If Bradley Manning ever gets a chance to read two new books — Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, by Daniel Klaidman, and Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, by David E Sanger — he’ll be wondering: how do these guys get away with it? In other words, how can top government officials reveal highly classified information to prominent journalists who then use this information to publish what will likely become best-selling books and these major breaches of secrecy take place without anyone even getting a slap on the wrists?
Of course Manning and everyone else already knows the answer: this administration like all its predecessors has no compunction about revealing secrets whenever these revelations serve the administration’s interests.
Obama’s secret wars and his comfort in the role of chief assassin aren’t secrets because these revelations will supposedly improve his chances of getting re-elected. The Obama 2012 campaign is determined that when it comes to national security issues, Mitt Romney and the GOP will never freely be provided with opportunities to cast this president as insufficiently tough. Neither is it conceivable that any Republican will ever accuse Obama of being too tough on terrorism or Iran.
So Klaidman and Sanger’s books seem to be coming out conveniently timed to help frame the general election. Earlier this week the New York Times presented the most detailed account thus far made available about Obama’s hands-on approach to drone warfare, and today we are getting a kind of companion piece on Obama’s hands-on approach to cyberwarfare.
The speculation about the Stuxnet computer worm is over: it was a U.S. operation with Israel as a junior partner — the operation was called Olympic Games. And when Stuxnet went out of control and started spreading around the world, some in the administration were swift to assign blame:
In the summer of 2010, shortly after a new variant of the worm had been sent into Natanz, it became clear that the worm, which was never supposed to leave the Natanz machines, had broken free, like a zoo animal that found the keys to the cage. It fell to Mr. Panetta and two other crucial players in Olympic Games — General Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Michael J. Morell, the deputy director of the C.I.A. — to break the news to Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden.
An error in the code, they said, had led it to spread to an engineer’s computer when it was hooked up to the centrifuges. When the engineer left Natanz and connected the computer to the Internet, the American- and Israeli-made bug failed to recognize that its environment had changed. It began replicating itself all around the world. Suddenly, the code was exposed, though its intent would not be clear, at least to ordinary computer users.
“We think there was a modification done by the Israelis,” one of the briefers told the president, “and we don’t know if we were part of that activity.”
Mr. Obama, according to officials in the room, asked a series of questions, fearful that the code could do damage outside the plant. The answers came back in hedged terms. Mr. Biden fumed. “It’s got to be the Israelis,” he said. “They went too far.”
The idea that the Israelis needed to be kept on a leash is really a side note in the general narrative here. The overarching story is that Obama took on two policies that had been initiated by George Bush — the use of drones to assassinate suspected terrorists, and the use of cyberwarfare to disable Iran’s nuclear program — and he showed more daring and imagination than Bush and proved himself not merely another wartime president, but a president dedicated to advancing America’s position as the most advanced war-fighting nation in the world.
At the same time, Obama is presented ambiguously as a commander disinclined to initiate. The portrait appears intended to convey an amalgam of boldness and caution.
Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings on Olympic Games, was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory, much as his predecessors had with the first use of atomic weapons in the 1940s, of intercontinental missiles in the 1950s and of drones in the past decade. He repeatedly expressed concerns that any American acknowledgment that it was using cyberweapons — even under the most careful and limited circumstances — could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks.
“We discussed the irony, more than once,” one of his aides said. Another said that the administration was resistant to developing a “grand theory for a weapon whose possibilities they were still discovering.” Yet Mr. Obama concluded that when it came to stopping Iran, the United States had no other choice.
If Olympic Games failed, he told aides, there would be no time for sanctions and diplomacy with Iran to work. Israel could carry out a conventional military attack, prompting a conflict that could spread throughout the region.
The problem with Obama’s lead-from-behind approach is that he is setting precedents in the use, for instance, of assassinations and cyberwarfare, where not in spite of but because they are not being enshrined in an Obama doctrine, these precedents seem even more likely to become standard practice — they will not be seen as Obama’s way but instead unquestioningly accepted as the American way.