President Obama's Difficult, Deadly Decisions on Counter-Terrorism in Spotlight

President Obama and his national security team watch the raid that led to the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden in the White House Situation Room. (White House Photo)

Two big stories today, from the New York Times' Jo Becker and Scott Shane, and excerpts of Daniel Klaidman's new book Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, published in The Daily Beast,  focus some attention on some tough decisions made by President Obama in the name of counter-terrorism.

On Sunday on THIS WEEK , I asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about one of these controversial areas - the rampant use of U.S. drones. Dennis Blair, the former director of National Intelligence wrote in The New York Times, "As the drone campaign wears on, hatred of America is increasing in Pakistan. American officials may praise the precision of the drone attacks, but in Pakistan, news media accounts of heavy civilian casualties are widely believed. Our reliance on high-tech strikes that pose no risk for our soldiers is bitterly resented in a country that cannot duplicate such feats of warfare without cost to its own troops." More recently The Times of London reported that the civilian casualties in Yemen as a result of drone strikes have, "emboldened Al Qaeda."

So I asked Panetta: Is there not a serious risk that this approach to counterterrorism, because of its imprecision, because of its civilian casualties, is creating more enemy than it is killing?

"First and foremost, I think this is one of the most precise weapons that we have in our arsenal," he said. "Number two, what is our responsibility here? Our responsibility is to defend and protect the United States of America. There are those who have no other intent but to attack this country. We saw three potential bombers that were trying to get on planes to come here and attack this country. We've seen past attacks taking place. We've seen those that continue to - to indicate that they're planning every day to try to attack this country. We have got to defend the United States of America. That's our first responsibility. And using the operations that we have, using the systems that we have, using the weapons that we have, is absolutely essential to our ability to defend Americans. That's what counts, and that's what we're doing."

This attitude - protecting the U.S. above all else - is quite visible in today's news stories.

The Times story begins in January 2010, with the president going through a "Kill List," which included mug shots and biographies of U.S. terrorist targets, some of whom were Americans, two of whom were teenagers. "How old are these people?" the president asked. "If they are starting to use children," he said of Al Qaeda, "we are moving into a whole different phase."

The Times noted that President Obama "embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it 'guilt by association' that has led to 'deceptive' estimates of civilian casualties."

The article goes on to describe how President Obama brings his own judgment to decisions about the Kill List. Early requirements that officials have "near certainty" that no innocents would be killed have fallen by the wayside. In August 2009, the CIA had Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in its sights, and not only was that standard not met, there would almost certainly be innocents killed. The president gave the order; Mehsud his wife and likely other family members were all killed.

The Klaidman excerpt describes the president pushing back on a 2009 effort by generals to take the "war on terror" into Somalia, home to al Qaeda ally Al-Shabab. The president, after some debate, said, "If there is a person in the camp who is a clear threat to the United States we should go after him. But carpet bombing a country is a really bad precedent. I ask you to consider: where are we taking this activity? Because the logical next thing after carpet bombing is that we go there and open up a new front."

Klaidman also takes a look at Harold Hongju Koh and Jeh C. Johnson, "the top lawyers at the State Department and the Pentagon, respectively, (who) exercised considerable influence over counterterrorism operations. But their ideological differences-Koh a liberal idealist who had served as the Clinton administration's top human-rights official, and Johnson a pragmatic centrist and former prosecutor-colored their legal interpretations. Koh could be brusque and tactless with his colleagues, though he would just as easily break into boyish giggles when something amused him. Johnson, a former partner in a white-shoe Manhattan law firm, was restrained in manner, and a deft inside operator.

"For most of Obama's first term, the two men fought a pitched battle over legal authorities in the war on al Qaeda. Like Johnson, Koh had no problem going after AQ's most senior members. But things got murkier when the military wanted to kill or capture members of other jihadist groups. Johnson took a more hawkish position, arguing that the United States could pursue AQ members or 'co-belligerents' more expansively."

The excerpt describes Johnson approving his first targeted killings, watching the live battlefield feed, and then hearing "reports from human-rights groups that dozens of women and children had been killed in the attacks, reports that a military source involved in the operation termed 'persuasive.' Johnson would confide to others, 'If I were Catholic, I'd have to go to confession.'"

Both stories are worth a read - check 'em out.

And here is my interview with Panetta:

-Jake Tapper