Drones: The Silent Killers

The US “Predator” drone Joel Saget / AFP-Getty Images

Barack Obama came to the White House with no military background and negligible national-security experience. But he inherited an American killing machine that was very much on the offensive, hunting suspected terrorists from the lawless regions of Pakistan to the militant strongholds of Somalia. Within days of his inauguration he faced life-and-death decisions. One of them went terribly wrong.

Obama had just signed a series of executive orders aimed at rolling back the worst excesses of the Bush administration’s war on terror, and he was flush with the possibilities of what could be accomplished in the years ahead. Learning his way around the labyrinthine West Wing, he poked his head into an aide’s office. “We just ended torture,” he said. “That’s a pretty big deal.” Now, on the morning of Jan. 23, CIA director Michael Hayden informed the president of a drone missile strike scheduled to take place in the tribal areas of Pakistan, near the Afghan border.

The targets were high-level al Qaeda and Taliban commanders. Hayden, accustomed to briefing the tactically minded George W. Bush, went into granular levels of detail, describing the “geometry” of the operation to the new president. Obama, who preferred his briefings concise, grew impatient and irritated with Hayden. But he held his tongue, and raised no objections.

Tribesmen a world away, in the tiny village of Karez Kot, later heard a low, dull buzzing sound from the sky. At about 8:30 in the evening local time, a Hellfire missile from a remotely operated drone slammed into a compound “of interest,” in CIA parlance, obliterating a roomful of people.

It turned out they were the wrong people. As the CIA’s pilotless aircraft lingered high above Karez Kot, relaying live images of the fallout to its operators, it soon became clear that something had gone terribly awry. Instead of hitting the CIA’s intended target, a Taliban hideout, the missile had struck the compound of a prominent tribal elder and members of a pro-government peace committee. The strike killed the elder and four members of his family, including two of his children.

Obama was understandably disturbed. How could this have happened? The president had vowed to change America’s message to the Muslim world, and to forge a “new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest.” Yet here he was, during his first week in the White House, presiding over the accidental killing of innocent Muslims. As Obama briskly walked into the Situation Room the following day, his advisers could feel the tension rise. “You could tell from his body language that he was not a happy man,” recalled one participant.

Obama settled into his high-backed, black-leather chair. Hayden was seated at the other end of the table. The conversation quickly devolved into a tense back-and-forth over the CIA’s vetting procedures for drone attacks. The president was learning for the first time about a controversial practice known as “signature strikes,” the targeting of groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known. They differed from “personality” or “high-value individual” strikes, in which a terrorist leader is positively identified before the missile is launched.

Sometimes called “crowd killing,” signature strikes are deeply unpopular in Pakistan. Obama struggled to understand the concept. Steve Kappes, the CIA’s deputy director, offered a blunt explanation. “Mr. President, we can see that there are a lot of military-age males down there, men associated with terrorist activity, but we don’t always know who they are.” Obama reacted sharply. “That’s not good enough for me,” he said. But he was still listening. Hayden forcefully defended the signature approach. You could take out a lot more bad guys when you targeted groups instead of individuals, he said. And there was another benefit: the more afraid militants were to congregate, the harder it would be for them to plot, plan, or train for attacks against America and its interests.

Obama remained unsettled. “The president’s view was ‘OK, but what assurances do I have that there aren’t women and children there?’?” according to a source familiar with his thinking. “?‘How do I know that this is working? Who makes these decisions? Where do they make them, and where’s my opportunity to intervene?’?”

In the end, Obama relented—for the time being. The White House did tighten up some procedures: the CIA director would no longer be allowed to delegate the decision to carry out a drone strike down the chain. Only the director would have that authority, or his deputy if he was not available. And the White House reserved the right to pull back the CIA’s signature authority in the future. According to one of his advisers, Obama remained uneasy. “He would squirm,” recalled the source. “He didn’t like the idea of ‘kill ’em and sort it out later.’?”

Still, Obama’s willingness to back the drone program represented an early inflection point in his war on terror. Over time, the attacks grew—far beyond anything that had been envisioned by the Bush administration. When 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. By his third year in office, Obama had approved the killings of twice as many suspected terrorists as had ever been imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay. “We’re killing these sons of bitches faster than they can grow them,” the head of the CIA’s counterterrorism division boasted to The Washington Post in 2011.

THE TAKE-OUT TEAM THE TAKE-OUT TEAM (From left) The Confidant: Brennan, The Decider: Obama, and The Strategist: Cartwright From left: Mark Wilson / Getty Images; Brendan Smialowski / AFP-Getty Images; Mandel Ngan / AFP-Getty Images-Newscom

The president had come a long way in a short time. Schooled as a constitutional lawyer, he had had to adjust quickly to the hardest part of the job: deciding whom to kill, when to kill them, and when it makes sense to put Americans in harm’s way. His instincts tilted toward justice and protecting the innocent, but he also knew that war is a messy business no matter how carefully it is conducted. He saw the drones as a particularly useful tool in a global conflict, but he was also mindful of the possibility of blowback.

In this overheated election season, Obama’s campaign is painting a portrait of a steely commander who pursues the enemy without flinching. But the truth is more complex, and in many ways, more reassuring. The president is not a robotic killing machine. The choices he faces are brutally difficult, and he has struggled with them—sometimes turning them over in his mind again and again. The people around him have also battled and disagreed. They’ve invoked the safety of America on the one hand and the righteousness of what America stands for on the other.

Obama’s discomfort with being “jam-med” into broad signature-style attacks extended to the military, which was conducting its own counterterror campaigns. Unlike the CIA, when the military engaged in kill missions outside of conventional battlefields—in places like Yemen or Somalia—it needed presidential approval for each individual attack. And the military was more prone to broaden its targets.

In March 2009, most of the top generals were itching to take the war deep into Somalia. This desperately poor, chaotic country was home to Al-Shabab, then a loose affiliate of al Qaeda. The military saw Somalia as a time bomb, and wanted to act before it was too late.

At a Situation Room meeting, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, briefed the president and his national security advisers on a “kinetic opportunity” in southern Somalia, Al-Shabab’s stronghold. There was intelligence that a high-level operative associated with the group would be attending a “graduation ceremony” at an Al-Shabab training area. But the military couldn’t pinpoint his precise location at any given time. So why not just take the whole camp out? The Pentagon had even prepared a “strike package” that could devastate an entire series of training areas. Obama was skeptical, but listened without revealing his doubts. At the end of Mullen’s presentation, Obama said, “OK, let’s go around the table.”

In effect Obama was inviting dissent with Admiral Mullen. None of the principals raised objections. But then Obama pointed to one of the uniformed men sitting just behind Mullen, against the wall: James “Hoss” Cartwright, the four-star Marine general and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Obama knew Cartwright, and valued his candor. “Mr. President, generally the wars we’ve been prosecuting have had these rules,” Cartwright said in a low-key, Midwestern manner. An enemy “did something to us, we went in and did something back—and then we had a moral obligation to put back together whatever we broke. In these places where they have not attacked us, we are looking for a person, not a country.”

Cartwright was now beginning to veer off from Mullen, his superior officer. Then he laid it on the line: “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.” Some of the other military men began to shift in their chairs. “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.”

Obama seized on Cartwright’s words to lay down his own marker. “That’s where I am,” he said. He told his assembled advisers that he was committed to getting bad guys—terrorists who posed a clear and demonstrable threat to Americans—but that he wanted “options” that were precise. The signature strike against Al-Shabab was a no go.

Cartwright, on the other hand, was on an upward trajectory within the corridors of the White House. What would emerge in early 2009 was an unusual alliance that would serve to guide Obama through the shadow wars: Cartwright would join Obama’s top counterterrorism aide, John Brennan, in advising the president about terrorist targets, the three forming a kind of special troika on targeted killings.

drones-fe01-klaidman-3rd Tribesmen mourn for people killed in an alleged U.S. drone strike in Pakistan. Thir Kahn / AFP-Getty Images

By this time, Brennan had already established himself as an imposing figure in the White House. Massively built, with closely cropped hair, a ruddy complexion, and deep-set eyes that could appear menacing at times, “Mr. Brennan,” as he was referred to deferentially by junior White House staffers, was seen as “the real thing,” a bona fide CIA terrorist hunter who had been on the trail of Osama bin Laden for a decade. “He is like a John Wayne character,” David Axelrod said. “I sleep better knowing that he is not sleeping.”

In the coming months and years, Brennan and Cartwright would find themselves pulling the president out of black-tie dinners or tracking him down on a secure phone to discuss a proposed strike. Obama could be known to muster a little gallows humor when Cartwright or Brennan showed up at the Oval Office unannounced. “Uh-oh, this can’t be good,” he would say, arching an eyebrow. One of Brennan’s least favorite duties was pulling Obama away from family time with his wife and daughters for these grim calls.

The three men were making life-and-death decisions, picking targets, rejecting or accepting names put forward by the military, feeling their way through a new kind of war—Obama’s war. But such decisions took their toll. In quiet conversations with his advisers, the president would sometimes later reflect on whether they knew with certainty that the people they were targeting posed a genuine and specific threat to American interests.

Similar angst and debate was coursing through the administration as a whole. Every targeted killing, in fact, had to be lawyered—either by the CIA’s attorneys, in the case of agency operations, or by other lawyers when the military was involved. If any two men typified the assertion of law in the terror wars, it was Harold Hongju Koh and Jeh C. Johnson. As the top lawyers at the State Department and the Pentagon, respectively, they 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 two men battled each other openly in meetings and by circulating rival secret memos.

Despite their differences, both men were grappling with the same reality: their advice could ensure death for strangers who lived thousands of miles away—or spare them. It was an especially unlikely turn for Koh, a former dean of Yale Law School. At Yale he had memorized the names and faces of his students, bright-eyed idealists who wanted to use the law to improve the world. Now he studied highly classified PowerPoint slides that detailed the intelligence against individual terrorist targets. (The military dryly called them “baseball cards.”) “How did I go from being a law professor to someone involved in killing?” he wondered.

At the Pentagon even Johnson felt stressed by the institutional impulse to always do more, not less. Like Koh, he wondered whether he could withstand the heavy pressure exerted by the military to expand operations. After approving his first targeted killings one evening, he watched the digital images of the strike in real time—“Kill TV,” the military calls the live battlefield feed. Johnson could see the shadowy images of militants running drills in a training camp in Yemen. Then suddenly there was a bright flash. The figures that had been moving across the screen were gone. Johnson returned to his Georgetown home around midnight that evening, drained and exhausted. Later there were 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.”

In early 2010, on a secure conference call with Obama’s top counterterrorism advisers, Johnson stunned many of his colleagues when he nixed the targeted killings of members of Al-Shabab. The decision came just as the military was ramping up its operations in Somalia. Pentagon officers left the meeting without saying a word to Johnson. It was a lonely moment for an ambitious lawyer who was used to getting along with his uniformed colleagues. But he did have one supporter: Koh told Johnson this was his “finest moment.”

kill-or-capture-klaidman-book-cover ‘Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency’ by Daniel Klaidman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 304 p. $18.29

The amity didn’t last, however. The military kept up its pressure on Johnson, and mounted a fierce campaign to persuade him to change his position on Al-Shabab. Officers brought him intelligence and “threat streams” about terrorist activities, and told him “bad things” would happen if they couldn’t act first. Johnson understood the political risks. There would be an uproar if Al-Shabab launched a successful attack against the United States and it later turned out that Obama administration lawyers had declared the group off limits. Finally, some months after Al-Shabab militants bombed a soccer stadium in Uganda, killing 74 people, he changed tack.

The Koh-Johnson rivalry was reignited during a secure call with the White House in the fall of 2010. The military wanted to hit three top Al-Shabab leaders. The two lawyers agreed on a pair of the targets, but Koh differed on the case of Sheikh Mukhtar Robow. He had studied the intelligence and saw credible evidence that Robow represented a less extreme faction of Al-Shabab that was opposed to attacking America. While Johnson was fine with targeting Robow, Koh forcefully insisted that the “killing would be unlawful.” Robow was removed from the targeting list. But the pressure to expand the list rarely lets up. After Al-Shabab’s top leader swore his organization’s allegiance to al Qaeda earlier this year, Obama officials renewed their earlier debate. Robow’s life again hangs in the balance.

One targeted killing that inspired little angst was the raid on Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Rather, its success got everyone itching to intensify the fight. Brimming with confidence, the generals believed they could deliver a “knock-out blow” to al Qaeda and its most dangerous affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. The military began talking about “running the table” in Yemen, while the CIA began pushing to expand its signature strikes both there and in Somalia. It was the same approach Admiral Mullen and some top generals had backed in the first weeks of Obama’s administration but which the president had rejected. Obama at that time had wanted to stay “AQ-focused,” as he put it, and not unnecessarily widen the conflict.

But in May 2011, the military proposed killing 11 AQAP operatives at once, by far the largest request since it stepped up operations in Yemen. The Arab Spring’s turmoil had spread to the country, and al Qaeda was moving quickly to take advantage of the chaos. Gen. James Mattis, who heads U.S. Central Command, warned darkly of an emerging new terror hub in the Horn of Africa. Obama and a few of his senior advisers, however, were wary of getting dragged into an internal conflict—or fueling a backlash—by targeting people who were not focused on striking the United States. Obama and his aides reduced the target list to four people, all of whom were eliminated.

The pressure didn’t abate, however. Brennan came to believe that the commander in chief needed to make an unequivocal statement—to brush back the people calling for more and larger attacks. The chance came in mid-June, during a regularly scheduled “Terror Tuesday” briefing. At one point during the discussion, one of the president’s military advisers made a reference to the ongoing “campaign” in Yemen. Obama abruptly cut him off. There’s no “campaign” in Yemen, he said sharply: “We’re not in Yemen to get involved in some domestic conflict. We’re going to continue to stay focused on threats to the homeland—that’s where the real priority is.”

In Barack Obama’s mind, Anwar al-Awlaki was threat No. 1. The Yemen-based leader of AQAP had grown up in the United States, spoke fluent American-accented English, and had a charisma similar to that of Osama bin Laden: soft eyes, a mastery of language, and a sickening capacity for terror. Obama told his advisers that Awlaki was a higher priority than even Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had succeeded bin Laden as al Qaeda’s top commander. “Awlaki had things on the stove that were ready to boil over,” one of Obama’s national-security advisers observed. “Zawahiri was still looking for ingredients in the cupboard.”

What worried President Obama most was Awlaki’s ingenuity in developing murderous schemes that could evade America’s best defenses. Already he had launched the Christmas Day plot, in which a Nigerian operative had nearly brought down a packed airliner by trying to set off explosives hidden in his underwear. Then, in October 2010, AQAP had managed to put improvised bombs—ink toner cartridges filled with explosive material—on cargo planes headed to the United States. (They were intercepted as a result of a tip from Saudi intelligence.) During the summer of 2011 Obama was regularly updated on a particularly diabolical plan that AQAP’s master bomb builder, Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, was devising. The intelligence indicated that he was close to being able to surgically implant bombs in people’s bodies. The wiring was cleverly designed to circumvent airport security, including full-body scanners. AQAP’s terror doctors had already successfully experimented with dogs and other animals.

The president made sure he got updates on Awlaki at every Terror Tuesday briefing. “I want Awlaki,” he said at one. “Don’t let up on him.” Hoss Cartwright even thought Obama’s rhetoric was starting to sound like that of George W. Bush, whom Cartwright had also briefed on many occasions. “Do you have everything you need to get this guy?” Obama would ask.

But that sense of fierce determination was a product of long experience and didn’t come easily. By the time United States intelligence agents got Awlaki in their sights, Obama had adjusted and readjusted his views on targeted killings several times. Usually he tried to measure the possible benefits of a specific killing or killings against the possible downsides, including the slaying of innocents and getting the United States more deeply embroiled in civil conflicts. The Awlaki case was in a special category, however: By almost anyone’s definition, he was a threat to the homeland, but he was also an American citizen, born in New Mexico.

The capture of a Somali operative who worked closely with Awlaki produced key intelligence, including how he traveled, the configuration of his convoys, his modes of communication, and the elaborate security measures he and his entourage took. Finally, in the spring and summer of last year, U.S. and Yemeni intelligence started to draw a bead on him. A tip from a Yemeni source and a fatal lapse in operational security by the cleric eventually did him in.

The standing orders from Obama had always been to avoid collateral damage at almost any cost. In many instances, Cartwright would not even take a proposed operation to the president if there was a reasonable chance civilians would be killed. But as the Americans were closing in on Awlaki, Obama let it be known that he didn’t want his options preemptively foreclosed. If there was a clear shot at the terrorist leader, even one that risked civilian deaths, he wanted to be advised of it. “Bring it to me and let me decide in the reality of the moment rather than in the abstract,” he said, according to one confidant.

In September, U.S. intelligence tracked Awlaki to a specific house in Al Jawf province, where he stayed for two weeks—often surrounded by children. On the morning of Sept. 30, however, Awlaki and several of his companions left the safe house and walked about 700 yards to their parked cars. As they were getting into the vehicles, they were blown apart by two Hellfire missiles.

Within less than six months, Obama had taken out America’s two top enemies, delivering crippling blows to al Qaeda’s morale and its ability to conduct fresh attacks. And yet perhaps no other action upset liberals and civil libertarians more than the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. What Obama considered a necessary and lawful act of war, one that was vital to protecting the lives of Americans, his critics saw as a summary execution of an American citizen without trial—on the basis of secret evidence. Even Bush had not gone that far. One of the president’s top advisers says he was unmoved, however. Despite all of the hand-wringing by critics, Obama had “no qualms.”

And the shadow wars continued. Throughout 2011, Obama’s basic strategy held: he approved missions that were surgical, often lethal, and narrowly tailored to fit clearly defined U.S. interests. But even as Awlaki and others were taken out, Yemen fell further into chaos, and AQAP gained more and more territory—even threatening the strategic port city of Aden. It looked like the military’s dire warnings were becoming a reality.

By 2012 Obama was getting regular updates on a Saudi double agent who’d managed to penetrate AQAP. He had volunteered to be a suicide operative for al-Asiri, AQAP’s master bomb maker, and instead delivered the latest underwear-style explosive device to his handlers. By then the military and CIA were pushing again for signature-style strikes, but they’d given them a new name: terrorist-attack-disruption strikes, or TADS. And this time, after resisting for the first three years of his presidency, Obama gave his approval.

The White House was worried that Yemeni forces were collapsing under the brutal AQAP assault. The more territory AQAP controlled, the more training camps they could set up, and the easier it would be to plot and plan attacks against the United States and its interests. Obama concluded that he had no choice but to defend the Yemeni Army against a common enemy. “They are decapitating Yemeni soldiers and crucifying them,” one senior administration official said in justifying the American escalation. “These are murderous thugs, and we are not going to stand idly by and allow these massacres to take place.”

In the spring of 2012, the United States carried out more drone attacks in Yemen than in the previous nine years combined—dating all the way back to when the CIA conducted its first such operation.

Excerpted from Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency by Daniel Klaidman. Copyright 2012 by Daniel Klaidman. To be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on June 5, 2012. Used by permission.

Join the Discussion