Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency
Kill or Capture: The War on Terror
and the Soul of the Obama Presidency. By Daniel Klaidman. Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt, 2012. 304 pp.
reporter Daniel Klaidman provides the first definitive account of the Obama
administration’s wide-ranging counterterrorism policies—from the fate of
Guantánamo Bay and indefinite detention to terrorism trials and the legality of
targeted killings. Klaidman’s account reveals both the tense deliberations
within Obama’s inner circle and the fear-mongering that politicized his
counterterrorism policies. What makes Kill
or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency
particularly interesting is how it sheds light on the paradox of post-9/11
America: how a country that views itself as a paragon of human rights and
international law came to ignore the very values and constitutional protections
it continues to champion.
narrative follows the Obama presidency from the 2008 campaign to the 2012
presidential election, exposing the real story behind why an administration
that so appealed to lofty ideals repeatedly abandoned its pledge to harmonize
America’s values with national security. For instance, candidate Obama promised
to reclaim America’s moral standing by closing Guantánamo Bay, ending
indefinite detention, and bringing terrorists to justice in civilian courts.
But President Obama, despite signing a series of executive orders that banned
coercive interrogation methods and terminated America’s secret overseas prisons
(“black sites”), faced a number of challenges shutting down Guantánamo.
terror suspects be brought to the mainland and prosecuted in civilian courts?
Did enhanced interrogation methods taint the evidence needed to win
convictions? What about detainees who had trained in Al-Qaeda camps, but had
not necessarily committed any crimes for which they could be prosecuted?
Eventually, Obama claimed the authority to hold terrorism suspects in prolonged
detention indefinitely without trial, in a symbolic rather than a substantive
reversal from the stance of his predecessor that alienated some in his liberal
both among Obama’s advisers and within partisan Washington, also derailed the
president’s counterterrorism agenda. Klaidman writes that in the view of White
House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, “Guantánamo was just a pain-in-the-ass
distraction.” He and other like-minded advisors pushed for the administration’s
laser-like focus on health care and the economy. Moreover, although President
George W. Bush had transferred more than five hundred detainees out of
Guantánamo—in an effort to shut down the prison in his second term—former Vice
President Dick Cheney equated closing Guantánamo with freeing dangerous
terrorists. Congress swiftly passed appropriation bills restricting the
transfer of detainees. As Klaidman writes, “an institution increasingly defined
by demagoguery was not the best place to develop sensible counterterrorism
encountered another roadblock when his attorney general, Eric Holder, attempted
to bring 9/11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators to
justice in a federal court in downtown Manhattan. Obama’s Republican opponents
argued that terrorists were not entitled to the protections available in
federal court, even though America’s closest allies had tried their terrorist
defendants in the cities where Al-Qaeda attacks had occurred—Madrid, London,
and Mumbai—and President Bush had routinely prosecuted terrorists in
traditional criminal courts, including Zacarias Moussaoui and shoe bomber
again, a president who had rejected his predecessor’s “feel-it-in-the-gut,
shoot-from-the-hip” national security response, sacrificed his own core
principles on the altar of political expediency. One area in particular was
Obama’s tightened grip over the secretive program of targeted killings using
drones, and their expanded deployment beyond the battlefields of Iraq and
Afghanistan into Somalia and Yemen.
remain over so-called “signature strikes” or “crowd killing”: targeting groups
of men who bore certain characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but
whose identities were not necessarily known. It is uncertain whether officials
knew whether those they targeted posed a specific and genuine threat to
American interests. After all, if certain targets were not focused on attacking
America, then the United States could not use international standards for
self-defense as a justification for killing them. This makes Klaidman’s
characterization of Obama as a “civil libertarian”—a term he neither defines
nor fully explains—a bit curious.
greased perhaps his slipperiest slope with the targeted killing of an American
citizen neither formally charged with a crime nor convicted at trial: Anwar
Al-Awlaki. An online propagandist and chief of external operations for Al-Qaeda
in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Awlaki influenced the Fort Hood shooter and
recruited the 2009 Christmas Day bomber. However odious Al-Awlaki may have
been, his killing raises complicated legal and moral questions about the danger
of unfettered presidential power. In this respect, Kill or Capture successfully frames official day-to-day
decision-making within the broader war on terror. The reader is naturally drawn
to realize the book’s underlying point: America’s lack of a long-term detention
policy may be perversely incentivizing kills over captures.
Malou Innocent is a foreign policy
analyst at the Cato Institute. She has written for Survival, Congressional Quarterly,
the Harvard International Review, Foreign
Policy, the Wall Street Journal Asia,
Christian Science Monitor, Armed
Forces Journal, Guardian, Washington Times, and other publications.