Kill Or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency

Kill Or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency

by Daniel Klaidman


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Wednesday, January 26


“[An] important book.” — Steve Coll, The New Yorker
“Klaidman . . . [was] clearly given extraordinary access to key players in the administration . . . Provide[s] scintillating details.” — Washington Post

How has President Obama waged the war on terror? As lawyer-in-chief, he promised to close the Guantánamo Bay detention camp and engaged his inner circle in wrenching debates over the price of liberty and security. As commander-in-chief, he has become a decisive and lethal warrior, dealing out drone strikes and death sentences to suspected terrorists around the world. Daniel Klaidman reveals Obama’s struggle to balance high-minded idealism and hard-headed politics as it plays out behind closed doors from the Oval Office and the Justice Department to the Situation Room and the CIA. Based on hundreds of interviews with men and women throughout the White House and the national security establishment, Kill or Capture is a startling new portrait of our forty-fourth president.

“A fascinating book . . . Lays bare the human dimension of the wrenching national security decisions that have to be made.” — Tina Brown, NPR

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544002166
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/09/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Daniel Klaidman is a special correspondent for Newsweek, where he has worked since 1996, serving as investigative reporter, Middle East correspondent, Washington bureau chief, and managing editor. After 9/11 he led Newsweek's award-winning coverage of the attacks and their aftermath. He is the author of numerous cover stories on terrorism and national security.

Read an Excerpt


The Promise

On May 16, 2007, Richard Clarke's driver pulled up to a shabby block of Massachusetts Avenue, in Northeast DC. Clarke got out of the car, looked around, and wondered if he was in the right place. Two days earlier he'd spoken to Susan Rice, a democratic foreign policy mandarin and a top adviser in Barack Obama's nascent presidential campaign. The two had worked together in the Clinton White House, and Rice was now looking to put together a team to advise Obama on counterterrorism. Clarke seemed perfect. He was a veteran of the terror wars, having worked for four presidents stretching back to Ronald Reagan. Moreover, he had seen George W. Bush's war on terror go awry from the inside. When the country was attacked on September 11, 2001, Clarke was Bush's principal counterterrorism adviser, but he broke with Bush over the decision to invade Iraq, testifying in dramatic public fashion at televised hearings of the 9/11 Commission and publishing a scathingly critical book about the administration's conduct of the war on terror, in 2004.

Rice had arranged for Clarke to meet Obama at the rundown apartment the Illinois senator had rented for discreet policy sessions and to plan his presidential campaign. The scruffy building, which housed a Subway sandwich shop, reminded Clarke of the tenement where he'd grown up in Boston. It hardly looked like a presidential launching ground for the young, charismatic politician who'd taken Washington by storm three years before.

There were a few ragtag NGOs listed on the building directory, but no mention of Obama. Clarke called the cell phone number he'd been given and an aide came down to collect him. After greeting Clarke, Obama led him down the dismal hallway to a small, sparsely furnished room badly in need of a paint job. The two men chatted amiably for a few minutes, but the pleasantries masked a mutual doubt. Obama had reason to be wary of his visitor. Clarke was both a supple thinker and a hard-charging man of action, a rare combination in a lifelong bureaucrat. But he could also be arrogant and headstrong. For his part, Clarke was intrigued by Obama and thought the younger man might be able to provide a fresh start in the fight against al-Qaeda. But was he too much the effete intellectual? Could he really feel the threat of Islamic terrorism in his gut?

As they talked, Obama cogently and efficiently analyzed the litany of failures that had plagued American foreign policy. Iraq topped the list: instead of harnessing the goodwill of the international community after 9/11, the United States had wandered into the valley of Mesopotamia to fight a disastrous war against the wrong enemy. It was time to pull out of Iraq and finish the job in Afghanistan, he insisted. At the same time, the United States needed to reclaim its moral authority in the world, which had been compromised in the CIA's secret torture chambers or "black sites," at Abu Ghraib, and in the detention cells of Guantánamo. Finally, America needed to urgently change its message to the Muslim world; the United States was not at war with Islam, and until that perception was fundamentally altered, the nation could not win the ideological struggle against al-Qaeda. Clarke agreed with every word. But there was still the question of inner toughness: did Obama understand that as president he would be up against irredeemable people, for whom the only options would be to kill or capture them?

Clarke had spent a lifetime immersed in the dark corners of the terror wars; he had no illusions about what it would take to prevail against a nihilistic enemy like al-Qaeda. A president had to have a warrior instinct — an ability to be brutal at times. He made the point as directly as he knew how. Looking the senator in the eye, Clarke stated a simple fact. "As president, you kill people." He wasn't just talking about sending troops into battle — in the shadow wars, presidents know the names and addresses of people they have killed. Obama stared back at Clarke for several seconds. "I know that," he said very quietly and calmly. "He didn't flinch," Clarke later recalled.

For all of Obama's soaring rhetoric and appeals to idealism, and despite many observers' assumptions about his time as a community activist, he was a foreign policy realist by the time he ran for president. Obama's instincts were generally center-left, but he was skeptical of rigid ideology and pat solutions to complicated problems. He sought compromise and consensus, working within the system as it was, not as he wanted it to be. He aspired to be an "idealist without illusions," in John F. Kennedy's phrase. But his challenge now, as a presidential candidate with no military experience, was to sell himself as a credible commander in chief.

Clarke knew that Obama began with considerable disadvantages. Among other things, he was saddled with forty years of Democratic heritage — the perception that ever since Eugene McCarthy broke with the party to oppose the Vietnam War, Democrats had been weak on national security. Then there was his own personal heritage: part black, part white, with Muslim and African ancestry, his advisers knew he would be viewed suspiciously by a large swath of the voting public.

Obama's bet was that those political vulnerabilities could, over time, be turned into strengths. After eight years of George W. Bush's feel-it-in-the-gut, shoot-from-the-hip approach to counterterrorism, the country might be ready for a cooler, more deliberative strategy. But Obama's cosmopolitan background also gave him a more visceral feel for how much of the rest of the world lived — and how they viewed America. He'd visited his own poor relatives in African villages, and as a child he witnessed the squalid poverty of Jakarta. In 1981 Obama traveled through South Asia with a Pakistani college friend. They spent three weeks in Karachi, where Obama discovered a sprawling, congested city throbbing with sectarian strife and tense with the threat of communal violence. These experiences helped shape Obama's belief that what most people around the world desired was adequate food, shelter, and security — lives of dignity, free of the daily humiliations of poverty and ignorance. They were the basis for a coherent set of views about the roots of Islamic rage and the underlying conditions that breed Islamic extremism — the economic despair, the social and political dysfunction that lead young men to become terrorists.

For Clarke, Obama's intuitive understanding of the forces driving Islamic extremism was an enormous asset. And yet he also knew that the slash-and-burn politics of a presidential campaign would not be friendly to Obama's more nuanced approach. He would need a thick layer of political insulation to protect him against the inevitable attack ads questioning his positions on terrorism. The challenge was to weave together Obama's notions of soft power and hard power into a new paradigm for the war on terror, one that could be framed as tough but smart. It was time to begin laying out a blueprint for how Obama would redirect the fight against al-Qaeda.

Three months after his meeting with Clarke, Obama prepared a major national security address. The speech was set for August 1, 2007, at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC. Clarke and Rand Beers, a longtime counterterrorism expert with three decades of experience in Democratic and Republican administrations, consulted with Obama on the speech a few days before. They advised the candidate that he had two primary political objectives. First, he had to get out in front of any terrorist attack that might occur during the campaign. Clarke, who ran a global-security consulting firm, was regularly tapping his network of spook and counterterrorism sources to measure the threat environment. He believed the odds of an attack were high and potentially catastrophic to Obama's campaign. "We told him quite explicitly to get on the record putting the blame on the [present] administration," Clarke recalled. "We wanted him to show causality between what the Bush administration did and the continuing terrorism threat." This was a hard sell: for many Americans, the Bush administration had projected strength in its war on terror, and the argument that America was now less safe hinged on the abstract threat of backlash as a result of the war in Iraq — not on a weak national security response. Second, Obama needed to show he was willing to use force, confidently but more prudently than the current administration.

In the speech that resulted, Obama argued that a strategy of hunting down terrorists by itself would lead to Pyrrhic victories. His goal, he told the Wilson Center audience, was to "dry up support for terror and extremism." As president he would pledge $1 billion in aid for poverty reduction and for secular education to counter the radical madrasas, the Islamic schools that inculcated Muslim youth with anti-Western sentiment. Obama invoked the "thousands of desperate faces" looking up at American military helicopters from conflict zones and refugee camps. "Do they feel hope, or do they feel hate?" America's security hung in the balance, he argued.

But the softer talk of American values, hope, and economic empowerment was shot through with steel: Obama called for the deployment of at least two more brigades to bolster US counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. (Clarke had had to instruct him that three to five thousand soldiers constituted a brigade.) America was exhausted from years of war and imperial overstretch, and yet Obama proposed to send thousands more American troops into battle. But the risk was carefully calculated. For many Democrats, Afghanistan was still "the good war," at least as compared with Iraq. The United States needed to be focused on the enemy that attacked it, the real center of the war on terror: al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

In the end, it was another line in the speech that proved the more controversial. In retrospect, it may have done more than anything in the campaign to protect him against charges of being soft on terrorism. A little less than halfway through the address, Obama, his voice rising, accused the Bush administration of fecklessness in the fight against the terrorists. "It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al-Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005," he charged. Then, in a rare moment of chest thumping, he vowed, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and [then Pakistani president Pervez] Musharraf won't act, we will." In early 2005 the Bush administration had planned a secret operation to drop American commandos into North Waziristan, the mountainous region of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. The daring "snatch and grab" operation was aimed at capturing al-Qaeda biggies, including bin Laden's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri. But at the last minute (Navy SEALs had already boarded the military planes), Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld aborted the raid, in part because the Bush administration didn't want to disturb relations with the Pakistanis.

Hillary Clinton, Obama's main challenger for the Democratic nomination, pounced on the line at a February 2008 campaign debate in Cleveland. "He basically threatened to bomb Pakistan, which I don't think was a particularly wise position to take." Republican Party candidate John McCain would later echo Clinton's line of attack, accusing Obama of wanting to "invade" Pakistan. At the time it seemed like clever political jujitsu: take Obama's muscular rhetoric and try to paint him as naive. But the controversy would also presage a dilemma of the Obama presidency: can you kill or capture bad guys wherever you find them while staying true to American values and the rule of law?

While the campaign would later be dominated by the flailing economy, there were still flare-ups on terrorism. In June 2008 the Supreme Court issued a decision in Boumediene v. Bush, restoring the rights of prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay to challenge their detention in federal court. By then, Obama had the Democratic nomination sewn up. He and John McCain had both pledged to close down the Guantánamo detention camp. Yet they disagreed sharply over this announcement. Obama praised the decision and lauded the effectiveness of the American justice system as a weapon against terrorists. The McCain campaign immediately unleashed its surrogates, asserting the need to continue the Bush administration's policy of trying terrorists as "enemy combatants" in military tribunals, and attacking Obama as "naive" and "delusional." Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who had endorsed McCain after ending his own presidential run, laid out the central criticism: "Barack Obama appears to believe that terrorists should be treated like criminals — a belief that underscores his fundamental lack of judgment regarding our national security." Obama punched back hard. The Republicans lacked the credibility to criticize him on the issue. They were in charge, after all, when Osama bin Laden slipped away after the military had him pinned down in Tora Bora. And it was their disastrous war in Iraq, Obama stated, that diverted critical resources away from Afghanistan, the central battlefield in the war against al-Qaeda.

In the end, Obama won the election not on the basis of his foreign policy views but because the US economy was in free fall. The Iraq war was no longer uppermost in voters' minds, and Obama's national security positions were in fact not significantly different from his opponent's. In addition to promising to close Guantánamo, McCain had vowed to shut down the CIA's secret prisons and end torture. By the end of 2008, Obama's priorities, and the country's as well, clearly lay elsewhere: with economic recovery.

The approach Obama would take to national security as president, therefore, would be less a matter of political necessity, more one of character and symbolism. Although Americans were tired of the Iraq war, and many liberals loudly denounced the executive-power claims of the Bush administration (from warrantless wiretapping to "extraordinary rendition" to military tribunals to detentions without trials), the public as a whole wasn't clamoring for a change of course — Americans just wanted to regain lost jobs and see that the country was moving again. Obama would not be compelled to walk back the Bush agenda on the war on terror.

But symbolically, and as a test of personal conviction and resolve, Obama's decisions about whether and how to change that agenda would indicate much not only about his deepest beliefs and principles, but also his style of presidency. Where did he fall on the pragmatist-idealist spectrum? Did he care more about the long-term legacy he left for his successors, and the powers they could assert, or about short-term political wins and losses? How strong were his convictions? How hard was he willing to fight for them? Who, in the end, was Barack Obama? His conduct of the war on terror, as much as anything else, would reveal answers to these questions and define him in the minds of many Americans.

Two days after the presidential election, on November 6, Vice Admiral Mike McConnell was on a plane bound for Chicago to deliver Obama's first intelligence briefing as president-elect. McConnell was the director of national intelligence, the government's top intel officer, who oversaw the country's vast spy bureaucracy. The two men had met once before, shortly after Obama had captured the Democratic nomination. Much of that briefing had focused on the covert war in Afghanistan, where momentum was swinging dangerously toward the Taliban. A key reason, McConnell told Obama, was Pakistani duplicity. Pakistan's spy service, the ISI, was colluding with the Afghan Taliban, which it saw as a strategic counterweight to India on its western flank. The ISI, with the tacit support of Musharraf, was playing a cynical double game, one that was costing American lives.

Now that Obama had won the presidency, McConnell was prepared to divulge the intelligence community's deepest secrets. They met in a tiny room — a sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF — in the Kluczynski Federal Building. Despite the gloomy outlook in Afghanistan, there was one positive story to be told, one that reflected the very best abilities of America's frontline spies. McConnell, according to the account in Bob Woodward's 2010 book Obama's Wars, revealed to the president the inner workings of the CIA's covert drone program. Agency operators, manipulating joysticks at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, had destroyed much of al-Qaeda's senior leadership. Astonishing precision technology had enabled mechanized death from thousands of miles away. But the pilotless drones were useless without targeting intelligence. That required humint, or human intelligence — spies on the ground in the vast, lawless border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. After years of stagnation, the agency had finally begun to make important gains recruiting and training local tribesmen to be their spotters. These were the crown jewels of American spying in the region, and they were now Obama's.


Excerpted from "Kill or Capture"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Daniel Klaidman.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Table of Contents,
Cast of Characters,
A Note on Sources,
1. The Promise,
2. Where the Fuck is bin Laden?,
3. Torture Debates and Murder Boards,
4. Escape From Gitmo,
5. Kill or Capture,
6. How Not to Try a Terrorist,
7. The Christmas Gift,
8. From Warfare to Lawfare,
9. "The President is Anguished",
10. Textbook,
About the Author,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A good book to read if you want an answer to the question, 'What happened?' That is, what happened to the idealistic Obama of the 2008 campaign who was going to shut down Guantánamo, end indefinite detention, try terrorist suspects in civilian courts, take civil liberties more seriously, and end the rabid secrecy of the Bush era? How did he turn into the guy who not only didn't do any of that stuff, but became a drone-obsessed killing machine in the process?"
Kevin Drum, Mother Jones

"Divulge(s) the details of top-level deliberations—details that were almost certainly known only to the administration's inner circle. Likely to be the most thorough accounts of America's recent national-security efforts that we shall receive before the November election."
The Wall Street Journal

Customer Reviews