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tv   Meet the Presss Press Pass  NBC  June 3, 2012 11:30am-11:45am EDT

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i'm david gregory, and this is "press pass," your all-access pass to an extra "meet the press" conversation. and this week i'm joined by daniel klaidman, "newsweek" correspondent, author of the new book "to kill or capture: the war on terror and the soul of the obama presidency." dan, it's great to have you. this is such an important book because of the news it breaks, number one, but also it's so revealing about the kind of wartime president barack obama wanted to be and felt he had to be. explain that. >> well, absolutely. and it's sort of a side of barack obama that we don't see very much. these national security issues are generally shrouded in secrecy. so it's really the first time that people get kind of a
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textured, you know, three-dimensional view of obama. and he's a complex character. you know, he does have this side to him that is very professorial and thoughtful that people generally know about. at the same time he can be extremely decisive and kind of almost brutally clinical about going after what he perceives to be enemies of the united states. >> and this is not -- if president bush took the country to war on a large scale in afghanistan and then iraq, president obama was determined to be perhaps just as lethal but on a much smaller scale. >> that's exactly right. barack obama wanted to end the wars of 9/11, do it quickly in iraq and then win decisively in afghanistan but then bring the troops home. but that didn't mean that there were not serious threats out there. al qaeda core, the main al qaeda organization in pakistan, was still plotting and planning against the united states. and then the organization had
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become much more diffuse and there were these affiliates in places like yemen and somalia that could also be extremely dangerous. he wanted to be targeted. he wanted to be precise. he wanted to go after those terrorists. he wanted to stay al qaeda focused. a.q. focused, as he would say. and not -- this is important. not get sucked into, you know, local insurgencies in those places. he didn't want to open up new fronts. he wanted to try to stay as surgical and limited as possible. >> as a colleague pointed out to me, it's striking if you think about the obama legacy. here is the perceived liberal who is the one to unilaterally invade a country to kill a guy. and that's what he did with osama bin laden. >> that's exactly right. a lot of people have said about barack obama that he is not the sort of idealist community organizer, foreign policy type. but he's actually a fairly, you know, cold-blooded realist in a lot of ways. and what he does is he defines
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the threats against the united states and he tries to go after them. but he does it fairly carefully. the problem is that as he came to understand over the course of his first three years in office, you know, it's very difficult to resist the sort of widening and the push toward more violence. you have a military -- he inherited a military and cia that was very much on the offensive when he came in. he pushed back somewhat. but there are always these threats out there. and sometimes what the military warns about, for instance, what's going on in yemen right now, the intelligence begins to support that. he's now become more aggressive there, even though over the first three years of his presidency he tried not to. >> talk about what you reveal in this book that you didn't know about the president's wars, particularly against al qaeda. >> well, i think the first thing
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is his almost singular involvement in making these killing decisions. the president -- people know a fair amount about the cia's drone program. that's gotten a lot of attention. targeted killing. the president authorizes that program. but he doesn't make individual killing decisions. in the case of the military's targeted killing program, which people know actually less about and is pretty agrefrs, he made the decision that he wanted to sign off on those individual decisions. which is quite an extraordinary thing for the commander in chief. it sort of recall lbj picking targets. but he did that because he was concerned that the use of force has a way of sort of spinning out of control. and he wanted to make sure that he exercised some kind of supervision over that process. >> now, are these special forces operations? are they also drone operations? >> they're drones often. they're also other kinds of targeted killings using helicopter gunships, using
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missiles from planes. and they are special operations forces. it's done by jsoc. it's fairly secretive. but it's not covert. >> the reason he wanted to personally authorize these, because civilians are getting killed in the course of targeting these individuals. >> and that's the other important -- >> we're mostly talking about pakistan, right? >> we're talking about pakistan. we're talking about yemen. we're talking about somalia. those are the main fronts in this war. and you know, he had a first experience three days after he took office. really it was hours after he had signed the executive orders that closed down guantanamo, or were supposed to close down guantanamo, that shut down the cia's detention facility, that was supposed to end torture. did end torture. and hours later john brennan, his counterterrorism adviser, comes to him and says, there's been a drone strike in pakistan, a cia drone, aimed at taliban and al qaeda commanders, but
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there was a terrible mistake. they killed a afghan tribal elder, aguy on a peace committee, pro-government guy and much of his family. the president was pretty shaken by this. you know, he'd been hearing all through the transition about these -- this technology that was supposed to be so precise. what happened? so he calls the cia in. mike hayden, who was still the cia director at the time, and his deputy. and he wants to know what happened. and they run through this program for him. and they explain to him that they don't always know who exactly it is they're targeting. they don't always have precise i.d. they call them signature strikes. he's wrapping his mind around this for the first time. and it concerns him. on the other hand, he accepts it, and it's an important inflection point in his presidency. >> talk about what your book also reveals about the tension within the administration about a largely secret war of targeted killings. because the shorthand for this that some have observed inside the administration, the book's
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title is "kill or capture." the decision was kill rather than capture. he wanted to shut down guantanamo bay. it hasn't been shut down. they were not realistic about what it would take to get that done. so again the shorthand is kill them, don't capture them because we don't have a place to detain them. >> that's exactly right. these are the unintended consequences of a fairly idealistic policy. during the campaign the president, as you say, wanted to shut down guantanamo. he wanted to restore american principles to the war on terror. and that meant restoring the rule of law. and he promised to shut down guantanamo. the problem is it created all sorts of problems in terms of potential. what do you do when you do capture these people? you can't bring them to guantanamo anymore. huge political problems as you try to bring them to the u.s. homeland. they learned that in the first months of the administration. if you turn them over to other countries you run the risk that
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those countries are going to end up torturing them. so the perception out there is that instead of capturing and detaining terrorists they've been killing them. well, that's a little bit of an oversimplificatio oversimplification. in most cases they don't have the opportunity to capture people. so they can't go into certain areas of pakistan. they can't be on the ground in yemen. and so they are killing those people instead. you talk to people in the administration, advisers of the president, and they say, well, that may be true, but it is also true that the lack of a detention policy created some sort of perverse incentives toward killing and so even people in the administration who deal with this on a regular basis are uncomfortable with the state of affairs. >> what do you -- again, i go back to the moral fissures in the administration. is this a moral and just war? what kind of fight has there been within the administration? >> you know, i have to say, in all the reporting i did for this book, i did not find a lot of
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evidence of people who were ultimately against the drone program or targeted killings. partly because i think they do think that the president has run this in a way that's been very surgical. what's interesting is the transformation of some of the people who've come into the administration who had some of those views when they first came in. a character i write about in some detail in this book is harold koh, who's the state department's top legal -- top lawyer. and former dean of yale law school and really one of the great humanitarians and human rights lawyers. he came in very skeptical and over time, perhaps it's a process of rationalization, but i think also because he actually saw the way these powers were being applied, he began to change his mind. but early on in one of these kill meetings which i write about in the book he saw this kind of inexorable quality of these meetings where the
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military is, you know, with their sort of jargon and their ability to create a sense of do or die urgency. it became very difficult to resist the pressure to kill. and harold koh said to himself, you know, i was a law professor. how did i get involved in killing? and you know, there we are. >> we'll take a quick break here and be back with more from author daniel klaidman. we'll talk about the politics of terrorism in the 2012 campaign. after this. america's appetite for energy is growing. nuclear energy is part of the answer to meet this demand. nuclear energy facilities in 31 states already provide reliable and affordable electricity for one in 5 homes and businesses, and nuclear energy is america's largest source of clean air electricity. so nuclear energy can provide made-in-america electricity while protecting the environment. nuclear--clean air energy.
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and we're back with more of our "press pass" conversation with "newsweek" special correspondent daniel klaidman, author of the new book "to kill or capture." >> the politics of this are interesting because you have to wonder whether there's really going to be a big debate about national security policy in this presidential campaign given what the president's done. >> well, you have to go back to gene mccarthy. you know, when the democrats were strong on national security. when gene mccarthy broke with the vietnam war and the democrats, that started two generations of people saying that the democrats were soft on terrorism. soft on national security, i should say. it's going to be very difficult to say that to barack obama. he's not completely insulated on national security. look at what's happening in syria. other aspects of his foreign policy that could be vulnerable. but the essential question

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