and that waterboarding was presumably stopped while Bush was still in office?

          As for GITMO, that it is still open is an issue “the left” has raised repeatedly, but the fact is Obama tried to close it and Congress prevented him. I suppose he could try harder, but there are other priorities.

          Its not that you don’t pay attention. Its that you never seem to hear anything that contradicts your assertions, even if they are shouted in your face.

          I feel for your wife and Eugene friends.Please give them my sympathies.

          • 3H

            He lives in Rupertland, where hyperbole is considered the highest art from.

          • 3H

            form… unlike 3Hland where spelling is considered a lower art form.

          • guest

            You, 3H, seemingly a mental midget case!

          • zapurnuts

            Sure, Obama ended the use of “enhanced interrogation,” but he replaced it with turning prisoners over surrogate states who used good old fashioned electricity to the testicles torture.

          • valley person

            He left that part of the Bush legacy in place, and has been criticized from the left, but never the right, for doing so.

  • Bob Clark

    This points out one of the oddities about the competition between the GOP and Dems. The Dems (having the populist following) sell themselves on one set of optics but go about doing the dirty business sometimes useful. These include such items as the use of espionage; and the granting of tax loopholes keeping the well off, just as well off (while raising tax rates on the middle class and others).

    I am hearing the real story behind Bengazi and the killing of our diplomat in Libya was a U.S gun smuggling job gone bad. Maybe this will someday show up in an Iran-Contra like government inquiry.

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