National Security
11:59 am
Mon June 4, 2012

'Obama's Secret Wars' Against America's Threats

Originally published on Tue June 5, 2012 12:51 pm

Last week, The New York Times reported that Stuxnet, the computer worm that infected computers around the world in 2010, was developed by the United States in conjunction with Israel to destroy Iran's nuclear centrifuges.

"It appears to be the first time the United States has repeatedly used cyberweapons to cripple another country's infrastructure, achieving, with computer code, what until then could be accomplished only by bombing a country or sending in agents to plant explosives," wrote David Sanger, the paper's chief Washington correspondent.

Sanger describes how President Obama decided to speed up clandestine cyberattacks against Iran's nuclear facilities — and significantly expand America's use of cyberweapons — in his new book, Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, which details how Obama is using both innovative weapons and strategies to address rapidly growing threats around the world.

On Monday's Fresh Air, Sanger talks about the president's changing foreign policy strategies in Yemen, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where early idealism in the White House eventually transitioned into a policy called "Afghan Good Enough."

"Afghan Good Enough," the nickname of a committee organized to narrow the goals in Afghanistan, met regularly with the president to determine what was considered "good enough" in terms of goals for the country.

"The kind of conversations that took place within that group represented a realpolitik that no one ever admits to on Sunday morning talk shows," writes Sanger. "One participant told me later, 'We spent the time asking questions like, 'How much corruption can we live with?' "

Sanger also details Obama's aggressive use of weapons like drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan and his acceleration of cyberwarfare attacks in Iran, where the U.S. and Israel developed computer worms designed to take down Iran's nuclear facilities.

Before they could attempt to take down Iran's Natanz nuclear enrichment plant, however, U.S. and Israeli officials needed to know what it looked like. Sanger explains that they initially sent a bit of computer code called a beacon into Natanz to map the plant's electronic infrastructure.

"This beacon went in and basically built a blueprint for how the Iranians had designed the electronics of this plant and then came back out and phoned home, back to the National Security Agency and Unit 8200, the Israelis' equivalent of the NSA," says Sanger. "And from the data that they gathered there, the U.S. and the Israelis designed a computer worm that would replicate within the system."

But U.S. officials first wanted to test the worm. So they built a full-scale replica of the Natanz plant on the grounds of the Department of Energy's national laboratories.

"They literally attacked their own mockup of the plant," says Sanger. "And one day they brought back ... the rubble of a destroyed centrifuge that had been attacked merely by computer commands. They had accomplished, for the first time, the destruction that previously the United States or other countries could accomplish only through bombing a facility."

When Obama took office in 2009, he met regularly with the security officials working to destroy the nuclear centrifuges.

"They would explain to the president what the latest version of the worm had done or had not done, what they were aiming for, and at the end of these sessions, he would essentially authorize them to move forward," says Sanger. "He would say, 'You can move to the next step,' and these attacks grew bolder and bolder until one day, at the end of 2010, when they made a big mistake."

That mistake allowed the computer worm — nicknamed Stuxnet — to spread to an Iranian engineer's computer, after he connected the computer to a centrifuge. When that engineer then went online, the virus began replicating — and spreading all over the world.

"The worm did not detect that its environment had changed," says Sanger. "So all of a sudden it thought the whole Internet — the whole world — was that same environment [as the plant], and it began propagating itself."

Initially Sanger and his colleagues at The New York Times thought Stuxnet had been released on the Internet by intelligence officials hoping to get the worm inside Iran's nuclear facilities.

"In fact, we had it backward," he says. "It had started in Natanz and escaped like a zoo animal."

When U.S. and Israeli officials learned that Stuxnet had escaped, they met with Obama in the Situation Room. The president asked if the code could damage computers outside the plant. After security officials assured him that was not the case, the Obama decided the program could go forward. A week later, another iteration of the code brought down 1,000 centrifuges within Iran.

"The official internal estimate is that [this code] delayed Iran's progress and weapons capability by 18 months to two years," says Sanger. "I had some outside experts who believe that that is not true — that Iranians have recovered fairly quickly. But what we don't know — and will never know — is whether they would have been able to build far better centrifuges and far more sophisticated centrifuges had this not happened. Because as their centrifuges were literally blowing up, they ended up firing people, taking centrifuges offline — because they were trying to figure out what was going wrong. As one official said to me, 'It was to make them feel stupid.' "


Interview Highlights

On concerns about the cyberattacks program

"While the U.S. now has a very subtle understanding of when it wants to use drones and not, there is no equivalent right now of when you use cyberweapons. Partly that is because [Operation] Olympic Games [as the Iran cyberattack was called] was so secret, and part of that is because the weapon is new and developing so fast that no one is really gathering together the sort of theory about how and when you would use it, when you would use it as a deterrent, that we developed in the 1950s about nuclear weapons."

On preparing for cyberattacks

"In the old nuclear age, you could sit under a big screen under a mountain in Colorado and you could see where the missiles were coming from. If there's a cyberattack from China or Russia or Romania or Mexico, it may well run through a server in another country. And it may take months before you know where it really came from."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, David Sanger, has written a new book about how President Obama has redefined American foreign policy and the circumstances under which the U.S. will use diplomacy, coercion and force to shape the world around it. Sanger is the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times.

His previous book, "The Inheritance," was about the foreign policy problems President Obama faced when he took office. Sanger has been the member of two teams that won the Pulitzer Prize. His new book is called "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power."

David Sanger, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Your book starts with new information that you learned about the virus that apparently the United States is behind that attacked the centrifuges in Iran's nuclear program and set back that nuclear program. What is new that you learned that we didn't know before?

DAVID SANGER: What we've known in the past was that there was a virus that was detected that people called Stuxnet. It came out in 2010, and there was a lot of debate - there's been a lot of debate - about who was behind it. One of the things I did as I started off working on this book on Obama's national security policy was sort of pull that string because when I looked at Stuxnet, I thought to myself this is not a one-off thing, this has got to be part of a far larger campaign.

And in fact the more I dug and the more people I talked to in more countries, what I discovered was that it was part of a quite vast covert effort between the United States and Israel that was codenamed in the United States Olympic Games.

It began in the Bush administration, and it began in a time that President Bush felt that he was somewhat out of options with Iran. He was out of options because he was tied down in Iraq, because his own credibility was pretty well shot on accusing any country of developing weapons of mass destruction and because he felt that negotiations were likely not to get him where he wanted to be, but he certainly didn't want to see the Israelis bomb the Iran facilities or have the United States get involved in that, too.

And one day the military came to him, General James Cartwright, who at the time was the head of strategic command, and a number of intelligence officials, and presented him with an option to use a new and never-before-discussed American weapon, the development of a cyberweapon that would be specifically aimed at the computer controllers inside the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant in Iran. But getting inside the plant is very difficult because the Iranians wall it off from the rest of the world; it's not connected to the Internet.

GROSS: And because the Iranian nuclear program is not connected to the Internet, the virus had to be input into the nuclear network in Iran through a USB port. So do you have any idea how that first USB port got downloaded?

SANGER: Well, what they had to do was first get in and get an understanding of how the computers in Natanz actually connected to these centrifuges, which spin at supersonic speed and are very delicate machinery.

And so they went in first with something called a beacon, and it either went in through a spy, a cooperative Iranian engineer, or it went in through an unwitting engineer, and there are a number of different ways that they could have brought it in, and one of them, of course, is a USB, but there are some other options, as well.

And this beacon went in and basically built a blueprint of how the Iranians had designed the electronics of this plant, and then came back out and phoned home, back to the National Security Agency and the Unit 8200, which is the Israeli's equivalent of the National Security Agency. And from the data that they gathered there, the U.S. and the Israelis designed what was actually a computer worm, slightly different than a virus, that would replicate through - within the system.

But they knew they had to test it. So they went out and built, in the United States, on the grounds of the Energy Department's National Laboratories, basically a full-scale replica of the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant...

GROSS: You know, when I read that, I thought, how can they build a replica of the plant without anybody seeing it?

SANGER: Well, that's a very good question, and I asked the same thing. And what they ended up doing was they spread different parts of it across different elements of the National Laboratories so that no one even inside the laboratories would put it all together. So, you know, I believe they had the controllers in one place, they had the centrifuges in others, and, you know, they were very lucky because you may remember, Terry, that back in 2003, Moammar Gadhafi, the late Moammar Gadhafi, gave up his nuclear program.

And he turned over to the United States a number of these centrifuges that he had bought from A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear engineer who ran a big black-market operation in this material. And so the United States had some exact copies of what the Iranians had also purchased from A.Q. Khan.

And they used these to conduct what they called destructive testing. They literally attacked their own mockup of the plant. And one day they brought back to President Bush, still in office in the Situation Room, the rubble of a destroyed centrifuge that had been attacked merely by computer commands.

So they had accomplished for the first time the kind of destruction that previously the United States or other countries could accomplish only by bombing a facility. And that's what actually convinced President Bush to send the program forward.

And in the days just before he turned over power to President Obama, just before the 2009 inauguration, he had President Obama in the White House for a private session and said there are two or three programs that you have to preserve as president that are absolutely vital. One of them was the Predator program over Pakistan. The other was Olympic Games.

Now, the Predator program is pretty widely known; it's hard to hide that. Olympic Games has been a pretty deep secret until now.

GROSS: So what has President Obama's direct role been in this computer worm?

SANGER: President Obama has been very deeply involved. Every few weeks, the designers of Olympic Games would come down into the Situation Room, and they would spread out a giant graphic map of the centrifuges in Natanz. They called this the horse blanket because it was so large. And they would explain to the president what the latest version of the worm had done or had not done, what they were aiming for, and at the ends of these sessions, he would essentially authorize them to move forward.

He wouldn't pick which centrifuges they should attack, but he would say, OK, you can move to the next step. And these attacks grew bolder and bolder and bolder until one day in 2010 when they made a big mistake.

GROSS: Yeah, and the mistake was - why don't you describe it?

SANGER: Well, the mistake was what the world came to know as Stuxnet. What happened was that a variant of the worm had been designed largely in Israel but with some U.S. help and entered into the system. And it had basically - they had turned the volume up on this one a little bit too much.

And they had not tested it fully, just the way some software companies sometimes release a program, and you discover the bug when you turn on your computer. What happened here was that the worm was living in the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant, and then one day an Iranian engineer, I think an unwitting engineer, came along and plugged his laptop computer directly into these controllers just to do the ordinary maintenance work he would do as part of his job.

And the bug, the worm, leapt aboard his laptop. He didn't know it. He left the plant, he plugged into the Internet, and the worm did not detect that its environment had changed. And so all of a sudden it thought the whole Internet, the whole world, was that same environment, and it began propagating itself. And...

GROSS: And how much damage did it cause on people's computers around the world?

SANGER: Almost none, because the way this worm was designed was to seek out these certain types of computer controllers that are at Natanz, connected to a certain array of the centrifuges. So while the worm may have gotten on to your computer, Terry, or on to my computer...

GROSS: Right, I don't own centrifuges, so I was OK.

(LAUGHTER)

SANGER: Right, you don't anything - if you're not running centrifuges down in the basement, it was just going to sit there and not do any damage. And that's why people were so confused when they first saw it. And frankly, at The New York Times, where I was working on this story with colleagues of mine, we got it backwards initially.

We had thought that someone, we didn't know who, had spread the worm around the world in hopes that it would then make it into the Natanz enrichment, their nuclear facility in Iran. In fact, we had it completely backwards. It had started in Natanz and it had escaped like a zoo animal.

GROSS: So when the American intelligence community discovered that the worm had gotten loose, they didn't give up. They kept perfecting the worm and succeeded in doing that. But what did they do about the worm that had gotten loose, the Stuxnet?

SANGER: One day in the summer of 2010, this is actually how "Confront and Conceal" opens, Leon Panetta, who was then the director of the CIA, now of course the defense secretary, and two other officials, the deputy director of the CIA and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went down into the White House Situation Room and saw President Obama and Vice President Biden and very - an array of other officials there.

And they explained exactly what had happened, and they knew that President Obama was going to raise the question: Should we pull the plug on this program? And in fact he did raise that question, and they presented the options to him.

The president, from all the accounts I heard, was pretty cool about it. Vice President, who as you know can be a bit more demonstrative, was significantly more demonstrative through this. But the president decided in the end that the Iranians were probably confused by what was going on, and he said you can keep going.

And in fact they delivered a second variant and then a third variant of the worm fairly quickly, and it was that last one that ended up killing off about 1,000 centrifuges, just shy of that, out of the 5,000 the Iranians had running at the time.

Now the Iranians have since recovered, but this set them back.

GROSS: How far, do you think, that it set them back?

SANGER: There was a lot of dispute on that, Terry, even within the U.S. government. And I've talked to Israelis about this, I talked to Americans about this, I've talk to people in the intelligence community, in the Pentagon. The sort of official internal estimate is that this delayed Iran's progress towards a weapons capability by 18 months to two years.

I have had some outside experts who believe that that is not true, that the Iranians, if you chart their production of enriched uranium, they recovered fairly quickly. But what we don't know and will never know is whether they would have been able to build far more centrifuges and far more sophisticated centrifuges had this not happened because as their centrifuges were literally blowing up, they ended up firing people, they ended up taking a lot more centrifuges offline than they needed to because they were trying to understand what was going wrong.

And that was part of the plan. It was, as one official said to me, to make them feel stupid.

GROSS: My guest is David Sanger. He's the author of the new book "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power." And David Sanger is the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. Let's take a break here. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sanger. He is the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power."

Now, we've been talking about the worm that the United States, with Israeli help, infected the Iranian nuclear program with and destroyed lots of their centrifuges, setting back the program. We don't know exactly how much it was set back. And we know that Obama oversaw the program, it was begun during the Bush administration, but President Obama oversaw it or at least kept signing off on it during his presidency.

But you write he was afraid of starting a precedent of being the first major power to launch a cyberattack against a sovereign state. What do you know about his concerns and why he went ahead with pursuing and continuing the program in spite of his reservations?

SANGER: Well, Terry, his reservations were fairly deep because he was concerned, as anybody would be, that if you use a new weapon like this, you have a created a precedent for other countries that might want to attack the United States. And as we all know, the United States is probably more vulnerable to cyberattacks than almost any nation on Earth just because we're so dependent on them for everything from utility systems to the stock exchange to the cell phone network to the air traffic control system.

So the president was quite concerned that the program remain secret for as long as possible. Of course Stuxnet began to end that element of it. And the other thing he was concerned about was that there were would very little collateral damage. So he was constantly asking questions about whether or not this worm could spread to other systems, could turn off the power supplies for hospitals or towns and villages nearby the nuclear plant in Iran.

And so he tried to narrow the program a fair bit, but the fact remains that the U.S. has now essentially legitimized the use of cyberweapons at a time that you're not at war, and we're not at war with Iran, far from it. What struck me in the reporting is that while the United States now has a very subtle understanding of when it wants to use drones and not, there is no equivalent right now, certainly no publicly articulated equivalent, of when you use cyberweapons.

And partly that is because Olympic Games was so secret, and partly that is because the weapon is so new and developing so fast that no one has really sort of gathered together the sort of theory about how and when you would use it, when you'd use it as a deterrent, that we developed in the 1950s about nuclear weapons.

GROSS: And I keep thinking we haven't yet seen the counteroffensive of cyberattack.

SANGER: Well, to some degree you have. If you ask somebody in corporate America do you see attacks every day or every week, I think most big businesses will tell you that they do.

GROSS: But some of that's just from, like, hackers and from other countries, not necessarily like an Iranian cyber - you know, counter-cyberattack.

SANGER: It might be, you know, the Chinese trying to sweep up information in the corporate systems of Boeing or Lockheed-Martin or the Pentagon or Google. You will remember the big Google attack in 2009. But Olympic Games was different, Terry, because it was not simply a computer attacking a computer. It's not my computer attacking your computer. It was a computer worm attacking other computers to destroy infrastructure.

So in other words, just passing through the computers in Iran in order to destroy the centrifuges in a much more stealthy way than an aerial bombing attack would. And that's a very different kind of - that's a very different kind of attack.

GROSS: Right, so it's destroying nuclear infrastructure. So one would assume there might be some kind of cybercounterattack. I don't know if you have any idea if the Obama administration is thinking about that possibility and what they're doing to prepare for it.

SANGER: Well, you've seen President Obama from the first days of his presidency talk about hardening America's cyberdefenses, and there have been billions of dollars the federal government now spends trying to harden critical infrastructure. In fact, just in March, they ran a simulation up in the U.S. Senate, a classified simulation, about what would happen if a foreign hacker or foreign power attacked the electrical system in New York City and turned off all the lights in New York.

And these raise very big issues. One of them is: Would you consider that an act of war? Would you respond with a cyberattack against the country that led the attack on the U.S.? Would you even know what that country was? I mean, in the old nuclear age, you could sit in front of a big screen under the mountain in - Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, and you could see where the missiles were coming from.

If there's a cyberattack from China or Russia or Romania or Mexico, it may well run through a server in another country. And you may not - it may take months before you know where it really came from. And that makes deterring against cyberattacks very difficult.

And think about Olympic Games, because the Iranians were not certain where these attacks were coming from. In fact, for the first couple of years of the attacks, they didn't even really know they were being attacked. They only knew that their centrifuges were failing.

GROSS: Well, that was part of the plan to have the centrifuges at first fail very slowly so it would seem like we did something wrong, something was going wrong with our program, as opposed to somebody's attacking our program.

SANGER: That's right, and in fact, the method of attack changed with every variant of the worm so that not the same thing broke. And these centrifuges are very sensitive, and they frequently break just on their own. And the idea was to keep the Iranians guessing.

Now, there was something also that was quite brilliant in the way the program was written, which was that the program would record what the ordinary operations of the plant were. And then when it started its attack, it would broadcast back into the control room of the plant that the centrifuges were operating quite normally.

The Iranians were so confused by this that at some point, one point they had to send people down into the centrifuge hall and just have them radio back whether the centrifuges were spinning out of control.

GROSS: David Sanger will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power." Sanger is chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Sanger, author of new book "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power." It's about how President Obama has redefined American foreign policy and the circumstances under which the U.S. will use diplomacy, coercion and force. Sanger is the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times.

When we left off, we were talking about the cyberattack the U.S. launched against Iran's nuclear program.

What is that computer worm we've been talking about? Tell us about President Obama's use of power and his foreign policy.

SANGER: I found striking that when President Obama came to office and vowed to get the country out of its defensive crouch, he talked a lot about restoring traditional American engagement - that he, you know, would talk to our adversaries. And his supporters I think found in this a sort of moment where he was turning away from the sort of with us or against whites of the Bush years. And his critics, including some Democrats, including at one point Hillary Clinton, found naivete and softness.

And I think both sides have been surprised. I think the left has been surprised by his aggressiveness; the drone attacks, the bin Laden raid, Olympic Games. I think that many others have been surprised that his use of American power has been very direct when there has been a direct threat to the U.S., but he has insisted that other countries take the lead when our interests are somewhat remote and theirs are direct. Think Libya, even think Syria, where he has demanded that the Arab League or NATO or others take the lead. And he's been very criticized about this by, among others, Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican nominee - or I guess now the certain Republican nominee - for ceding American leadership. And I think that is the essence of the Obama doctrine, that he acts quite strongly and quite unilaterally whether the U.S. has direct interest. But he is trying to force the rest of the world to pay for it and take the price when it's not, and throughout he is quite insistent on very in and out U.S. action. No more long occupations. No more costly wars. And this is part of the limitations of living in this age of reckoning, where we simply can't afford to do what we've always done.

GROSS: So do you think what you're describing as the Obama doctrine helps explain his different positions on Libya and Syria? In Libya, he intervened along with NATO, along with the Arab League. In Syria, he is not as of yet intervening, but people there are being massacred.

SANGER: That's right. And I think that Libya and Syria are an example of the limitations of the Obama doctrine. Because he went into Libya basically to defend the concept of - called responsibility to protect, that the U.S. and other nations have a responsibility to protect citizens against the dictators who may be out ruining their lives, keeping them poor, keeping them subjugated. But in Libya, he did so at a moment when it was relatively easy and relatively casualty-free to do that. He could get at the Libyan forces - Gadhafi's forces - through airstrikes in the desert.

When you ask people so what's the difference between Libya and Syria, it's getting much harder for the administration to make the argument that they are quite different, because clearly, the responsibility to protect would seem to extend to the nine or 10,000 Syrians who believe have already died - many more than died in Libya. And yet, in the case of Syria, there's no bloodless casualty-free way to go do this. It would require people on the ground. These attacks are taking place in crowded cities. You can't bomb without causing huge civilian casualties.

GROSS: Well, and as you point out in the book, there isn't an organized resistance that you could identify and you say we'll help support these people.

SANGER: That's right. And, you know, you're hearing a lot of people say right now, arm the rebels. Well, as if there was one group of rebels. They can't agree among themselves what their objectives are and many of them have tribal rivalries among themselves. So you could end up arming different factions in a civil war. And there a lot of people asking the question why would you want to go do that? I mean, Afghanistan is an example. When you think of what we did during the '80s of a case where we find a group of people, and then found ourselves facing our own old weapons 10 years later.

GROSS: Let's talk about President Obama's change in its policy toward Afghanistan. When he was campaigning, he made it clear he had opposed the Iraq war from the start, but he saw the war in Afghanistan is being a war of necessity. And initially, he seemed to support the idea of further nation building in Afghanistan. General Petraeus supported that. President Obama put General Stanley McChrystal in charge of that war and he was a counterinsurgency guy. But President Obama eventually turned against the counterinsurgency idea. What turned him?

SANGER: Well, I think several things turned him. He immediately committed more troops and then went through this very lengthy process which was ridden with leaks, but you may remember, he had all these meetings in the Situation Room with leaders of the military, with the secretary of state, the intelligence world, and they all try to come up with an answer to the question of: would an additional surge in Afghanistan work? And in the end he did send an additional 33,000 troops.

But what I discovered in the reporting was that even before he made that decision, he had huge reservations about this. General McChrystal had sent in a plan for basically a 10-year counterinsurgency plan in Afghanistan and President Obama handed it off to Peter Orszag, who at the time was the head of the Office of Management and Budget. He said, Peter, could you please price this out for us? And Orszag came back a few days later and he said you know, Mr. President, this plan would cost about a trillion dollars over 10 years. And if that's a familiar number, it's about what it would cost to insure all uninsured Americans over the same period of time. That's an astounding figure - a trillion dollars over 10 years in a country that I think President Obama came to the conclusion, well, we might not be able to effect lasting change in. And so almost as soon as he approved the surge, he was insistent that it would last only 18 months, as he had announced at West Point. And the generals believed that once they got the surge they could convince him to extend the period of time. And he turned to one of his aides one day who had said that to him and said, you know, they're not getting more time.

GROSS: In 2010, President Obama organized a committee to narrow the goals in Afghanistan and that committee called itself Afghan Good Enough. What was considered good enough in terms of our goals in Afghanistan?

SANGER: Well, the goals began to narrow, Terry, even in 2009 when the president concluded that the U.S. had been trying everything in Afghanistan; build a Jeffersonian democracy, rebuild schools, get the economy running in a modern way. And so instead of all of that, they narrowed it to three goals, two of which really had very little to do with Afghanistan. One of them was, defeat al-Qaida. Well, al-Qaida wasn't in Afghanistan at the time, it was in Pakistan.

A second was make sure that Pakistan's nuclear weapons do not get loose. And that became all the more important after a series of events that I describe in the chapter called "Bomb Scare," where they actually thought the Taliban had gotten a nuclear weapon. They thought this for a few days in 2009. So securing the weapons was a big deal, but again, those were in Pakistan.

The only Afghan criteria was make sure that Kabul does not fall to the Taliban, that there is a central government, the Karzai government is protected and secure. Well, that's a pretty narrow goal. And then comes 2010, and the Afghan Good Enough committee, which was meeting on weekends so people would not be noting these sessions, basically looked at every program the U.S. was conducting in Afghanistan and said do we need to do this? Can the Afghans do this? Can NATO do this? Can someone else do this? So they didn't get wrapped up in so many different projects that it slowed the withdrawal.

GROSS: So is that what we're following now, the Afghan Good Enough program?

SANGER: Petty much. I mean, pretty much everything...

GROSS: So if the goal is to keep the Karzai - I mean, one of the reasons the way you describe it, that President Obama wanted to withdraw Americans from Afghanistan is that he said Americans are dying to prop up a president who is corrupt, who isn't liked by his people, who, you know, we're having a hard time dealing with. You know, what's going on here? So assuming that we start pulling out of Afghanistan but our goal is still to protect the Karzai government, is that going to be considered a wholesome goal by President Obama since he's so, he seems to really be soured on the Karzai government - as many others seem to be?

SANGER: Well, he is soured on the Karzai government and Karzai himself is supposed to leave office in 2014. And what they're out protecting is not just President Karzai but having an elected, democratically elected government. Meaning...

GROSS: Non-Taliban government.

SANGER: Non-Taliban government. And this will have been a failure if after 2014, when all of what's called an enduring presence, leaves Afghanistan, which I say in the book would probably be 10 to 15,000 Americans, if the central government does end up falling, or if the Taliban simply regain control of major parts of Afghanistan. And there are many people in the administration who believe that's likely to happen, because they don't think that the Afghan military, despite all the billions we have put into training them, is up to the job of holding on to all parts of the country. And, you know this gets to the cost issue, Terry, because we've been spending eight, nine, $10 billion a year training the Afghan military, and at one point President Obama turned to some of his aides during one of these reviews and said, do you guys realize this is the most expensive item in the Pentagon's budget? We're spending more training the Afghan military than we are on the F-35, the new Joint Strike Fighter, and it's simply not a sustainable plan. And so even the size of the Afghan military is supposed to come down considerably by about a third starting in about 2017.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sanger. He's the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book, "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sanger. He's the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book, "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power."

There was recently an article in your paper - The New York Times - about President Obama's quote, "kill list," the list of insurgents, al-Qaida and al-Qaida-affiliate leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and other places who are targeted for killing, for drone strikes. And the article raised the question, what's - well, actually your book raises the question: what's the difference between these drone strikes against insurgents and assassination? And assassination is illegal in the United States, you can't assassinate a political leader. So what are your thoughts about President Obama and the kill list and what that tells us about him and his thinking?

SANGER: Well, if you put together the two elements of drones and cyber, what you have is a president deeply involved in picking targets and trying to bit by bit try to forestall larger American military engagement. And that's what the predator is for and that's what cyberweapons are for. But it does raise some very profound questions. And one of the questions I went off to go answer in the book is: In the minds of the administration, what is the difference between targeting an individual terrorist or a small group of terrorists from 20 or 30,000 feet with a hellfire missile fired by a drone and actually, going in and doing an assassination on the ground?

And the answers that the administration gave me showed that they had built a fairly complex legal rationale around their activities, that the drones were used either in places like Afghanistan, where they're covered by congressional legislation that followed 9/11 to go after Al Qaida and its affiliates, or in places where the United States is invited in, or in places where there is no operative government in the U.S. feels it has to defend itself. Somalia would be a good example.

The problem is that this argument, when you hold it up to the test of both time and changed circumstances, has got a fair number of holes in it. Let me give you some examples. We do our attacks in Pakistan, we were told, because the U.S. has been invited in by the Pakistani military. But the duly elected parliament in Pakistan, somewhat powerless parliament but elected nonetheless, democratically elected, recently passed several resolutions barring all Predator strikes in Pakistani territory and calling them a violation of sovereignty.

President Obama has decided to go ahead and conduct those strikes inside Pakistan anyway. We know that the legislation that the president has been operating under in defending the U.S. post-9/11 was passed in the days after 9/11. We're now 11 years out from the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and many of the people who are being targeted for these attacks, for these Predator strikes, had nothing to do with 9/11, and gradually get promoted from within.

So if the United States kills the number three leader of a Taliban faction and he is replaced with his driver, is that driver then a legitimate target as well? Is the United States considered threatened by those people? And these are very difficult questions because the Predator - the targets of the Predator strikes, they don't exactly have a chance to stand up and claim that they are not an enemy of the United States.

GROSS: Many people in the Obama administration believe that the real threat to the United States is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. It's Pakistan that has, you know, nuclear weapons, and our relationship with Pakistan's government seems to have really deteriorated in part because they were really embarrassed after the bin Laden assassination because they didn't know about it, and even after a three and a half hour attack on that compound, they didn't know about it.

And also there was an American counterattack in Afghanistan that really angered the people and the government. So relationships between the United States and Pakistan seem to be deteriorating and we're still very worried about Pakistan, the insurgents who have made a home there, the fact that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. What do you think is the state of that relationship now?

SANGER: Terry, a good part of the book describes 2011 as this awful year of a downward spiral in the American relationship with Pakistan. It started with a CIA officer who killed two Pakistanis who were trying to rob him. The U.S. spent a lot of effort to get him out of the country and it raised a lot of questions about why the CIA was operating inside Pakistan.

Then came bin Laden, then came a series of other incidents. And meanwhile came attacks on Americans, including an attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul, that was run by basically the Pakistani Taliban and by the Haqqani group, which is essentially a group of thugs who are living within Pakistan.

And early in the book I describe a secret meeting between Tom Donilon, the National Security Advisor, and the head of the Pakistani military in which Donilon basically says you are letting your country get hijacked by this group of militants and you're not acting and either you'll have to act against them or the United States will. And it was a very, very tense meeting in Abu Dhabi.

What I discovered in the course of this work is that when we talk about AfPak, we've got it backwards. There are many in the Obama administration, if they could get away with it, who would say the problem is PakAf. It's Pakistan first. It's Pakistan that has a fast developing insurgency, that has over 100 nuclear weapons, and that's increasing the size of that arsenal very fast with small mobile weapons that many fear could be easily stolen.

That is the much bigger threat to the United States than anything happening in Afghanistan. But our troops, of course, are in Afghanistan because they've been there for the past 10 years. And so the big question is, can President Obama recover this relationship with Pakistan? And I think it's fair to say that President Obama inherited a terrible relationship with Pakistan, something I described in my previous book, "The Inheritance," but it's now actually worse.

GROSS: And Pakistan has closed off its supply routes to American troops.

SANGER: That's right. And in fact there was a belief that a deal would be struck to reopen those supply routes at this NATO meeting in Chicago, and in fact President Zardari was invited to the meeting in Chicago and then the deal never happened. President Obama didn't even see President Zardari.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sanger. He's the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times and author of the new book "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sanger. He's the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times and author of the new book "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power."

In your book about President Obama's foreign policy, "Confront and Conceal," you've revealed a lot of new information and it's new information about our foreign policy, about secret programs like the computer worm that attacked the Iranian Natanz nuclear facility. Are you queasy at all that anything you've revealed in this book is going to hurt our national security?

SANGER: You know, Terry, it's a subject I take very seriously, and the program that you described before, Olympic Games, the program against Iran, is something I was particularly concerned about in that case. And I went off and had some very serious conversations with members of the administration, where I described to them what I discovered.

And basically the way I ended up writing about this was that anything that was historical, anything the Iranians have already figured out about what they were being attacked with and who was attacking them, I felt perfectly free to publish and I describe in here some detail about the president's personal involvement in the program, which I suspect the Iranians didn't know but suspected.

There were a few requests, mostly about technical details, where the government asked me to keep out some specifics that could affect ongoing operations or endanger Americans who are currently operating abroad. And in almost all those cases - in fact, in all those cases - I withheld some of those details because they weren't critical to the story and they certainly could have, I imagine, if the government was correct, harmed national security.

GROSS: Just one more thing before you go. A sentence I found really interesting in your book was the sentence that described when President Bush told incoming President Obama you have to continue this secret computer worm that we're developing to infect the Iranian nuclear program. And you say that, you know, Bush said that he wasn't happy with the options he was presented with before this worm was developed and the options were either, you know, bomb the Iranian program or let them develop a nuclear weapon.

And you made it seem like the worm was the outcome of Bush saying I need another option, these options aren't good enough. And what interested me most in that was Bush taking a firm stand against the United States or Israel bombing the Iranian program. And the impression I got was that there were people in the administration pressuring him to do that but he said no.

SANGER: I think that's right. And I dealt with this some in my previous book, "The Inheritance," and I've learned more about it since. President Bush never argued in anything that I could find for an attack on Iran. I mean, he already had his hands full. He had a war going on in Iraq that by 2006, 2007 was going very badly for the United States. He had the Afghan war, which was also going badly, although people weren't admitting it as much then.

And I think he recognized that the system simply couldn't handle a third. And I think the Iranians recognized that too. So there were some in the Bush administration, including the faction around Vice President Cheney, who basically took the position: let the Israelis go do what the Israelis say they want to do, which is take this out militarily.

I think one of the most fascinating elements of Olympic Games is the fact that the U.S. and Israel were working so closely together. Partly that was because they have talents that complemented each other, but partly it was because the United States believed, both President Bush and President Obama, that the Israelis needed to be convinced that there was an alternative to a military attack and that this covert effort was that alternative.

GROSS: David Sanger, thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you.

SANGER: Thank you, Terry. It's always wonderful to be back on your show.

GROSS: David Sanger is the author of the new book "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power." He's the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times. You can find links to his recent articles on our website, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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