There was a time when critics of Barack Obama feared that he would be unwilling to use violent force against terrorists. In Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, chief New York Times Washington correspondent David E. Sanger writes that they need not have worried. The Harvard-educated constitutional lawyer and community organizer expanded the war against America’s enemies in ways unforeseen, taking executive powers further than his predecessors could ever imagine. Sanger’s meticulously reported book details the backroom meetings, whispered deals, and secret actions that have shaped American policy in the Middle East. From Stuxnet to the Arab Spring, here are the five most revealing moments from Obama’s wars.
1. Leading the Hackers
A new kind of war takes a new kind of weapon. As advisers presented President Obama with options to slow the development of Iran’s nuclear program, one idea, then known only by the code name “Olympic Games,” seemed particularly intriguing. The administration decided to pursue a project begun during the Bush years: a computer bug of hitherto unmatched sophistication that would be designed to target the centrifuges used in the enrichment of uranium at secret Iranian sites.
The bug worked, and to devastating effect. But after a rogue version of the software leaked worldwide, the project and the sensitive computer code for what became known as Stuxnet were exposed. It’s unclear how successful the project was in pushing back Iran’s nuclear timeline, but cyber-security specialists are now concerned that other nations may be able to redesign portions of the bug for use in attacks on American computer systems and infrastructure.
2. Afghanistan’s Pakistan Problem
In his effort to stabilize Afghanistan, President Obama has had to deal with volatile Pakistani and Afghan leaders including Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president who once said that if Obama and the West pressured him too much, “I might join the Taliban.”
Among the biggest problems is the porous border Afghanistan shares with Pakistan. Sanger reports that at the height of the surge, the Haqqani network’s cross-border attacks in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces increased fivefold over the previous year, according to NATO’s count. In response to the difficulties of bringing stability to the region, the administration quietly convened a committee in 2010 called “Afghan Good Enough,” a group that was tasked with forging practical plans for future American involvement in the country. A sister group, “Pakistan Good Enough,” brought together diplomats and administration officials to discuss what the U.S. could do to improve its toxic relationship with Afghanistan’s neighbor.
3. The Pakistani Nuclear-Bomb Scare
If there is one nightmare scenario that keeps American security officials up the most, it may be that of a nuclear device slipping out of the hands of the Pakistan government and into those of Islamic extremists. Early on in Obama’s administration, the president got an education in just what such a terrifying episode may look like, when intelligence officers arrived at the White House to tell him that there was an “emerging intelligence picture” that suggested the Pakistani Taliban may somehow have wound up in control of a nuclear weapon of unknown size.
Communications chatter that was picked up led American intelligence to think that the Taliban may have come into possession of a crude nuclear weapon known as a dirty bomb. Obama approached the Pakistanis to see if they would cooperate. They were little help. However, Pakistan itself was actually the most likely target of a nuclear strike, and finally the country’s officials agreed to survey its nuclear arsenal. They reported to the White House that all was in order. As quickly and inexplicably as the threat had appeared, it vanished, and no one quite knows why. It may be that the United States misunderstood the initial chatter, or that the militants themselves were duped into thinking they had procured something they had not. Either way, the scare seems to have improved cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan to secure the company’s nuclear stockpile.
4. Other Plans to Get Bin Laden
While the U.S. ended up finding Osama bin Laden in his Abbottabad hideout by tracking his couriers, intelligence officials tried some other ideas that remain fascinating for their ingenuity, even if they didn’t prove successful. One involved bin Laden’s practice of making video messages of himself for distribution to his followers.
The videos had to be made somewhere, reasoned intelligence officers tasked with finding the man whose last known whereabouts had been recorded in 2001. To keep making them, bin Laden needed cameras. If they could somehow trick him into using a camera equipped with a homing device, the very technology that the al Qaeda leader was using to spread his message of hate could be used to send a Hellfire missile or a team of Navy SEALs crashing through his window. Putting the plan into practice, the U.S. began selling cameras equipped with tracking devices in the mountainous region of Peshawar, where bin Laden was wrongly thought to be hiding. The plan did not work, but Sanger writes that operations using similar technology are still underway.
5. The War on Iran’s Scientists
When it comes to nuclear weapons, it is far easier to stop a country from ever getting them than to disarm a country that has them. Yet sanctions and other nonviolent efforts have proven difficult in Iran. In a series of high-profile assassinations, Israel’s covert-operations teams have carried out hits on Iranian scientists linked to the country’s nuclear development program—strikes with which the U.S. says it does not cooperate. Other questions go unanswered entirely, such as what happened when a missile-development site a short drive from Tehran was wiped out in a massive explosion in November 2011.
American efforts to stall Iran’s nuclear program were what led to Stuxnet, and it is likely that the U.S. will continue to develop “weapons” that can go where bombs cannot burrow and Predator drones cannot peer. Intelligence suggests that Iran is at work digging a secret facility deep into a mountainside near the city of Qom, and Sanger writes that when Obama was first presented with the data on this facility, it was virtually impenetrable. Yet the development of new weapons and tactics such as Stuxnet to face these challenges may lead to a new arms race, Sanger writes, even as Obama works to undo the terrifying atomic legacy he has been handed.