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The Best Watchdog Journalism on Obama’s National Security Policies

We rounded up some of the best, scoopy pieces of accountability journalism on Obama’s national security policies.

Inspired by The New York Times’ expose on Obama’s “secret ‘kill list,’” we collected some of the best pieces of watchdog journalism on Obama’s national security policies. For a good introduction, and to see how they’ve evolved since Bush, see our timeline.

One of our resident national security experts, Dafna Linzer, helped curate this list. If we missed any, please let us know by emailing [email protected].


Getting Bin Laden, New Yorker, August 2011

Twenty-three Navy SEALs, one Pakistani-American translator and a dog named Cairo: Nicholas Schmidle’s gripping narrative brings to life the night they killed Bin Laden, as well as the hunt that led to the end of the man Obama had dubbed a top national security priority. ProPublica reporter Dafna Linzer also recommended this Time article (paywalled) as a seminal piece on the hunt for Bin Laden.

Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will, New York Times, May 2012

Obama’s hands-on counterterrorism record means that he, in effect, is “personally overseeing the shadow war with Al Qaeda.” But some officials criticize his tactics – like a formula for counting civilian deaths that may significantly lower the actual numbers.


Inside the Killing Machine, Newsweek, February 2011

In 2011, at the time of this article’s writing, the American public knew the military used drones to kill suspected terrorists. But the formal process of deciding who should be hunted and killed had never been reported – until Tara Mckelvey snagged an exclusive interview with a man at the CIA who approved these “lethal operations.”

The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret, Rolling Stone, April 2012In war, soldiers used to have to point a gun at the enemy to kill. Today, they simply have to push a button from a station on their base, what some say is like playing a video games. This piece is one of the most in-depth looks we found on the rise of the U.S. drone program, and how it’s changed the way we fight. And for everything else you ever wanted to know about drones, see our guide.

CIA Shifts Focus to Killing Targets, The Washington Post, August 2011

The number of employees at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center has ballooned from 300 in 2001 to about 2,000 in 2011, representing a fundamental shift in the agency’s focus: from gathering intelligence to operations meant to locate, target and capture or kill.


Cyber-Intruder Sparks Massive Federal Response--And Debate Over Dealing With Threats, Washington Post, December 2011

The military discovered in 2008 that malware, borne on somebody’s thumb-drive, had infiltrated their classified network. The resulting investigation set off a battle over the rules of engagement for cyber warfare, finally restricting the military to defending its own networks and not crossing into civilian or other federal agencies’ turf.


Top Secret America: A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control, Washington Post, July 2010

Since September 11th, the United States’ intelligence operations have ballooned. An estimated 854,000 people hold top-security clearances, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington D.C., and comprise part of a network so sprawling that it’s sometimes hard for top officials to keep track of it all.

The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say), Wired, March 2012

The National Security Agency’s under-construction data center in Utah (dubbed, aptly, the Utah Data Center) will cost $2 billion and sprawl over 1 million square feet, more than five times the size of the U.S. Capitol. When it’s done, slated for September 2013, it will be “the country’s biggest spy center.” And part of its duties may be to monitor your personal data.


The Secret Sharer, New Yorker, May 2011

Though Obama trumpeted the value of whistle-blowers when he entered office, he’s also launched an aggressive crackdown on government leaks. The case of Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency, is a prime example of the tension between whistle-blowers who reveal wrongdoing and leaks that jeopardize national security.

Sealing Loose Lips: Obama’s Crackdown on Leaks, ProPublica, March 2012

Our timeline of leak prosecutions under the Espionage Act – and how they’ve picked up steam under Obama.


In Yemen, U.S. Airstrikes Breed Anger, and Sympathy for Al Qaeda, Washington Post, May 2012

The Obama administration has escalated airstrikes in Yemen against high-ranking al Qaeda leaders, but is it an effective military strategy in the long run? This article describes the backlash in Yemen against civilian deaths and what’s seen as an incursion on their sovereignty.

U.S. Not Reporting All Afghan Attacks, The Associated Press, April 2012

An A.P. exclusive found the military doesn't report non-fatal attacks on coalition troops by Afghan policemen and soldiers, even though the incidents are an important indication of the level of mistrust between Afghan and coalition troops. A military spokesman says this is due to differences in policy between coalition governments on reporting attacks.

2 Top Lawyers Lost to Obama in Libya War Policy Debate, New York Times, June 2011

Obama rejected the views of top Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers when he decided to continue America’s role in the air war in Libya without Congressional authorization – a legal, but “extraordinarily rare” move. According to Dafna, this is one of the most significant national security stories of Obama’s presidency, having “more to do with war power and executive authority than anything else.”

Congratulations, you finished! Now test your knowledge by taking our quiz: Obama vs. Bush on National Security.

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