GM: A lot of the coverage on the internal dynamics of the administration with respect to broader foreign policy issues tends to get focused on Hillary Clinton, just because of her star power. With respect to national security issues specifically, what are some of the important fault lines in the administration? Are there particular names or patterns that readers should be looking for?
SA: I would trace not so much personalities. When I read that stuff it makes me really grateful that I work for a place that doesn’t confuse substantive coverage with a Washington parlor game. This stuff about is Hillary up or down, I want to quit the business before I write crap like that.
What I’m more interested in, and what I think readers are more interested in, is the degrees to which the Obama administration’s focus on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency sort of divide at a certain point, or whether there’s a sufficient role for global development—we still don’t have a head for USAID. I think that the changes the administration is talking about, structurally, to national security decision-making—things like transforming the ability of the State Department to have more of an expeditionary culture, to do diplomacy not just in embassies and consulates, but around in hinterlands of certain areas, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia—are really important things to look at and be focused on.
I’m more interested in structural changes than I am in personality changes, because personalities change and that’s just going to happen in any administration. But one of the reasons that personalities clash is because the institutions that back up these personalities do or don’t have the capabilities, the influence, the power, and the funding to do what administrations politically would like to see accomplished. And that’s really the sort of thing that I think is more illuminating for a reader than what order Hillary sat in the Cabinet room next to Obama, that parlor crap. I think that’s a virtue of the Internet, that communities have formed around the idea that they don’t want to read coverage of weighty issues as spectacle.
GM: Last question. Can you talk about one or two stories on your beat that are especially challenging to tell correctly, or that are frustrating because there’s specific information that you would love to get and haven’t been able to?
SA: There are tons, basically anything in intelligence. I would really love to find out the degree to which, over the last several years, the CIA has managed to create what oftentimes it was said it just wasn’t going to create, which is a network for human intelligence in the Pakistani tribal areas. All of these targeted strikes we’re seeing come as the result of a lot of intelligence work. I’m not vouchsafing for their accuracy in killing the people they say they kill, but it wouldn’t be happening with greater frequency if the CIA wasn’t getting a whole lot more inputs than it had been in the past. The capabilities have been there for quite some time, but it’s only in the last eighteen months to two years that the drone strikes have accelerated to such a tremendous degree. The story of how that happened, the circumstances that gave rise to that, still hasn’t been told. I’ve been trying assiduously, and not with great success, I’m sorry to say, so far, to tell that story. It’s a tremendously important one.
Similarly, anything having to do with the circumstances surrounding the Bush administration’s surveillance programs. There’s still a tremendous amount of opacity there, and that needs to be traced. A lot of the decisions that the Obama administration is making, we’re still in the very early phase here, so I don’t put them quite in that category yet, but those are two that come to mind.