- - Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Few observers of Barack Obama as a presidential candidate would have expected him to adopt counterterrorism policies that would make his legacy look like the “imperial presidency” he fiercely criticized on the stump. Mr. Obama’s actions in fighting terrorism as president have led his far-left base to cast worse aspersions on his legacy than that of his predecessor.

In an expose focused on the president’s reliance on “extrajudicial killing” to prosecute his administration’s war on al Qaeda, Esquire writer Tom Junod has coined a term that captures just what Mr. Obama’s legacy may be: the lethal presidency.

Mr. Junod’s piece ties a show-stopping bow around the incongruity of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Obama’s use of the same tactics he deplored before taking office. Mr. Obama has used drones to kill members of al Qaeda, its supporters and those who simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, including American citizens. The Obama administration’s penchant for leaking details about its kill/capture campaign shows reliance on a program members of the counterterrorism community expected to be suspended his first day on the job. In the past, Mr. Obama’s attorney general portrayed CIA agents as criminals for employing controversial interrogation tactics on known terrorists. This same man now defends killing suspected terrorists rather than capturing them and assessing their guilt in court.

In Mr. Obama’s defense, killing suspected terrorists is far less messy than capturing them and increasing the detainee populations at installations such as Guantanamo Bay, which the president promised to shutter years ago. Killing them also mitigates the risk that “inhumane” interrogation techniques employed by superpatriots that the president’s team have depicted as thugs might end up tarnishing Mr. Obama’s record.

Although the president’s hawkishness on this front is commendable, his policies in this vein do not necessarily reflect a statesman’s stewardship of American interests. Nor should these killings necessarily inspire confidence in Mr. Obama’s aptitude for protecting America from threats posed by terrorist groups like al Qaeda or, for that matter, bring applause from Republicans.

It is quite conceivable these actions may be viewed one day as examples of political expediency prompting the president to shirk his top responsibility: protecting Americans from threats both foreign and domestic. Indeed, even if these operations can be viewed as deterrents in the eyes of some of the terrorists’ prospective recruits, there is much to suggest that the president’s overemphasis of the kill feature of the program is only emboldening our enemies’ will to engage in a long war against us.

Some counterterrorism sources became frustrated with the previous administration’s occasional slowness to act on targeting leads. However, they also are dissatisfied with both the current administration’s loose-lipped handling of sensitive information about targeted killings and its response to Pakistan’s imprisonment of a key source in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Consequently, many foreign sources undoubtedly are hesitant to feed the United States data that might fuel the president’s “Terror Tuesday” meetings. Put simply, they are afraid their names might end up on the front page of the New York Times, or that they — like Dr. Shakil Afridi in Pakistan — might be hung out to dry.

Intelligence is vital to the effective prosecution of any war, particularly one fought against non-state enterprises like the ones targeting Americans and our allies the world over. By forgoing opportunities to capture rather than kill so many key members of al Qaeda and its affiliates, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the president appears to be trading opportunities to learn more about what America’s “public enemy No. 1” may be plotting next for the chance to score political points here at home.

According to Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, the administration is not just unnecessarily jeopardizing relations with key intelligence sources or forgoing important opportunities to gather additional intelligence that could be used to protect Americans and neutralize broader threats posed by foremost lethal terrorist groups. Its policies are unnecessarily complicating matters on the ground for intelligence officers and our service members: “In most wars, if you’re the CIA director or the secretary of defense and you just captured the No. 2 of an enemy organization, most people would say, ‘Oh, great.’ You know what we’d say? ‘Oh, [expletive],’” Mr. Graham told Mr. Junod. “It’s a hot potato nobody wants to handle, and I can tell you from talking to them that it affects the forces on the ground. I can tell you that the operators are in a bad spot out there. They know that if they capture a guy, it creates a nightmare. And it’s just easier to kill ‘em.”

It’s unsurprising for a president with as little experience in national security as Mr. Obama to adopt less-than-optimal strategies to deter threats posed by al Qaeda and affiliated movements and then apprise the public of those efforts. Still, the Romney campaign is confounding Americans with its failure to attack the administration’s activities more aggressively on these fronts.

Certainly, the centerpiece of America’s 2012 political battle for the presidency will be winning the hearts and minds of Americans concerned about our economy. But the Obama administration’s penchant for leaking details about foreign intelligence operations to bolster perceptions of the president’s defense policy bona fides could backfire and generate new opportunities for his opponent. That will happen only if the GOP is capable of doing more than merely painting the president as a socialist and explains to the public why his defense-policy portfolio is so toxic.

By telling the classified side of that story, the president’s men already have done much of the heavy lifting for the Republicans. The question is: Will the GOP let the Obama administration’s hard work go to waste?

Michael S. Smith II is a principal and co-founder of Kronos Advisory, a counterterrorism expert and a senior analyst with Wikistrat.

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