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.

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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.

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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.