Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Author: David E. Sanger

Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: Crown (June 5, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0307718026
ISBN-13: 978-0307718020

Product Description


Three and a half years ago, David Sanger’s book The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power described how a new American president came to office with the world on fire. Now, just as the 2012 presidential election battle begins, Sanger follows up with an eye-opening, news-packed account of how Obama has dealt with those challenges, relying on innovative weapons and reconfigured tools of American power to try to manage a series of new threats. Sanger describes how Obama’s early idealism about fighting “a war of necessity” in Afghanistan quickly turned to fatigue and frustration, how the early hopes that the Arab Spring would bring about a democratic awakening slipped away, and how an effort to re-establish American power in the Pacific set the stage for a new era of tensions with the world’s great rising power, China.

As the world seeks to understand the contours of the Obama Doctrine, Confront and Conceal is a fascinating, unflinching account of these complex years, in which the president and his administration have found themselves struggling to stay ahead in a world where power is diffuse and America’s ability to exert control grows ever more elusive.

About the Book

“Stunning revelations…This is an account that long will be consulted by anyone trying to understand not just Iran but warfare in the 21st century…an important book.” –Tom Ricks, New York Times


Inside the White House Situation Room, the newly elected Barack Obama immerses himself in the details of a remark­able new American capability to launch cyberwar against Iran—and escalates covert operations to delay the day when the mullahs could obtain a nuclear weapon. Over the next three years Obama accelerates drone attacks as an alter­native to putting troops on the ground in Pakistan, and becomes increasingly reliant on the Special Forces, whose hunting of al-Qaeda illuminates the path out of an unwin­nable war in Afghanistan.

Confront and Conceal provides readers with a picture of an administration that came to office with the world on fire. It takes them into the Situation Room debate over how to undermine Iran’s program while simultaneously trying to prevent Israel from taking military action that could plunge the region into another war. It dissects how the bin Laden raid worsened the dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan. And it traces how Obama’s early idealism about fighting “a war of necessity” in Afghanistan quickly turned to fatigue and frustration.

One of the most trusted and acclaimed national security correspondents in the country, David Sanger of the New York Times takes readers deep inside the Obama adminis­tration’s most perilous decisions: The president dispatch­es an emergency search team to the Gulf when the White House briefly fears the Taliban may have obtained the Bomb, but he rejects a plan in late 2011 to send in Special Forces to recover a stealth drone that went down in Iran. Obama overrules his advisers and takes the riskiest path in killing Osama bin Laden, and ignores their advice when he helps oust Hosni Mubarak from the presidency of Egypt.

“The surprise is his aggressiveness,” a key ambassador who works closely with Obama reports.

Yet the president has also pivoted American foreign policy away from the attritional wars of the past decade, attempting to preserve America’s influence with a lighter, defter touch—all while focusing on a new era of diplomacy in Asia and reconfiguring America’s role during a time of economic turmoil and austerity.

As the world seeks to understand whether there is an Obama Doctrine, Confront and Conceal is a fascinating, unflinching account of these complex years, in which the president and his administration have found themselves struggling to stay ahead in a world where power is diffuse and America’s ability to exert control grows ever more elusive. 

NPR Interview with David E. Sanger: "Obama's 'Secret Wars' Against America's Threats"

David Sanger, senior fellow at the Belfer Center and adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, was interviewed on NPR’s “On Point” about his new book on President Obama’s foreign policy efforts, including a cyber-campaign against Iran’s nuclear program. Sanger’s book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, was published this week. Below is an excerpt from his NPR interview.

SANGER: Well, you've seen President Obama from the first days of his presidency talk about hardening America's cyberdefenses, and there have been billions of dollars the federal government now spends trying to harden critical infrastructure. In fact, just in March, they ran a simulation up in the U.S. Senate, a classified simulation, about what would happen if a foreign hacker or foreign power attacked the electrical system in New York City and turned off all the lights in New York.

And these raise very big issues. One of them is: Would you consider that an act of war? Would you respond with a cyberattack against the country that led the attack on the U.S.? Would you even know what that country was? I mean, in the old nuclear age, you could sit in front of a big screen under the mountain in - Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, and you could see where the missiles were coming from.

If there's a cyberattack from China or Russia or Romania or Mexico, it may well run through a server in another country. And you may not - it may take months before you know where it really came from. And that makes deterring against cyberattacks very difficult.

And think about Olympic Games, because the Iranians were not certain where these attacks were coming from. In fact, for the first couple of years of the attacks, they didn't even really know they were being attacked. They only knew that their centrifuges were failing.

The full text of Sanger’s interview can be found here.


Covert Wars, Waged Virally‘Confront and Conceal’


Is the United States at war with Iran? If David Sanger’s account in his new book, “Confront and Conceal,” on President Obama’s foreign policy, is to be believed — and I find it very believable — we certainly are. 

The stunning revelations by Mr. Sanger, The New York Times’s chief Washington correspondent, about the American role in using computer warfare to attack Iran’s nuclear program already have made headlines, and rightly so. He persuasively shows that under Mr. Obama, the United States government has been engaged in what one presidential adviser calls “a state of low-grade, daily conflict.”

The heart of this book is the chapter titled “Olympic Games,” which Mr. Sanger writes is the code name for a joint program of Israel and the United States to insert malicious software into the machinery of the Iranian military-industrial complex and so set back Iran’s ability to manufacture weapons-grade uranium. Specifically, in 2008 and 2009 the software threw off the balance of centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear enrichment center. It did so in a variety of unpredictable ways, making it at first seem like the problems were random or the result of Iranian incompetence. The key to getting inside the computers — which were not connected to the Internet — was to load the virus into thumb drives that Iranian nuclear technicians, perhaps unknowingly, would bring to work and plug into the computer systems there.

In one of the most impressive steps in the cybercampaign, the inserted software recorded the operation of the centrifuges. Then, as the computer worm took control of the machines and began destroying them, the software played back the signals of the normal operation of the centrifuges. “The plant operators were clueless,” Mr. Sanger writes. “There were no warning lights, no alarm bells, no dials gyrating wildly. But anyone down in the plant would have felt, and heard, that the centrifuges were suddenly going haywire. First came a rumble, then an explosion.” This is an account that long will be consulted by anyone trying to understand not just Iran but warfare in the 21st century. It alone is worth the price of the book.

And that is a good thing, because the rest of the book — overviews of Mr. Obama’s handling of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arab Spring, and China and North Korea — offers a solid but rather dutiful summary of this administration’s foreign policy. As I read it, I wondered if the author — in the course of working on a book to be titled something like “The Education of a President” — had come across the extraordinary material on the cyberwar against Iran.

Those other spinach-laden sections are not bad, but they are not as compelling as Mr. Sanger’s guided tour of the anti-Iranian operations. He offers a healthy meditation on Mr. Obama’s heavy use of drone strikes in Pakistan, asking how such strikes differ from a program of targeted assassination, if at all. And throughout, Mr. Sanger clearly has enjoyed great access to senior White House officials, most notably to Thomas Donilon, the national security adviser.

Mr. Donilon, in effect, is the hero of the book, as well as the commenter of record on events. He leads the team that goes to Israel and spends “five hours wading through the intelligence in the basement of the prime minister’s residence.” He is shown studying the nettlesome problems of foreign relations, working closely with the president, and fending off the villains of this story — which in Mr. Sanger’s account tend to be the government of Pakistan and, surprisingly, the generals of the American military. “We fought the Pentagon every step of the way on this,” a “senior American diplomat” tells Mr. Sanger. At another point, a “senior White House official” reports that, “There was incredible resistance inside the Pentagon.” And so on.

The virtue of this book — its foundation of White House sources who give the author insiders’ material like a transcript of Mr. Obama’s last telephone call with the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak — is also its weakness. That is, Mr. Sanger shows us the world through the eyes of Mr. Obama, Mr. Donilon and those around him. But he also tends to depict Washington and the world as they see it. The perceptions of White House officials, especially in the first year of the Obama presidency, which saw a steep learning curve for the president and those around him, are not always dispositive.

When, for example, the White House moved closer to the Pentagon’s hawkish view of North Korea, “We had people in the Pentagon telling us, ‘We told you so,’ ” a senior administration official informs Mr. Sanger. That official adds, rather snidely, that “perhaps they were making a case for not cutting the budget” of the Pentagon.

Mr. Sanger’s sure touch in discussing foreign policy falters when he addresses the Pentagon. He incorrectly states that “battlespace” is a term of cyberwar, when it actually is United States military jargon for any sort of battlefield, conventional or not. More important, Mr. Sanger seems unaware that a large number of military officers agreed with President Obama that Iraq was a “war of choice,” and a huge mistake.

Nor by the time Mr. Obama took office was “much of the military ... running on autopilot.” Rather, after five years of sweating and bleeding in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military was engaged in a good deal of soul-searching about those wars. The “surge” in Iraq was largely the product of military dissidents who believed that invading Iraq had been a mistake.

These are minor blemishes in an important book. I raise them mainly because of the warning signal they send about civil-military relations under President Obama. White House mistrust and suspicion of generals is not a recipe for an effective use of military force because it impedes the candid sort of discussion that consciously brings to the surface differences, examines assumptions and hammers out sustainable strategies.

Rather, it suggests that Mr. Obama and those around him are repeating some of the dysfunctionality that characterized the dealings of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson with the Pentagon during the descent into the Vietnam War. With Syria hanging fire, a nuclear-armed Pakistan on the brink and the Afghan war dragging on, that is not a reassuring state of affairs.

Thomas E. Ricks is the author of several books about the United States military, including “The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today” (Penguin Press, forthcoming).

Article by Sanger adapted from Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power:

Obama Ordered Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran,” New York Times. June 1, 2012

About the Author

DAVID E. SANGER is the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times and bestselling author of The Inheritance. He has been a member of two teams that won the Pulitzer Prize and has received numerous awards for coverage of the presidency and national security policy. He also teaches national security policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. 

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