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War by Remote Control; Do Leaks Hurt American Security?

Aired June 6, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour. As President Obama nears the end of his first term in office, has he defined the Obama doctrine? And if so, is it the one that's coming into focus through leaks and a controversial new book?

We'll talk to the author, David Sanger of "The New York Times" about drone strikes and cyber warfare. My brief tonight, can America lead the world by remote control?

The Obama administration's drone policy is decapitating Al Qaeda. Just this week, another key figure, Abu Yahya al-Libi, was taken out. And now we learn much more about America's cyber war with Iran, targeting its nuclear program and codenamed "Olympic Games."

The details of the Obama doctrine are coming out in less than six months before the American presidential election, and that's why many here in the United States believe the White House is orchestrating these stories. I'll talk to the former presidential nominee, Republican Senator John McCain about that.

And while remote control war might look like good politics, is it effective policy? Do targeted assassinations and cyber warfare actually make America or the world a safer place in the long run? I'll ask my guests in a moment. And then later in the program, we'll tackle the fallout.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): President Obama came into office full of promise and promises.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims throughout the world.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): But three years after the historic Cairo speech, does the Muslim world see a friend in the White House or a trail of broken promises?

Then intervening to save the free world, 68 years ago today, America and her allies landed at Normandy, the beginning of the end of the Nazis, a story of boots on the ground and in the air. Are there lessons for today?


AMANPOUR: And we'll get to all of that in a bit, but first, my guest, David Sanger, author of "Confront and Conceal," the new book on President Obama's foreign policy that has sparked a huge amount of interest and some controversy.

Welcome, David.

DAVID SANGER, AUTHOR: Great to be back here with you.

AMANPOUR: Good to see you again.

What was the most surprising thing you learned when you were researching for this book?

SANGER: I think there were two big surprises about President Obama as commander in chief.

Many who worked for him, many who were career diplomats or career military tell me they were surprised at his aggressiveness, that they had not expected this from somebody who had very little foreign policy experience, who was frequently derided during the 2008 campaign as a former community organizer, which was sort of code word for is this person ready to be commander in chief.

What emerged was an Obama doctrine, and the doctrine that has come out of this is that he's very willing to use unilateral force when the direct interests of the United States are at stake -- think of the bin Laden raid and so forth.

AMANPOUR: Exactly, and all these drone strikes beyond bin Laden and also what you focused on, and really which is the big controversy of the book, and that's the cyber war against Iran.

In other words, as some are saying, the United States is at war with Iran. How effective is this cyber war?

SANGER: Well, the main revelation that you're referring to concerns Olympic Games that you mentioned at the beginning, which was a four-year- long program. We believe it continues to this day, begun in the Bush administration, handed off to President Obama in a quiet meeting between him and President Bush just days before the inauguration in 2009, when President Bush said, look, there are two programs you're going to want to hold onto.

One of them is drones, the other is Olympic Games. Olympic Games is an effort to get into the Iranian centrifuge system with a computer worm that was a very elaborate effort to get through the defenses the Iranians had built up. And then to go map a blueprint of how the computers inside Natanz connect to the centrifuges, send in a worm that would speed up or slow down those centrifuges until they began to blow up. And --


AMANPOUR: And affect enrichment.

SANGER: -- and affect enrichment by taking out the centrifuges.

AMANPOUR: Is it still happening?

SANGER: You know, very hard to know what is happening today. Once it became obvious to the Iranians and it took them a few years to catch onto what was going on, presumably they put in some pretty good defenses.

But, you know, cyber war, like all war, evolves and there are new approaches the United States and Israel, who work together very closely on this, are no doubt using today.

AMANPOUR: Do you think cyber war is a alternative, a replacement for real war, as -- I mean, I don't ask that in a vacuum. People think maybe Israel will bomb Iran's facilities.

SANGER: You know, one of the big objectives of Olympic Games for the Americans was to so wrap the Israelis into the process that they would become convinced that there was a more effective and deniable way to affect the enrichment at Natanz and would make bombing it unnecessary. And, in fact, some argue that the CIA estimates are that this set back the Iranians 18 months to two years.

Some believe that's over-optimistic, but in any case, when you think, Christiane, about what you and I have talked about, what the estimates are of what a military strike could accomplish, 18 months to two years is about the number you hear.

AMANPOUR: You said deniable, and you know there are certainly people who are pretty angry that this information is being leaked, and that you've got it and it's in "The Times" and it's in your book. They're saying that this put American operations and American lives at risk. And, you know, Senator McCain has called for special council. The FBI is already looking into it.

You were leaked to?

SANGER: This was a 18-month-long investigation for a book that started at the ground level up and built its way up. But what was the major disclosure here? It wasn't anything that anybody said to anyone. It was the error in 2010, in the summer, that allowed the worm that later became known as Stuxnet to escape from the Natanz plant and propagate out across the Internet.

The United States and the Israelis had not planned on that happening. That was a programming mistake. It made the worm evident to the whole wide world. And in fact, we reported in 2011, early 2011, that it seemed likely this was American and Israeli working together. What this book does is pull on that string of Stuxnet and just fill in the details of how and who -- how it was done and who did it.

AMANPOUR: But you, obviously, in your book, quote people from the Situation Room. So they are telling you about this stuff.

SANGER: I certainly heard a lot from a number of different sources and just as you would in the same situation, I'm not going to discuss the sourcing for this. But --

AMANPOUR: Are you worried about the probe?

SANGER: You know, there are always leak probes and I understand why governments have to go do them.

But I also think that there was a very important policy issue that we were airing (ph) here, which is that the United States, Israel, others are beginning to use a new weapon of war, and you know, it is very much we're in that era, sort of similar to where the United States was between 1945, when the U.S. dropped its first atomic bombs, and 1949, when the Soviets got their first bomb.

And, you know, it took about 20 years to sort out how you'd use nuclear weapons. We're in the process now of trying to figure how one uses cyber weapons.

AMANPOUR: So let's ask, not just about cyber weapons, but other things that you've been talking about. You also brought up certainly in an article and in your book, also, about Afghanistan and Pakistan. This whole drone policy is also having a backlash, a blowback on vital alliances, for instance, in Pakistan.

SANGER: That's right. I mean, the United States, for years, has said that they don't want to deal just with the military side of Pakistan. They want to build up a legitimate, democratically elected Pakistani government.

Well, what did that democratically elected parliament do about a month and a half ago? They passed a resolution banning all foreign drone flights into their territory. And since that time -- I've lost count -- but there have been a lot of U.S. drone strikes, including a very successful one.

So we have a tension (ph) in our own American policy in dealing with Pakistan, and that is between supporting a democratically elected government and respecting their boundaries, and the need to go pursue a war against Al Qaeda on their territory.

AMANPOUR: When I asked the question leading into is this foreign policy now warfare by remote control, and what will it do to America's long-term prospects for leadership and influence, let's just take Afghanistan, where you talked about Afghan good enough, and where we see a light footprint is the goal right now --

SANGER: That's right.

AMANPOUR: -- no matter how much they talk about an enduring presence, we know that it's not going to be very strong. You said that you worry that pulling out and relying on the sort of light footprint or drone or whatever from the air, could actually reverse the last 10 years of war effort in Afghanistan, could bring the Taliban back.

SANGER: Well, it could be the Taliban's going to come back no matter what, and that seems clear, and I think President Obama has read the American public accurately on this, that after 10 years, I think the American public is pretty tired of foreign occupations, OK --

AMANPOUR: That's true, but the effectiveness of the policy --

SANGER: -- but the effectiveness of the policy may be limited. I mean, with a light footprint policy, you're -- it's very effective in going after individual terrorists. We've learned that. On the cyber end, it may be effective at going after groups of centrifuges.

What it can't do is what we all thought counterinsurgency might be able to do, which is make a population feel secure, build up government institutions. You can't do that by remote control. And so we have changed our approach in a very deep way, and you have to understand that if you do that, you've got a policy with severe limits. And we need to discuss what those limits are.

AMANPOUR: So it seems to me, from reading your book, parts of it, reading the articles and things, that this is a foreign policy that relies on the White House and the CIA and the Special Ops if (inaudible) the Pentagon at all.

The traditional State Department and the traditional warfighting machine, the generals and the Pentagon, they're kind of to the side.

SANGER: A little bit, and you know, one of the things I worry about on the remote control war side is that one of the reasons that Hillary Clinton supported having a surge in Afghanistan of 30,000 troops -- she actually argued for 40,000, you learn in "Confront and Conceal," -- was that she wanted to be able to come in behind them with a civilian core to help rebuild Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: And that never happened.

SANGER: You don't hear that discussed. You don't hear anybody in the administration talking about sending girls to school. You don't talk about building up justice systems. It's not that anybody thinks it's a bad idea. It's just the president came to the conclusion after the first year in office that it may be beyond what we can afford to do right now.

AMANPOUR: And it's clearly relatively cheap, relatively easy and definitely political pain-free to do this, electronic, cyber, drone kind of warfare.

SANGER: It is, and it's easy not to discuss because those programs are classified so there's an easy way to sort of hide behind it.

Now in the drone program, because we all see drone attacks happen and, you know, you understand what's happening, there has begun to be in this administration a discussion of the legal justification behind drones. And you may be persuaded by or you may not be, but at least there's a discussion.

In cyber, we haven't had that yet because the United States has never yet acknowledged -- hasn't to this day -- using cyber weapons.

AMANPOUR: David Sanger, thank you very much indeed.

SANGER: Always great to be with you.

AMANPOUR: Thank you.

And of course now, as I mentioned, we turn to Senator John McCain, the ranking member on the Senate Committee for Armed Services, and he's calling for a special council to investigate the leak. And he joined me earlier from Washington.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, HOST: Senator McCain, thank you very much for joining me from Washington.


AMANPOUR: Senator, I know you have strong objections to the information that people like David Sanger have been writing about. And there's already, apparently, an FBI probe into how these leaks happened.

What exactly is your beef with it?

MCCAIN: Well, it's most secret, highly classified information that would compromise our ability to pursue the goals that our national security requirements dictate.

A small example, Christiane. You know the doctor that helped us in the bin Laden case? He's now been sentenced to 33 years in prison, probably a death sentence, because he helped Americans. That information was leaked by this administration.

The -- it's clear that the Iranians will profit from having this information. In fact, they might even feel they are justified in cyber counterattacks.

AMANPOUR: Senator, you believe that part of this leaking is for political gains by the White House. Let me just read to you what the response from the White House is.

Jay Carney, the president's spokesman, has said that "Any suggestion that this administration has authorized intentional leaks of classified information for political gain is grossly irresponsible."

What's your reaction to that? Irresponsible?

MCCAIN: Oh, I would expect nothing else from the White House. But the fact is the portrayal of the president in these stories is obviously nothing short of heroic. I don't think there's any doubt, according to Mr. Sanger, that dozens of administration officials were involved in this.

By the way, he approached Senator Feinstein, the chairperson of the Intelligence Committee, and said, well, it was going to be released anyway. And she wouldn't talk to him.

If they hadn't talked to him, then he wouldn't have been able to corroborate it. They obviously talked to him. He states that. That's wrong.

AMANPOUR: On the policy, do you agree with the policy? Do you agree with the cyber warfare? Do you agree with the drone strikes, which many are calling targeted assassinations?

MCCAIN: I agree with the cyber warfare, but why should we reveal it to the enemy and take credit for something that obviously does not deserve to be well-known, and then would justify attacks from the Iranians and maybe even others?

As far as the drones are concerned, that puts people's lives in danger, because it's not just the drones themselves, it's the intelligence information that identifies the targets that the drones hit. You see my point?

AMANPOUR: I do see your point. I'm also trying to get at the -- at the wider policy point as well, because, you know, people have suggested that outsourcing this kind of foreign policy to a sort of a joystick foreign policy may be good and, you know, politics and effective in getting the bad guys, but is it the kind of policy that a superpower can rely on?

Does it have the kind of strategic vision that a superpower should be using?

MCCAIN: Well, I think one of the realities of warfare is that any new technology, sooner or later, is going to be copied by all nations. And that has to be taken into consideration.

Second of all, one of the really downsides to the drone attacks is that you never capture anybody. And the fact that we get most important information from people we capture is also part of that.

So I can't argue with taking out the number two guy in al Qaeda, as apparently just happened. But I think we ought to look at the long-term aspects of how we gain intelligence and how we succeed in this conflict that we're in, which is going to be around for a long time.

AMANPOUR: And what about Syria? Since the last time we talked, things have simply gotten much worse. There are many more killings on a daily basis. The U.S. and others are now talking about sanctions. We've heard everybody say that there's no Plan B.

What would your prescription be today to resolve what's happening in Syria? Because right now, the Obama administration is sitting it out on the sidelines.

MCCAIN: First of all, I'd like to hear the president speak up on behalf of the people of Syria, who are being slaughtered and massacred. That could be done from the Oval Office and could galvanize American public opinion and world public opinion. He's been strangely silent on all of these atrocities that have taken place.

Second of all, I certainly would get arms to the resistance. I would work with other nations for a sanctuary; the use of air power, if necessary, not unilateral, but multilateral. And I can assure you from my many visits to the region, it cries out for American leadership. And American leadership and this president are missing in action.

AMANPOUR: Do you have any sense that anything will change in that regard? Secretary Clinton is due to meet with Kofi Annan, who's been trying to implement the cease-fire. As we know, it's gone nowhere.

Do you have any sense that something might change in this regard or are any plans being made for some of the things you've just suggested?

MCCAIN: Well, I think there are plans out there now, which there weren't some months ago. But it seems the administration is now banking on the idea that the Russians will convince Bashar al-Assad to leave and come to Russia.

The only way you could effectively achieve that, Christiane, is the realities on the ground and that is to convince Bashar al-Assad that he is going to lose. And you can only do that by arming and equipping and training and helping the Syrian resistance and freedom fighters. That's the way you could convince Bashar al-Assad to leave. Otherwise, he's going to cling to power for a long time.

AMANPOUR: Senator McCain, thank you very much for joining us. Always a pleasure.

MCCAIN: Thanks for having me on.


AMANPOUR: And we'll be right back with the global fallout right after this.



AMANPOUR: Welcome back. And now for a view on President Obama's policies of drones and cyber warfare from overseas. Fawaz Gerges is author of "Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment."

Welcome to the program, Fawaz. And let me ask you straightaway, we're all talking about this, the drones, the cyber warfare. But nobody else is. It's not created a huge amount of uproar amongst America's allies, not here in the United States, amongst President Obama's most fervent supporters. And yet he is doing the kind of things that have confounded so many people.

FAWAZ GERGES, THE LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS, AUTHOR: Well, Christiane, one of the major lessons, conclusions in my book, "Obama and the Middle East," is that, contrary to what the Right would like you to believe in the United States, Barack Obama represents more continuity with the American foreign policy tradition than change, and that's how he's seen overseas, not just in the Middle East, in the great Middle East, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Egypt and Iraq and other places.

He's seen as a president who does not shy away from using massive force in order to when American (inaudible) interests are involved. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia.

This is a president that basically, with minor exceptions, would like to retain the status quo. This is a president who has not translated his rousing inspiration rhetoric into basically concrete policies.

From Pakistan to Afghanistan to many places to Iran, Barack Obama basically represents really continuity and this particular -- his approach is really similar to his predecessor, with very, very minor changes, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: And yet most people would say that he has completely changed the relationship of the United States with the rest of the world in the post-George W. Bush era, that that's why there's very little questioning, really, of this policy, which as you rightly say, is very aggressive and I think they even admitted going after Al Qaeda and also after Iran's program.

GERGES: I think you're absolutely correct. One of Barack Obama's most important political achievements has been to reduce the American military footprint, boots in western (ph) lands, in particular in Iraq.

Iraq was a huge issue, as you know, Christiane. And drawdown from Afghanistan, he has begun the process of mending relations with the great Middle East, the Arab and Muslim world. He has used his own personal story, his major speeches in Ankara, in Cairo, in Jakarta, in order to mend historic rift between the United States, George W. Bush and neo- conservatives in that part of the world.

But the reality on the greater -- on the great questions, whether it's the Palestinian-Israel question, on relations with the Arab world, Barack Obama, having great hopes were invested in Barack Obama.

Yet after one year, many people have realized that Barack Obama represents really continuity with the institutional infrastructure of American foreign policy. And that's why when McCain and Romney and others try to criticize Barack Obama on foreign policy, what can Senator McCain say about the use of drone attacks in Pakistan and in Yemen?

What can he say about his muscular approach vis-a-vis his foreign policy or the use of cyber warfare in Iran? Not even George W. Bush escalated the drone attacks in Pakistan as President Barack Obama has done, and this tells you a great deal about the continuity, the institutional continuity in American foreign policy, regardless what president is in the White House.

AMANPOUR: Very briefly, what do you expect in a second term, more of the same, if there is one?

GERGES: No, I hope Barack Obama -- Barack Obama is an inspirational president. Barack Obama has the potential to be really a transformational president, to be one of the greatest president's in foreign policy, to transform American foreign policy in order to rise up to the challenges, whether it's in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, or in Palestine.

He has the potential. He has just lacked the courage. In fact, one of my last chapters, Christiane, in my book, it's an English saying. It's called, in for a penny, in for a pound. Barack Obama, I hope in the next - - if he wins the presidency, he will rise up to the challenge and transform American foreign policy for better, not for worse I hope.

Fawaz Gerges, thank you for joining me from London.

And we will be right back after a break.


AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, imagine a world before push-button wars. In the early hours of June 6th, 1944, Allied paratroopers descended on Normandy. One of them, John Steele, landed on the church steeple in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. He hung from his tangled parachute for over an hour. He was captured by the Germans. He escaped.

And later he received the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. But his memory is preserved in a stained glass window of the church and in his figure, still protecting the town, a reminder that sometimes evil has to be faced and fought hand-to-hand, face-to-face. That's it for tonight's program. Thank you for watching and goodbye from New York.