The first article appeared in the New York Times. This excerpt summarizes the article's main theme:
Administration officials said the United States had eliminated more than half of its top targets over the last year, severely constricted Al Qaeda's capacity to operate and choked off a lot of its financing. The sense of progress against Al Qaeda and its allies has helped shape the internal debate over the best way to fight in Afghanistan as President Obama explores alternatives to a large escalation.
The White House has begun promoting the missile strikes and raids that have killed Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere. Mr. Obama will visit the National Counterterrorism Center on Tuesday to call attention to the operations. While aides said the public focus was not related to the Afghanistan review, it could give Mr. Obama political room if he rejected or pared back the request for 40,000 more troops from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan.
The second article appeared in the Washington Post. It discussed how U.S. law enforcement authorities tracked and then arrested Najibullah Zazi on conspiracy to assemble improvised explosives. Here is an excerpt from the article:
In late August, shortly after federal agents began tracking the movements of the suspected terrorist in Colorado, senior officials added the case to Obama's daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office.
Agents had only fragmented information about Zazi at that point, administration officials said. But the case quickly piqued Obama's curiosity and led to what aides called an intensive three-week White House focus on the case.
The 24-year-old Afghan immigrant was arrested last month, accused of seeking to build bombs on U.S. soil after attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan. Investigators think Zazi was "entering the execution phase" of a bombing plot, a senior administration official said over the weekend, possibly timed to coincide with the president's trip to New York for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly or the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"The Zazi case was the first test of this administration being able to successfully uncover and deal with this type of threat in the United States," a senior administration official said. "It demonstrated that we were able to successfully neutralize this threat, and to have insight into it, with existing statutory authorities, with the system as it currently operates."
Part of the administration's exposition of the Zazi case is to promote an urgent legislative matter, the extension of some Patriot Act provisions that made the tracking of Zazi possible. These provisions, which include expanded wiretap authorities, are due to expire at the end of the year unless renewed by statute.
More broadly, the administration officials who are making this case in the New York Times and Washington Post must reassure skeptics that U.S. intelligence collection on al Qaeda, both overseas and inside the U.S., will be very good. One argument for why the U.S. needs to maintain a large presence in "Af-Pak" is that such a presence is needed for the intelligence that a counter-terror strategy relies on.
Proponents of the counter-terror/law enforcement approach are hoping to avoid the cost and risk of an expanded COIN campaign. But a counter-terror/law enforcement approach has its own costs and risks. Absent a large U.S. military presence, getting the intelligence to strike al Qaeda leadership targets will require the U.S. government to make deals with the most unsavory characters in Central Asia. Do the intelligence officers who will be called upon to aggressively develop this constant stream of intelligence wonder when they will be called upon to discuss their actions either in front of a congressional committee or perhaps a grand jury? As for the Zazi case and domestic security, safety against terrorism will likely require ever greater preventive electronic and database surveillance. Proponents of the counter-terror/law enforcement approach will have to be —to make the case for these measures, even more so if a terror attack succeeds.
The case being made in today's New York Times and Washington Post bypasses the issue of America's moral commitment to Afghanistan and the consequences to America's prestige from a drastic change in policy. I am not arguing for McChrystal's plan and against the counter-terror/law enforcement approach. Indeed, regardless of whether it is the right approach or not, I think the counter-terror/law enforcement approach is the inevitable end-state. But it will come with its own set of costs and risks which we should think through.