Book Synopsis: Kill or Capture

Daniel Klaidman | Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2012)

by Isha Mehmood, a law student at New York University School of Law


National political correspondent Daniel Klaidman’s book, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, offers a compelling account of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy and the internal debates that have framed the current political landscape. Providing insight into the thought process behind controversial decisions from Guantanamo Bay and indefinite detention to the legality of targeted killings, Klaidman weaves together a narrative that depicts the complexity of national security policy in a post-9/11 world. Obama’s war on terror has drifted from his predecessor’s in significant ways – most notably, the use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists increased tenfold in the first two years of his presidency and has continued to expand. But, as Klaidman reports, the transition from lofty speeches and campaign rhetoric to the “unrelenting use of hard, lethal power” was an arduous process that weighed on Obama. His book, drawn from more than 200 sources, describes the circumstances that have defined the administration’s national security policy and influenced some of the most important counterterrorism decisions today.

As Klaidman reports, Obama was elected not for his foreign policy views, but his promises to strengthen the economy and create jobs. His national security positions during the campaign differed little from his opponent’s, making it clear that the country’s priorities “laid elsewhere”. The administration’s approach to national security, therefore, “would be less a matter of political necessity, more one of character and symbolism,” with decisions being guided as much by their long-term legacy as they were by their short-term political goals. “I don’t want my name” on a policy that might be judged harshly, Obama would sometimes tell his staff. How he dealt with counterterrorism issues would become a hallmark of his presidency, a fact that was not lost on his administration. “If your name is on it, you’ll own it,” State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh advised the President, as he considered prolonged detention for dangerous Guantanamo detainees. Balanced against domestic concerns, Obama struggled with how to frame his national security legacy, an “inescapable reality” that he would have to choose among policy priorities.

Internally, Klaidman describes a dysfunctional White House where Obama’s advisors pushed him in different directions. The struggle between the “Tammany Hall” and “Aspen Institute” factions, a description coined by Rahm Emanuel early in the presidency, would play out most notably in the prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – or KSM. On one side were the “hardheaded realists” – those, like Emanuel, who believed that the President’s campaign promises were inconsistent with the larger political agenda. On the other side were the “idealists and policy wonks” that firmly believed Obama both could and should maintain his commitment to a more just society. Attorney General Eric Holder and former White House Counsel Greg Craig fell into the latter category, described as being pitted against Emanuel in their view that KSM should be prosecuted in federal court.

Klaidman’s book presents a series of complicated choices that, over time, developed into a counterterrorism policy radically different than imagined by Obama’s supporters. By 2009, Obama had claimed the authority to hold detainees in prolonged detention without trial and revived the controversial military commissions made famous under the Bush administration. “Kill or capture operations” had already expanded under his presidency, with Harold Koh and Department of Defense General Counsel Jeh C. Johnson playing a key role in determining who could be targeted. Klaidman portrays a haunting scenario where Koh and Johnson would be presented with “baseball cards,” a collection of PowerPoint slides that detailed potential targets suspected history with terrorism and other defining characteristics. Both men would frantically flip through the slides, sometimes with as little as forty-five minutes to absorb the intelligence and assess the legality of the situation. Their call would be critical to determining whether a particular target could be killed.

According to Klaidman, Koh and Johnson’s legal interpretations were influenced by their different approaches. This often led to a tug of war, not just between the two but also their corresponding agencies. Described in the book as a “liberal idealist,” Koh was considered by some to be one of the most ardent human rights advocates in the administration. He and Johnson, the “pragmatic centrist,” agreed that the most senior members of al-Qaeda could be legally targeted based on their position within the organization alone. But they differed in their interpretation of whether members of other terrorist organizations, whose connections to al-Qaeda were unclear, fell within the scope of the program. Johnson was firm in his position that the United States could target such “cobelligerants” on the basis that it was in a state of armed conflict with al-Qaeda. Koh was not so sure.

In the end, the rivalry between Koh and Johnson came out most in how the administration dealt with al-Shabab, an offshoot of a Somali extremist group that had loose affiliations with al-Qaeda. Early in 2010, Johnson declared that he would no longer approve targeted killings of Shabab members with the exception of the most senior operatives, “those who had ‘dual hatted’ status as sworn members of al-Qaeda.” Koh called it Johnson’s finest moment, but by the fall it was unclear whether Johnson stood by his previous decision. After a July attack in Uganda, Johnson was convinced that the link between Shabab and al-Qaeda was growing stronger. A secure conference call pitted the attorneys against each other. The top lawyer for the National Security Council had convened the call to consider the targeting of three high-level Shabab members. The first two had sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda and favored striking the West. Koh and Johnson were in agreement that they could be targeted. But the third – Sheikh Mukhtar Robow – represented a moderate faction of the organization that was opposed to attacking America and other Western interests. Although he had previously led al-Shabab, there had been a split in the organization. Koh argued that Robow could not be targeted, both as a matter of policy and law. “The State Department legal advisor, for the record, believes this killing would be unlawful,” he stated. A decision was taken. Robow was removed from the list.

The book describes Koh’s “elaborate legal tests,” developed to help determine who could be legally killed. Initially he proposed a four-part standard, permitting the administration to target: (1) members who were clearly a part of al-Qaeda, (2) in a senior position, (3) “externally focused”, and (4) where there was evidence of a plan to attack. Yet this approach didn’t adequately address the reality of terrorist operations, where waiting for a detailed plan to unfold meant putting American lives at stake. This led Koh to develop a theory of “elongated imminence,” allowing a consistent pattern of prior activity to justify an act of self-defense. Terrorists didn’t have to be boarding a plane before a kill operation could be executed, Klaidman notes, “it would be enough if they were designing the suicide vests.”

Klaidman describes the choice between kill or capture was deceptive, suggesting that the “tangled and politically fraught detention issues” surrounding a high level capture created “perverse incentives that favored killing or releasing suspected terrorists.” “We never talked about this openly, but it was always a back-of-the-mind thing for us,” one of Obama’s top counterterrorism advisors told Klaidman. “Anyone who says it wasn’t isn’t being straight.” The book contrasts the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden with the capture of Abdulkadir Warsame, a high level liaison between al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen. Warsame’s capture was “textbook Obama”: nuanced and lawyerly, “a classic split-the-difference approach that sought to balance all of the competing interests.” Yet even the best capture faced criticism. Klaidman describes the Warsame case as an anomaly that had little effect on the perceived preference to kill. Intelligence obtained from his capture would ultimately lead to one of the administration’s most controversial kills – the death of American born al-Qaeda cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki. Obama’s decision to use lethal force in the face of a serious imminent threat, even against an American citizen, would become a defining moment of his counterterrorism policy, demonstrating his willingness to take calculated – and lethal – risks to protect national security.

Kill or Capture offers an extraordinary behind the scenes look into the Obama presidency and its national security decision making. Throughout the book, Obama is caught between his own pragmatic impulses and his commitment to what he has described as “first principles.” Rejecting the idea that there is a “false choice” between protecting the country and upholding its values, Obama sought to balance the liberty and security interests at stake. His precedent has evolved – although Klaidman describes the growth of targeted killings during his presidency, other developments show how Obama is working to reform the way these decisions are made. In January 2013, he nominated John Brennan to head the CIA, a decision Klaidman believes (in subsequent writings) signals the President’s intention to put weight behind Brennan’s “playbook” – a set of standards and procedures that subjects the drone program to a more vigorous interagency process, increases White House supervision, and transfers control to the military. But Obama’s legacy is far from being finalized. Providing insight into the administration’s internal deliberations from the campaign up to the 2012 presidential election, Klaidman makes clear that the administration’s final chapter on counterterrorism operations has yet to be written.

Daphne Eviatar on Klaidman’s Kill or Capture:

Daniel Klaidman’s Kill or Capture goes inside the White House to reveal the play-by-play of how a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president, who promised to end torture and close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, came to preside over the exponential expansion of a secret and unaccountable killing machine. Klaidman’s narrative reveals how the Obama administration, after renouncing the Bush/Cheney “war on terror,” justified secretly killing suspected terrorists far from any recognized battlefield. An aggressive interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force allowed the United States to reach far beyond those who attacked us on 9/11 to all of al Qaeda and “associated forces” – whoever and wherever they may be. Those who couldn’t possibly fall within that orbit would nonetheless be attacked if the “window of opportunity” arose. That’s since become an integral part the Obama administration’s unprecedented definition of  “imminent” threats warranting preemptive lethal strikes. Klaidman accepts too easily, however, the Obama critics’ claim that the president is killing rather than capturing suspects because has no place to put them. In fact, the United States can and does detain, interrogate and bring suspected terrorists captured overseas to the United States to face charges routinely. Klaidman’s account of the case of Ahmed Warsame illustrates that power, while also revealing the Obama administration’s characteristic dithering over using it. Still, Obama ultimately comes across as a careful and deliberate pragmatist who is committed at least to trying to match his administration’s deeds to his lofty rhetoric — eventually. His recent speeches on U.S. national security policy suggest he has much more work to do.

David Cole on Klaidman’s Kill or Capture:

This is the single best account of how the Obama administration sought to pursue the fight against terrorism within the constraints of international and domestic law.  It reveals a president committed to keeping Americans safe but also committed to honoring the rule of law, and sometimes torn about how best to do both things.  What comes through in the end, though, is a commitment to tackle these hard questions, and not to dismiss legal rules as dispensable, the approach too often taken by his predecessor.

Further Reading


Further Reading

  1. Steve Coll, “Kill or Capture,” New Yorker Daily Comment (August 2, 2012) Mixed/neutral
  2. Kevin Gosztola, “Targeted Killings: Obama’s Pragmatic Solution to Failing to Close Guantanamo,” Dissenter (June 24, 2012) Somewhat positive
  3. Matthew Heiman, “Book Reviews: Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency,” 13 Engage 127 (2012) Somewhat positive
  4. Malou Innocent, “Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency,” Cairo Rev. Global Aff.  Somewhat positive
  5. Mark Moyar, “Politics by Other Means,” Wall St. J. (June 9, 2012) Mixed
  6. Michael B. Mukasey, “Obama and Terror: A Four-Year Scandal,” Commentary Magazine (November 4, 2012)  Mixed
  7. Adam Serwer, “Book: Obama Wasn’t Always So Into Drone Strikes,” Mother Jones Blog (June 8, 2012) Somewhat positive
  8. Dina Temple-Raston, “Book Review: Daniel Klaidman’s ‘Kill or Capture’ and David Sanger’s ‘Confront and Conceal’,” Wash. Post (June 15, 2012) Somewhat positive
  9. Chris Woods, “Analysis: Obama Embraced Redefinition of ‘Civilian in Drone Wars,” Bureau Investigative Journalism (May 29, 2012) (reviewing the extract that Klaidman released in May 2012) Mixed
  10. Max Zahn, “Juicy Details Engender Compromised Analysis in Daniel Klaidman’s ‘Kill or Capture’,” Buddha on Strike (April 10, 2013) Somewhat critical
  11. In Shadow and Secret: Peering into the Soul of Obama’s Presidency,” Understanding Empire (November 14, 2012) Somewhat positive