Barack Obama’s Evolution on the CIA

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JIM WATSON / AFP / Getty Images

US President Barack Obama speaks at Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters in Langley, Virginia, May 20, 2011.

The New York Times’ deep dive into President Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy offers a revealing look at targeted killings overseas, how they are approved by the current Administration and carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency. Assassination of suspected al-Qaeda operatives is not a new trend–it is, after all, something Obama said in 2007 he would pursue regardless of national borders, and reports of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen appear almost weekly in the newspaper.

But while the Times offers a largely sympathetic view of the rigorous review process for each target, there is something arresting about its description of the absolute certainty with which Obama embraced the tactic of targeting killing itself. Obama “approves lethal action without hand-wringing” and officials say he called the decision to target radical American cleric Anwar Awlaki in Yemen “an easy one,” according to the Times.

Maybe it’s just election year bluster, but it stands in sharp contrast both to Obama’s often discussed political character–cautious and deliberative to the extreme–and to his apparent feelings as a young man. In a forthcoming biography of the President, David Maraniss recounts one of the few times Obama ever lost his trademark cool in a public setting. The incident, reportedly in the hallway at Business International, a financial information outfit where Obama worked after college, was a shouting match over the morality of the CIA circa 1984:

In an office where Lou Celi was screaming out orders like a hard-bitten city editor to an overworked and stressed out staff, Obama never seemed flustered. He maintained the Hawaiian style, Cool head, main thing. But according to Dan Armstrong, who considered Obama a friend, there was one exception. Armstrong seeing Obama get into “a huge argument” with an older colleague named Dan Kobal. The subject was the CIA. “It was heated and brief. The argument was in the hallway,” Armstrong said. “It was pretty loud. I don’t think it was discrete at all. It touched on some deeply held beliefs of Barack’s…. I think it was uncomfortable. It was just the two of them…. Barack was attacking it and Dan was defending it.” Kobal did not remember the incident and said it was not his style to yell, but added, “I can’t say that Dan Armstrong is wrong.” He postulated that he and Obama might have been talking about Africa. Obama, he said, “may well have been” anti-CIA then, which Kobal was not. He believed that the CIA hired “good dedicated people” who did their job of gathering information.

To put this in context, it’s important to understand that Obama was in his early 20s, fresh out of college with some anti-establishmentarian leanings, and living in an era during which the CIA’s efforts to topple regimes and assassinate heads of state had inflamed the left.  People change. But had 23-year-old Obama read this New York Times account of a President calling the decision to assassinate an American citizen living in Yemen “an easy one,” he might have lost his temper.