Watchdog Blog

Dan Froomkin: Big Questions — Not Just Leaks — About National Security

Posted at 2:19 pm, July 25th, 2012
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Two recent books about national security have incited an overwrought kerfuffle about leaks. But what they should have done is provoke a vigorous debate about the startling policies they describe, and the many things that remain unknown.

I reviewed the two books — “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power“, by New York Times reporter David E. Sanger, and “Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency“, by longtime Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman — for Huffington, the Huffington Post’s new weekly iPad magazine.

Sanger actually does a pretty good job of summing up the questions his own book raises — and fails to answer:

“What is the difference — legally and morally — between a sticky bomb the Israelis place on the side of an Iranian scientist’s car and a Hellfire missile the United States launches at a car in Yemen from thirty thousand feet in the air? How is one an ‘assassination’ — condemned by the United States — and the other an ‘insurgent strike’? What is the difference between attacking a country’s weapon-making machinery through a laptop computer or through bunker-busters? What happens when other states catch up with American technology — some already have — and turn these weapons on targets inside the United States or American troops abroad, arguing that it was Washington that set the precedent for their use? These are all questions the Obama team discusses chiefly in classified briefings, not public debates.”

Those are the questions reporters should be asking, nonstop, until we get answers. But apparently that’s not as much fun as taking stenography from members of Congress whose “outrage” over leaks is overtly either political (the Republicans) or pouty (Dianne Feinstein and Joe Lieberman).

Klaidman’s book raises what are in some ways even more disturbing questions, about just how politicized national security decisions are in the Obama White House. I remember paling at the thought that Karl Rove was sitting in on national security meetings, but apparently in this White House as well, political calculations are omnipresent.

Allow me a victory lap, but I must say I pegged it in March 2010 when I wrote that Obama had (knowingly) hired “a bunch of saboteurs of hope and change,” led by then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, “the poster child for the timid, pseudo-pragmatism that is inimical to the idealistic Obama agenda so many excited voters responded to.” And then again, in May 2010, when I reported on how with White House Counsel Greg Craig out and Attorney General Eric Holder marginalized, “the coast is clear for the White House to make important legal and national security calls on purely political grounds.”

After that second piece, one Obama press aide and Emanuel loyalist said he would never let me speak with anyone involved with national security there again because I was making stuff up. He didn’t. But I wasn’t.

How could Obama have backed down on such central issues as indefinite detention and federal-court trials for terror suspects? How does he rationalize seizing the power to unilaterally kill American citizens? Does he regret heeding the constantly terrified, Republican-appeasing self-styled “pragmatists” in the White House? Or perhaps most to the point: Is he one himself?

Obama’s failure to confront and expunge the central elements of the second-term Bush-Cheney “dark side” — and in fact his expanding of it in some hugely significant ways — is reminiscent of his failure to confront Wall Street.

In both cases, especially if he doesn’t have a second term to fix things, he appears to have missed the opportunity to make a principled U-turn away from the radical policies of the far-right, and in so doing, has enshrined them.

One more mystery, which Sanger describes, but ultimately doesn’t really explain is Obama’s evolution regarding the war in Afghanistan.

In the summer of 2009, Obama began a “reassessment of whether the war was as necessary as he first believed,” Sanger writes.

By June 2011, “Obama had learned … that he could not remake Afghanistan. …. He had come full circle in his ambitions for the country where empires and armies have met ugly stalemates.”

Cynics have long suspected that Obama’s campaign rhetoric about surging in Afghanistan was purely a political ploy, in order not to be written off as a dove. After all, the conclusions Sanger says Obama finally reached by mid-2011 were obvious to the vast majority of the foreign policy establishment well before he even took office.

So why did Obama wait two years instead of four — or none? Nearly 1,000 American servicemembers died in Afghanistan during those two years — nearly half of all the dead during the entire war.

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