President Barack Obama is criticized every day for the problems and difficulties associated with the Affordable Care Act. But in the long term, it's likely history will scrutinize the CIA’s use of drone strikes during his administration with a far more critical eye.
A quote from a new book on the 2012 presidential campaign, “Double Down: Game Change 2012,” will surely stoke that interest. As first reported in a book review by the Washington Post’s Peter Hamby, Obama told aides in connection with the CIA's drone program that he is “really good at killing people.”
It’s the kind of quote likely to make Obama supporters cringe or scramble for justifying explanations, perhaps by rationalizing the quote as either false or out of context, or critiquing the information-gathering methods of authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. The writers spent two years interviewing dozens of people connected with both the Obama and Romney campaigns.
Whether uttered in jest or in resignation, the Obama quote will only add to the concerns of those wondering whether the president has embraced the Godlike, life-and-death power of the Oval Office. After campaigning against the intense interrogation procedures pursued under President George W. Bush, Obama has vastly expanded the drone program. Despite its intense unpopularity overseas, in part because of civilian casualties and in part because of its unclear, secretive mandates, the Pakistan drone program continues as it has since 2004.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the CIA has conducted 378 strikes in the program’s 10-year history. Of those, 326 are classified as “Obama strikes.” The total number of people killed by drones is estimated at 2,528 to 3,648. Civilian casualties are estimated at 416 to 948, with 168 to 200 of those being children. As many as another 1,545 are estimated to have been injured in those strikes.
"We conduct those strikes because they are necessary to mitigate ongoing actual threats — to stop plots, prevent future attacks and, again, save American lives,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in February. “These strikes are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise." And, thanks to this book, the motivations of the man who orders them will remain under scrutiny.
“Double Down” is a sequel of sorts to “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime,” a best-selling book made into an HBO movie. "Double Down" tracks the 2012 campaign through the voices of campaign strategists and other insiders for both President Obama and Mitt Romney, as well as the half-dozen other ancillary campaigns on the Republican side.
What emerges is a look at two men and two campaigns with singular visions and yet singular weaknesses. Here, via the Post’s Hamby, is a summary of “Double Down”’s through-line:
The book’s loose argument is that both Obama and Romney placed their bets about the race early on and “doubled down” throughout the contest. It’s an apt take on Obama World. The “Obamans,” as the authors call them, set out to annihilate Romney almost two years before the election and executed their plan with brutal efficiency. There were hiccups along the way, specifically Obama’s dreary debate-prep sessions and his cringe-worthy performance in Denver, but his deputies in Chicago rarely deviated from their search-and-destroy mission. Romney’s campaign, though, with its bad habit of reacting to news cycles with snap decisions, always felt more ad hoc, with tactics trumping strategy.
Per Hamby, Obama comes off as “brilliant but peevish, allergic to the nitty-gritty of politics,” while Romney “is a decent man but hopelessly ham-fisted on the stump and oblivious to why voters can’t seem to appreciate his private-equity résumé.”
The drone quote will garner notice, but the book actually saves much of its harshest criticism for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is apparently already making plans for a 2016 presidential bid. The book makes use of the research performed by the Romney campaign on Christie; the vetting is termed “disturbing,” with “garish controversies.” A Justice Department investigation into Christie’s spending, a defamation lawsuit, questions about lobbying and contract awards, Christie’s physical health – these were all fair game for Romney’s investigators and in turn for the authors of “Double Down.” Christie’s people could be busy for months trying to mitigate the damage this book will do to his reputation.
The Obama administration has brushed off the book's claims about the back-room dealings of the 2012 campaign, critiquing the sources as much as the content. “The president is always frustrated about leaks,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I haven’t talked to him about this book. I haven’t read it. He hasn’t read it. But he hates leaks.”
But that’s inside-the-Beltway politicking, the kind of give-and-take where reputations, not lives, are the casualties. The debate over drone use has far more dramatic reach and effect. Lost in the day-to-day squabbling over politics is the fact that, for instance, the Justice Department has a disturbingly vague protocol for sending drones to kill U.S. citizens. “Double Down” may open the door to issues far more significant than who likes whom in Washington, issues that speak to the very heart of what it means to stand for American principles. This is a story that’s not going away anytime soon.