Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power
David E Sanger
New York, 2012
Price: 1,795 rupees
In Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, David Sanger has written the definitive account of President Barack Obama’s handling of foreign policy. Packed with information, it provides interesting details on how some significant decisions were made at the White House in recent years. It tells us how the Americans flooded the Pakistani market with digital cameras to determine Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. Each of these cameras contained a unique signature and sent out traceable signals. American administration officials were working on the assumption that the Al-Qaeda founder “loved nothing more than to make videos that kept his message alive” and his videographers might want to upgrade their equipment at some stage for better results. The strategy failed, but the Americans managed to discover bin Laden’s residence in Abbottabad using more conventional means.
As they started gathering intelligence, some interesting facts about the place emerged. “There were no phones or Internet at the compound,” writes Sanger. “The occupants were either hermits or desperately afraid of being traced. Garbage was burned in the courtyard rather than collected on the street. And the couriers, it became clear, drove at least 90 minutes from the compound before they turned on their cells to make a call.”
The book claims that some administration officials briefly discussed the possibility of sharing this intelligence information with Pakistan as they decided to raid the compound. But the idea was dropped since there “was story after story of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) warning potential targets of joint raids to get out of town”. The National Security Agency’s “computers were filled with intercepted conversations in which ISI officers played both sides of the war” and “not one person in President Obama’s team wanted the Pakistanis to be in the loop”.
Sanger’s work must be read by rightwing conspiracy theorists in Pakistan who always claim that our foreign policy is formulated somewhere in Washington. The book mentions how officials from the two countries debate contentious issues and how difficult it gets for them to reach a consensus.
This narrative should also be read by those interested in the future of warfare. Sanger’s account clearly demonstrates how American research in science and technology has rapidly increased its ability to target its enemies without using conventional means of combat.
He discusses in detail how the Americans gained access to Iran’s highly-fortified Natanz nuclear plant by simply infecting its computer systems. The idea was to get a clear picture of the inner workings of the facility. After the initial success of the programme, the US decided to embark on a joint venture with Israel and developed a worm that destroyed nearly a thousand centrifuges on the same premises without raising suspicion among Iranian nuclear scientists.
It is interesting to note that initial cyber attacks on Iran were authorised by President George W Bush whose administration was already targeting Iraq and Afghanistan. But while Obama was concerned about the other two wars, he decided to continue with his predecessor’s strategy of limiting Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon since it was a low-risk option. It also made it easier for him to dissuade Israel from launching a unilateral attack against Iran.
Sanger also points out that Obama relied too heavily on drones to meet his administration’s objectives. “Quietly, he is attempting to fit them into a new concept of how the United States can ensure its military predominance around the globe without resorting to the lengthy, expensive, and unpopular wars and occupations that dominated the last decade.”
But he also points out that the reliance on high-tech weapons raises a number of questions that the US must answer at this stage. “What is the difference – legally and morally – between a sticky bomb the Israelis place on the side of an Iranian scientist’s car and a Hellfire missile the United States launches at a car in Yemen from thirty thousand feet in the air,” he asks. “How is one an ‘assassination’ – condemned by the United States – and the other an ‘insurgent strike’? What is the difference between attacking a country’s weapons-making machinery through a laptop computer or through bunker-busters? What happens when other states catch up with American technology – some already have – and turn these weapons on targets inside the United States or American troops abroad, arguing that it was Washington that set the precedent for their use. These are all questions the Obama team discusses chiefly in classified briefings, not public debates.”
Sanger includes highly confidential information in the book which, not surprisingly, has generated immense controversy in the US. White House officials have been criticised for leaking top secret data to the author. Sanger, however, recently told the Columbia Journalism Review that the “whole story developed from the bottom up … I don’t like the phrase ‘leaks,’” he said, “because it conveys, in some sense, that you’re sitting on your back porch sipping an iced tea and someone calls you up and says, ‘Do you want to meet in a garage? I have this file for you on this highly classified programme.’ In 30 years at The New York Times, that has never happened to me. It happens in the movies, and I guess it happened to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, but it never happened to me.”
Sanger’s book is timely, important and elegantly written. It must be read by everyone who wants credible information on the prevailing foreign policy thinking in Washington.