NYT: Obama personally overseeing U.S. intel's Al Qaeda "kill list"

A dynamite piece, well worth 10 minutes of your time. In fact, there’s no better proof of just how far O’s “evolved” from his 2008 counterterror posture to the “Cheney lite” figure we know today than the number of sources who cooperated with the Times on this story. This isn’t just one “senior administration official” blabbing to a reporter about how the White House handles terror targets; this is “three dozen of his current and former advisers,” including Dennis Blair and Bill Daley on the record, cooperating. They want people to know about this, likely for two reasons. One: It’s a bit of transparency to try to pacify critics of the process, not unlike the NYT story from last October that revealed the basic thrust of the OLC memo that approved the targeting of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. By releasing dribs and drabs of info to the Times instead of the underlying materials themselves, the White House keeps one foot in the “disclosure” camp and the other in the secrecy camp. Two: It’s a way to boost the campaign narrative of Obama as the strong, decisive leader who’s pummeling Al Qaeda. Remember, after he spiked the football on the anniversary of the Bin Laden killing, he was criticized for taking credit that rightfully belonged entirely to the SEALs. This piece is an implicit rebuttal: He’s more hands-on than you’d think. Savor the irony that the guy whom the left elected as a repudiation of Bush/Cheney is now using the NYT to make sure that people know he’s personally giving the thumbs-down to jihadis in the Oval Office.

There are too many interesting passages for the standard three-paragraph blockquote so let me snatch a few of the more intriguing details for you. First, how O used squirrelly weasel words in his executive order banning rendition to make sure that, er, rendition wasn’t banned:

“The way this is written, you are going to take us out of the rendition business,” Mr. Rizzo told Gregory B. Craig, Mr. Obama’s White House counsel, referring to the much-criticized practice of grabbing a terrorist suspect abroad and delivering him to another country for interrogation or trial. The problem, Mr. Rizzo explained, was that the C.I.A. sometimes held such suspects for a day or two while awaiting a flight. The order appeared to outlaw that.

Mr. Craig assured him that the new president had no intention of ending rendition — only its abuse, which could lead to American complicity in torture abroad. So a new definition of “detention facility” was inserted, excluding places used to hold people “on a short-term, transitory basis.” Problem solved — and no messy public explanation damped Mr. Obama’s celebration.

If you’ve ever wondered why those drone strikes in Pakistan are so good at avoiding civilian casualties, wonder no longer:

It is also because Mr. 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…

[I]n interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number [of civilian casualties] 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.

According to former Obama NSA Gen. James Jones, they’ve waved off plenty of attacks at the 11th hour for fear of civilian casualties — but not always (Taliban capo Baitullah Mehsud was targeted despite being with his wife at the time). Their rule of thumb seems to be that they’ll cancel an attack if women or children are around unless the jihadi being targeted is especially important. If Ayman Zawahiri’s driver is spotted with his young son, I’d bet he’d be spared. The big Z himself, not so much.

Finally, a revealing insight into how Obama’s dislike for basic retail politics helps thwart his policy ambitions:

General Jones said the president and his aides had assumed that closing the prison [Gitmo] was “a no-brainer — the United States will look good around the world.” The trouble was, he added, “nobody asked, ‘O.K., let’s assume it’s a good idea, how are you going to do this?’ “

It was not only Mr. Obama’s distaste for legislative backslapping and arm-twisting, but also part of a deeper pattern, said an administration official who has watched him closely: the president seemed to have “a sense that if he sketches a vision, it will happen — without his really having thought through the mechanism by which it will happen.”

That’s the story of “hope and change” from 2008 until now in a perfect little nutshell. As I say, read it all or you’ll miss the details I left out, including one of Bush’s lawyers marveling at how much more comfortable with Gitmo the world became in January 2009 and the fact that David Axelrod, of all people, had taken to sitting in on Obama’s terror briefings. How much input did he have on whether to target a particular terrorist (e.g., another U.S. citizen like Awlaki) if it might prove “problematic” for November? See why I think they had a political angle in leaking so much of this to the Times?

Via Mediaite, here’s Joe Scarborough fretting over the fact that O is personally approving targets on the “kill list.” Actually, I think it’d be more worrisome if he wasn’t personally approving them but was farming them out entirely to bureaucrats. By leaving his own fingerprints on the decision to strike, he’s making himself more accountable to voters. This way, if something goes horribly wrong, he can’t play dumb and pretend that it was done without his permission.

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