Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power | By David E. Sanger | Crown | 476 pages, $28.00
Every White House keeps secrets, especially when it comes to national security. It’s the job of the press to learn those secrets and reveal them, unless—and it’s a big unless—the press is convinced that doing so will harm the country. In his new book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, David E. Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, navigates this tricky terrain in an effort to tell the public as much as he possibly can without jeopardizing active U.S. operations or the lives of those people involved in them.
Confront and Conceal, parts of which were excerpted in the Times, is rich in revelations: a detailed account of “Olympic Games,” a US-Israeli initiative to use a cyber-weapon to disrupt and delay Iran’s nuclear program; a look at American attempts to locate Osama bin Laden through a “highly classified” technique involving “traceable” digital cameras; the nugget that the National Security Agency “routinely taps” the cell phones of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence. Sanger’s reporting is based, in part, on conversations with Obama administration policymakers and intelligence officials.
Sanger, who has reported on White Houses going back to the Clinton administration, has been applauded for his tenacity—and taken to task for spilling too many beans. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan decried a climate of indiscretion in which she depicted Sanger as too willing a participant. “Why is this happening? In part because at our highest level in politics, government and journalism, Americans continue to act as if we are talking only to ourselves,” Noonan wrote. “There is something childish in it: Knowing secrets is cool, and telling them is cooler.” Meanwhile, the Justice Department, under fire from Capitol Hill, has appointed two prosecutors to trace the leaks that inform the Sanger book. Sanger himself conceivably could be called to testify.
From his vacation home in the Vermont mountains, Sanger spoke with me over the phone about the uproar over his book, his reporting methods, and the broader themes that illuminate Confront and Conceal, which stands out as the most comprehensive and penetrating account available anywhere of Obama’s national-security policies.
Paul Starobin: The central theme of the book is that President Obama has established a new “light footprint” strategy as a means of asserting American power around the world—a strategy that can be called “confront and conceal,” with a reliance on covert techniques of warfare, such as cyber-weapons, drones, and special-operations forces. This is opposed to a strategy of putting large numbers of boots on the ground in hotspots or not intervening at all. In what sense do you mean that President Obama’s use of American power is “surprising,” as is said in the book’s subtitle?
David Sanger: Before Obama’s election, the right referred to him as a “community organizer,” which was phraseology or a code word for “not qualified to be commander in chief” and “not tough enough.” And the left referred to him as someone who would rely almost entirely on engagement. The national-security policy that has emerged from the first three years of President Obama’s time in office has surprised both his critics and his supporters. This book is about the surprises.
PS: Did you feel surprised?
DS: This is a very pragmatic, tell-me-what-we-need-to-do-to-get-it-done crowd. It may be the least ideological administration I’ve covered. In the degree [of the relative absence of ideology] it surprised me.
PS: It’s clear that in this book you’re harvesting the fruit of a longtime cultivation of sources. These people are part of permanent Washington, and so are you. With a source like [national security advisor] Tom Donilon, did you have an agreement with him at the outset of the book—that he was going to be a kind of sounding board? How does it work with someone like that?
DS: There were no agreements with anyone who is quoted in the book.
PS: Did Donilon or other sources get to read a draft of what you were preparing?
PS: But as you’ve said, there were parts of the manuscript that the government asked you to withdraw or omit certain details.
DS: That was almost entirely limited to the Olympic Games and Iran portions of the book. [In a footnote in the book, Sanger acknowledges that “some details” on the “traceable” digital cameras program were omitted “at the request of government officials.”]
PS: How did the government know what the details in the manuscript might be?