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Secrecy Stifles Debate On Black Operations


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. For years, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen remained an open secret. There are reasons why missile attacks on the territory of quasi-allies weren't acknowledged, but because of that secrecy, legal justification started to emerge only last year, and the process that the president and his advisors use to put individuals on the kill list only came into focus this month in Daniel Klaidman's book "Kill or Capture."

For years, Israel or - and/or the United States were believed to be the creators of the Stuxnet virus that attacked Iran's nuclear facilities, and again, secrecy prevented debate over the wisdom and legality of cyber weapons. This month, David Sanger's book "Confront and Conceal" revealed the origins and operations of a weapon that delayed Iran's progress, maybe by years.

The U.S. conducts warfare against terrorists and against some states on many different levels and in many far-flung places. How important is secrecy? How open should the administration be with the American people? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a jury cleared baseball great Roger Clemens yesterday, but many continue to believe he cheated. Once tarred, how do you clear your name? But first, NPR commentator Ted Koppel joins us in a moment, and we begin with David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times. His latest book, "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power," and he joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back on the program.

DAVID SANGER: Great to be back with you, Neal.

CONAN: Some in Congress are upset at both the quality of your information and how you got it. Was there any effort by the administration to get you and the New York Times to sit on this story?

SANGER: No there wasn't. There was the - when you say there were concerns about quality, I hope it's that the quality was too good, not too bad.

CONAN: I think that's what they're worried about, yeah.


SANGER: Good, I hope so. But I went through the process that we are accustomed to doing at the New York Times. We did with WikiLeaks, which I think you and I discussed when they came out, which was that you do your reporting, you put together the best story, the fullest story that you know how to go do, and then at some point you go to somebody in the government or several people who seem - who you have confidence are familiar with this, and you say look, if there is something that truly affects the lives of individuals, affects ongoing operations or future operations, let's have that discussion now before we print.

And, you know, the Times has always been amenable to making changes, and we did that in the course of - they were mostly technical changes - we did that in the course of the excerpt that ran in the Times and in "Confront and Conceal."

CONAN: The controversy over the source of the leaks obscures the essence of your story, which is that the U.S. and Israel are waging a kind of warfare against Iran, with no public acknowledgement, no debate, almost completely in secret.

SANGER: Well, that's right, and as you suggested the big leak, and I don't like the phrase leak because this was a project I worked on for this book for 18, months around the world, so I was really building this from the bottom up. But if there was a leak here, it wasn't a human leak, it was the leak of a virus that later became known as Stuxnet.

Really it's a computer worm that got out of the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant in the summer of 2010. And Neal, that wasn't intended to be, because for several years, the United States and Israel had jointly conducted an operation that was codenamed in the U.S., Olympic Games, which was an effort to get a computer worm into the controllers, the computer controllers that run the centrifuges at Natanz, which is the main enrichment facility the Iranians have had, and to spin the centrifuges, which move at supersonic speed, wildly out of control.

And for a few years that happened, and the Iranians were trying to figure out what was going wrong. Then came the summer of 2010, when somebody made a programming error. There's some dispute about whether it was Israeli or the U.S., it doesn't really make that big a difference. In the end, what happened was that an Iranian scientist or engineer plugged his laptop computer into the controllers at Natanz. The worm leapt aboard his laptop, I don't think he knew that that was happening.

He went home, he hooked up to the Internet, and while he was doing whatever he was doing on the Internet, the worm did not realize that it had changed environment, and it propagated all across the world. And that was how the Iranians discovered they were under attack, because this very sophisticated program suddenly became evident to everybody.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, NPR commentator, joins us from his home in Potomac, Maryland. Ted, always good to have you on the program.

TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: Always good to be with you, Neal, and David, may I say I just finished the book, and as usual, it's first rate.

SANGER: Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Ted, the nature of this program, the secrecy, well, it kind of - if you announce you're doing this, the Iranians will know. How can you have a debate about it?

KOPPEL: Well, you can't have a debate about the secrecy of actions like that. I think what we need to focus on a little bit, and David's book does this to a large extent, is that we are moving into a somewhat different era. We've always had secret operations attached to larger-scale warfare. We had things happening in Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos that the Nixon administration and then the Johnson administration didn't want people to know about, secret operations, the CIA active over there. But they were active in the context of a much larger war.

The Obama administration is moving more and more and more in the direction of the covert actions being the essence of the war. That's a big change.

CONAN: And David Sanger, in the course of this change, the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command have almost merged.

SANGER: They have for the kind of activity that we know - we hear about the most, which is the night raids, the kind of operations that went after Osama bin Laden, although that was a SEAL team, it wasn't the CIA. But it's very difficult to tell the difference between the sort of commando-style raids the CIA runs and what the SEAL teams do.

They operate under different legal authorities, one for the military, one under presidential findings. Olympic Games, the cyber-activity, interestingly enough, originally was in the - on the military side, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, when he came into the Bush administration, former head of the CIA, of course, looked at this and said, you know, this really has to be run as a covert operation and moved it over to the intelligence agencies.

KOPPEL: I think Ted raised something really interesting, which was when he said that what the Obama administration has done is moved these actions to become the essence of war. I think in some of the cases, including Iran, they would argue - I'm not saying I agree with this - but they would argue that they are doing these actions to prevent war and that in fact what the covert action against Iran was all about was preventing an Israeli strike that could lead to a big reaction and perhaps a war in the Middle East.

CONAN: Yet...

KOPPEL: You know, I think to a certain extent, Neal, it's almost like the argument that we had over waterboarding and whether that is torture. And I always like to sort of flip the coin a little bit and say if any other country were doing to us what we are doing to the Iranians right now, would we consider that an act of war, or would we consider that it falls into some other category?

When you flip the coin that way, I think it's fairly easy to come up with an answer.

CONAN: David Sanger, this line between espionage and war, sabotage is somewhere in there but generally regarded as an act of war.

SANGER: It can be, and in fact the Pentagon has said at various points that if there was an act against - a cyber attack on the United States against infrastructure, as opposed to the kind of cyber attacks we see every day, which are scooping up information from corporate America or even government computer systems - that they may well consider it an act of war.

And is a very fine line, and Ted makes a good point that in Vietnam and even in World War II, these events usually happened alongside of war. And when you think about the CIA's origins in the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, this is basically what they did. They would go around sabotaging things including of a nuclear nature.

They sank ships that they believed were carrying cargo that would help the Nazis build a nuclear weapon.

CONAN: Heavy water in Norway.

SANGER: That's right.

CONAN: And yet that was in the context of a declared war. We don't have a declared war against Iran.

SANGER: We don't, and that's one of the fascinating elements of this conflict because as I say in the book, I quote a fairly senior official as saying there is a constant-level, low-level, low-grade conflict underway with Iran right now, and it's not just cyber. It's happening throughout the Middle East, it's with assassination plots that the Iranians are believed to be launching against some in the West and of course the assassinations we've seen and discussed on this show before of Iranian scientists, which American officials say is not American activity but strongly leave the suggestion could well be Israeli activity.

CONAN: And that, Ted Koppel, from the Iranian point of view, if America's close ally, Israel, which - with which it cooperated on Stuxnet is conducting these assassinations, well, plausible deniability, but nevertheless you tend to blame the big brother, too.

KOPPEL: Look, I think the larger question, Neal, is if you go back, still in our lifetimes although it's a long time ago, but you go back 40 years, we had a draft in this country. Everybody had a little bit of skin in the game. Even if you or a member of your family was not actively engaged in the war in Vietnam, almost everyone in the country knew someone who was over there.

We took the step from that to a professional military, to an all-volunteer army, and all of a sudden, the number of people involved became far fewer. We are moving now in the direction of fewer and fewer and fewer people actively involved. David makes one of the interesting points in his book that there are now - correct me if I get it wrong, David, but I think you said there are now more drone pilots than all the fighter and bomber pilots now being trained. Is that...?

SANGER: That's right, more in training - more drone pilots in training than fighter pilots for manned aircraft.

KOPPEL: Right, so we are now at a point where the actions of our military and the actions of the CIA and the actions of Special Operations Command are not only unknown to the American public, very few of us have any relationship with those of who are engaged in the war. There has been no real discussion of this in Congress. The president has not really made any major speech on the subject justifying, and I think much of what he is doing is eminently justifiable, but we haven't heard it from our leadership, that justification.

CONAN: We're talking with Ted Koppel and New York Times correspondent David Sanger about secrecy and war. Call and tell us: How important is secrecy? How open should the administration be with the American people? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. TALK OF THE NATION, this is NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News; I'm Neal Conan. Earlier we mentioned Daniel Klaidman's book "Kill or Capture," the first detailed reporting on the process the president and his advisors use to put individuals on the kill list in the drone wars. We talked with Daniel Klaidman a couple of weeks ago about the story and the administration's growing reliance on covert attacks. You can listen to that conversation at our website, at npr.org.

Covert drone strikes, special ops, missions, cyber attacks, all examples of a recent shift in the way the U.S. conducts warfare against terrorists and against some states on many different levels and in many far-flung places. So how important is secrecy? How open should the administration be with the American people?

800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guests are NPR commentator Ted Koppel and David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, author of the recent book "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power."

Let's get some callers in on the conversation, and we'll start with Kim(ph), Kim with us from Winchester, Massachusetts.

KIM: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, go ahead, please.

KIM: Hi, my comment is personally, in a government of, for and by the people were every couple years we're required to make a decision as voters of who's going to lead our country, if we're not making an informed decision, which means we're being told what's going on, how informed is our decision? And I understand there's a fine line between, you know, telling us everything and what has to be kept for national secrecy, but where is that line? Thank you very much, I'll take my comments off the air.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call. And where's the line indeed? Ted Koppel, what do make public, what do you not?

KOPPEL: Well, actually, I'm not even sure if it's something that ought to be up for a public vote, but at the very least, you'd like to have the feeling that congressional committees are being consulted on this. I think they are being informed; I'm not sure whether there's any active consultation going on.

CONAN: David Sanger, do you know if the Big Eight, as they're sometimes called, are brought in for these kinds of conversations?

SANGER: They certainly knew about Olympic Games. I'm not sure how widely shared that was elsewhere in the Congress. But, you know, Kim raises a really interesting question, and it's really at the heart of the critique about the reporting I've done in the book and that we had in the Times, and that is where is that fine line?

So I think it is possible to have classified programs, the details of how - of which are classified, and still have a debate about how and when we want to use these weapons. Let me give you some examples, Neal. Everything about nuclear weapons is still classified: how they're built; how they're deployed; where they're deployed.

And yet throughout the Cold War, we had a debate about whether and when to use nuclear weapon. MacArthur wanted to use them in Korea. There were some advising President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis 50 years ago this October to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union then.

We've had this debate about drones, you've mentioned. We've debated when and how to use chemical weapons and when and how to use landmines. So I think it is possible, in fact inevitable, that we're going to have this debate about cyberweapons, it's just a question of getting the country's mind around it.

And I think you can write about cyber weapons and America's use of it without actually violating all of the national security concerns that we've heard discussed in recent weeks.

KOPPEL: Indeed, Neal, sometimes - forgive me for interrupting, but sometimes the debate leads to ruling certain kinds of weapons out, poison gases for example. After a very public debate on that, the United States signed a treaty that it would not use poison gas.

CONAN: Kept stocks of it, though, just in case. The debate also, David Sanger, only came out on drone wars last year. That's, what, five, six years after they first started being used that...

SANGER: Longer. I mean, they armed drones almost immediately after 9/11.

CONAN: So this is - we're conducting warfare in other people's countries against targets they don't want us to mention, we don't mention, and there's no justification as to the legality of this that's even made public, what, for eight or nine or 10 years.

SANGER: That's right, and when the Obama administration came in, Harold Koh, who was the State Department counsel, was basically charged with making the public case for them. And it was a very tricky thing because he had to go do it without actually using the word drones. That was tricky.

I went to see him, and he's quoted at some length in "Confront and Conceal," and he makes a case that I think parts of which make enormous sense about why the United States has to pursue the - under the legislation that declarations have passed Congress after 9/11, has to pursue the people and the organizations that launched 9/11.

The difficulty they run into is now it's 11 years out, and many of the people who are targeted for drone strikes, of course, are pretty far removed from the 9/11 events. In cyber, it's even harder. There has never been a speech. Mr. Koh gave a speech. John Brennan, the president's counterterrorism lead official, gave a speech earlier this year about how and when one used drones.

Because the United States has never acknowledged owning or using cyberweapons, that speech has never been given.

CONAN: Mr. Brennan's speech, we played substantial excerpts from it about the drone wars on this program, and again, you can go to our website and find a link to that, it's at npr.org. And I should clarify, I mentioned the Great Eight from Congress there, the majority and minority leaders of both houses of Congress and the chair and ranking members of the relevant committees, usually the intelligence committee.

Lets' see if we can go next to Jeff(ph), and Jeff's on the line with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

JEFF: Hi, I think that, you know, secrecy should play a huge role right now, because right now, I know for a fact that China and Russia have very well-developed, I guess you'd call it cyber security teams. And quite frankly, America's lagging behind. Like, they have a small group of people in the Air Force but not as many as we need. And the Navy is trying race 'em and get theirs up, but once again, it's not really working.

So I think that secrecy really will give us the only edge we have. There needs to be like a whole section of the military devoted specifically to cyber security and defense. I mean, after all, we have one for the Navy and the Air Force.

CONAN: Which raises a question, Ted Koppel: Part of the debate that we might have about cyber weapons is if we use them, don't we legitimize their usage by others?

KOPPEL: Well again, this is one of the interesting points that David raises in his book: How do we respond to the People's Republic of China when we complained of them about their cyber attacks against the United States, and they are ubiquitous, and they simply say one word: Iran, Stuxnet.

CONAN: Go ahead, I'm sorry.

JEFF: Yeah, I should also add something else. You know, as a - I guess you would call it an individual working, you know, with the FBI for the recent Mal - Tech thing, I mean, I think that a majority of Americans would actually gladly volunteer for things like this. I know I would.

CONAN: All right, Jeff, thanks very much for the call. David?

SANGER: Yeah, this is a fascinating issue, the question of whether or not the American use of it legitimizes the use for other countries, and it's been a big issue of debate within the administration, though quite secretly. President Obama, in the course of the debates over Olympic Games, raised this issue repeatedly, and it's one of the reasons that he wanted to narrow the way the U.S. uses the weapon so that we're not turning off electricity to hospitals in Iran or any other place, we're very focused on the nuclear program.

And that's because he'd like to begin to establish some rules of when you do and don't make use of these. But you can't have that discussion until you acknowledge that you're using the weapons and that others are doing so, as well. And there has been a quiet effort by the U.S. to begin a dialogue with the Chinese. It hasn't gone very far, but at least it's a start.

You know, the comparison here is we're sort of with cyber where we were with nuclear weapons between, say, 1945 and 1949, when we had nuclear weapons, and we know the rest of the world was on its way to getting them, but they didn't quite have them yet.

And with cyber, there's the added problem that you don't have to be a state to have this weapon. You could be an ingenious teenager. You could be a member of an organized crime group. So it's not just states that can play.

CONAN: There is another complication, and that is collateral damage. As you mentioned, the Stuxnet worm was meant to be kept in this contained universe of the Iranian nuclear program, it got out, and other people identified it. Did it cause other damage? We don't know. Could it have by mistake, not intentedly(ph), shut down the power plant at those hospitals? Well, something like that is inevitably going to happen.

SANGER: But probably didn't in this case, Neal, and the reason is that the way the program was written is it was looking for a certain combination of computer controllers and then these nuclear centrifuges. So if you weren't running nuclear centrifuges in your basement hooked up to your home computer system, you probably just had Stuxnet on your computer, and it wasn't doing any damage.

CONAN: You've discovered my hobby.

SANGER: I knew you had them there someplace, Neal.

CONAN: Sam(ph) is on the line calling from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

SAM: Yeah, thanks for taking my call, great discussion. You know, I worry that in a country where supposedly it's a law of - it's a country of laws not men that we're heading towards a country of men and not laws, in particular the drone attacks but most specifically the extrajudicial murder of an American citizen.

I would think that that's - we've kind of lost, we've lost the whole game, and we have it up to a couple of individuals whether they're going to kill somebody, especially an American citizen without trial, without jury. There's nothing worth left fighting for. I think we've already lost.

CONAN: And he's, of course, referring to Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric identified as the operational chief of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, killed by an American drone in Yemen. And, Ted Koppel, there's been much discussion about the legalities involved there.

KOPPEL: As indeed, I think, there should be. I mean, it's always interesting to me when we have this discussion that the assumption is, well, the guy was guilty as hell, and he's a member of a terrorist unit, and his goal was to kill Americans, therefore, we have the right to do whatever we want. Under American law, obviously, there is a presumption of innocence, and I'm not at all sure that I'd accept the argument that simply because someone is overseas and even because they're the member of or presumed to be the member of an organization that that has threatened and has done terrible things to the United States that we can therefore come to the general conclusion that these people can be killed without any legal process whatsoever.

CONAN: And, David Sanger, one of the things we read about is that indeed the feeling was that Mr. al-Awlaki was in the process of developing operational plans to attack the United States.

SANGER: That's right, and that he was an enemy combatant, even though he was an American citizen, but that he was outside of the reach of American law in other ways. So there was a fairly detailed legal analysis done ahead of the ordering of those drone strikes. Now, you can arguably believe that analysis was accurate or flawed, but they at least went through the process, I think, pretty carefully.

CONAN: We're...

KOPPEL: I'm also not sure, Neal, if we can necessarily accept the notion that a drone strike is any different from a sniper or any different for that matter from an intelligence agent putting a handgun up against the side of someone's head. Distance in this instance I don't think constitutes a legal separation, a legal differentiation.

SANGER: I think that's right especially because as the drones have gotten more and more accurate, the difference between that and the sniper fire that he discuses is a pretty small one.

CONAN: David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, his book "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power." Also with us, NPR commentator Ted Koppel. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And as we - it's interesting. David Sanger used that period of 1945 to 1949 when the United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons. Ted Koppel, this monopoly, as we know, certainly on drones, will not last, and at least Israel and China and other countries are using cyberweapons too.

KOPPEL: Absolutely. I mean, they will be using drones. You and I were having a little bit of a discussion a couple of hours ago about - you made the interesting point that the United States has very good air defenses. I'm not sure that the air defenses ultimately 10 years down the road, 20 years down the road will be adequate to defend against drones, some of which are now being manufactured in such extraordinarily tiny form. I don't know what kill capability they will have or whether they're just surveillance drones. But in any event, we are just at the very - you know, the Model T Ford stage of these drones.

Twenty years from now, what happens with those drones and how they are used not just against us - I mean, not just in our behalf but against us, I think it's going to become a huge, huge issue.

CONAN: And, David Sanger, the United States is probably more vulnerable than any other country to cyberwar.

SANGER: That's right. And, well, I think Ted is right that at some point, we'll become vulnerable to drone strikes as well. We're vulnerable to cyber today. And it's not just the kind of cyberattack that we have seen previously, which is Chinese, Russian, many others who come into our computer systems, troll around, look for proprietary corporate data or government secrets and so forth, but more of the kind that the Iranian operation was all about. And what made Iran - the Iranian operation different was this was not cyber on cyber, computer on computer, but computer on infrastructure.

I mean, until this operation ran, it was not considered possible to destroy another country's nuclear centrifuges without bombing them from above or blowing them up on the ground. And in fact, President Bush was pretty skeptical about it, and I have a scene in the book where the United States basically set up a replica, a running replica of the Iranian plant, the enrichment plant using centrifuges that we'd obtained from Libya when they gave up their nuclear weapons program, something Moammar Gadhafi came to regret last year, I suspect.

And they ran these things and then attacked them with the code and made them blow up and took some of the rubble and picked it up and brought it back to the White House and dumped it on the conference table in the Situation Room to show President Bush that this could actually work.

CONAN: Let's get one more caller in. This is Bob. Bob with us from Winnemucca in Nevada.

BOB: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Bob.

BOB: Yeah. Love the discussion and everything else you're talking about. Back in the '70s, when I was in - during the Cold War was purging. If they had the technology back then that they have today, everything would be streamlined and shown to everybody as to what we had and what we were going for because back then we we're doing the same thing we're doing now. We fighting against terrorism, and it's a last-resort situation where the outside world didn't need and doesn't need to know what it is that we've got.

CONAN: All right, Bob. We're going to give you the last word here. Thanks very much for the phone call.

BOB: Yes. Thank you.

CONAN: And, David Sanger, thanks very much for your time.

SANGER: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: David Sanger, the book "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power." He joined us from our bureau in New York. And, Ted Koppel, as always, appreciate having you on the program.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR commentator Ted Koppel with us from his home in Maryland. Up next, Roger Clemens, not guilty on all charges. It doesn't matter to many fans and sportswriters who decided a long time ago that he cheated. What, if anything, could he do to clear his name? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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