Few events merit the discussion that the killing of Osama bin Laden is generating. President Obama exhibited uncharacteristic leadership; years of rigorous intelligence work were vindicated; Seal Team 6 performed at the highest standards imaginable. A lifetime ago I spent some years in military intelligence and have the highest regard for the participants. Some reflections:
1. The Bush policies of agressive interrogation, electronic surveillance, and overseas prisons each played a role in identifying the courier who led us to bin Laden's compound. Bush's creation of the joint terrorism operations center and expansion of special operations capabilities also deserves some credit. On the other hand, the Obama/Holder policies of closing Guantanamo, restricting surveillance, and treating terrorists as common criminals would not have. Nor does the Holder/Obama decision in 2009 to investigate CIA interrogators for "improper" behavior. There is room for liberals to argue morality or legalisms here, but the "effectiveness" argument is destroyed - and the American people would seem to care more about effectiveness.
2. Jay Carney, the president's PR guy is in over his head. In events such as this it is critical that there be one spokesman - not having Carney, Brennan, Panetta, Clinton, and others giving their shifting versions of what happened. That said, most of the substantive decisions have been good - deny the Muslim fanatics a martyr by giving him a proper burial at sea and not showing the photos.
3. The praise for Obama's courage is a bit misplaced. Given strong evidence that bin Laden was there, the (improper) courageous act would have been to NOT follow the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs and the Director of the CIA. (A bomb would not have provided the necessary direct physical evidence, would have caused collateral damage, and would not have allowed the collection of other materials from the site.) What is amusing is the reaction of Obama's remaining acolytes who opposed aggressive interrogation but have no problem with what amounted to an execution.
4. Panetta was apparently the hawk in the group. With him taking over Defense and Petreus taking over the CIA, we will have robust national security leadership. Nevertheless, the timely exit from Afghanistan seems to be more likely.
5. We sometimes over estimate our adversaries. It is stunning that bin Laden would have extensive unprotected information in paper and electronic form. His loss is a big deal to al Queda (people had taken an oath of fealty to him personally), but we should also have the ability to roll up much of the second tier. And if they expect that they have been compromised many may take risky measures to find alternative cover.
6. The question of whether the Pakistani government is duplicitous or incompetent is false. They were duplicitous. What is disappointing is that we didn't have anybody in the high command or in Abbottabad who would tell us what was going on. (Or maybe we did and some of this other story is a cover.) In any case Hillary's positioning is correct: that Pakistan has suffered greatly from Islamic militants (presidential and other assassinations for example), that they have helped us a great deal (giving up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for example), that their nuclear stockpile must be protected, and that we need to be responsive to the entire complex relationship.
7. The domestic politics will play out to Obama's advantage - particularly in finally acting as the Commander in Chief rather than a law professor. Understandably President Bush chose not to be a foil, opting to hold his Ground Zero appearance until the 10th anniversary. Perhaps Obama's previous history of attacking the Supreme Court justices and then Paul Ryan at major "non-partisan" public events went into the calculation.
In any event, this was a great day - for the Seals, for the intelligence community, for the administration, and for America.
This week's You Tube is the interview of Leon Panetta by Brian Williams in which Panetta was clear that waterboarding was one source of information that led to the locating of bin Laden. Williams did a nice job in not letting Panetta get by with a vague answer.
bill bowen - 5/6/11