May 08, 2011
It's me, the official White House fly on the wall. It's been a big week around here. I learned that 47% of the citizens of Detroit are functionally illiterate; national testing establishes that three out of four U.S. students "lack a basic understanding of how the political system works and what it means to be a citizen of this country"; that sharp media tack Andrea Mitchell thinks Osama could have been captured and killed in Tora Bora (in 2001) if only President Bush hadn't invaded Iraq (in 2003); and that this White House must be counting on the ignorance of the voters and the press to get Obama re-elected, because the rest of us cannot believe how manifestly incompetent an executive he is.
It should have been a great week for the White House. Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden. In a daring operation (across the street from the police station and yards from the military academy) they flew in helicopters, rappelled into a walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and killed the bizarre monster who had long eluded us.
I can't tell you with what amusement I watched the left pirouette on so many issues with which they had assailed Obama's predecessor, a man too dignified to respond in kind. My favorite documenter of the spinning was the estimable Iowahawk:
Yes, it's true that some pre-January 2009 antiwar activists have remained morally and logically consistent in their opposition to America's military presence in the Mideast; but, thank God, it appears now they were only a tiny, insignificant minority. Recent events have happily made clear that the antiwar movement of 2001-8 was overwhelmingly dominated by a vast silent hypocritical majority of craven political opportunists awaiting a Democratic administration to gleefully celebrate the covert execution of a man whom, until 28 months ago, they would have described as a "tragic civilian casualty." Who is to credit for this rebirth in American national unity? First and foremost, we must cite the leadership of President Obama. Like many Americans - and the Nobel Peace Prize committee - I naively feared he was actually serious when he initially proposed shutting down Guantanamo, trying detainees in American civilian courts, and prior consultation with the international community. Little did I know that this untested young Commander-in-Chief would muster the courage to read his weekly Gallup numbers and, in one daring unilateral extra-judicial targeted hit job, toss aside every single idiotic foreign policy principle of his election campaign. Perhaps most satisfyingly, it was a mission made possible thanks to information extracted by methods he previously banned as "illegal torture." But this triumphant new era in situationally-unified American bloodlust does not belong to the President alone; we must also cite Congress's born-again waterboarders like Nancy Pelosi and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and their newfound enthusiasm for what (at least until 9pm Sunday) they would have once considered illegal military murder squads. Neither can we forget the watchdogs of America's press, who have shown unprecedented ethical flexibility in shedding their long-held Ghandi moralism and embracing their inner Rambo. Thanks to leaders like these, American pride is temporarily back out of the closet. And I for one take great personal satisfaction in knowing that when I'm high-fiving a random fellow American and robotically chanting "USA! USA!" at the news that Bin Laden is finally shark chum, there's a pretty good chance that the guy was, only a few years ago, denying his love for unauthorized secret CIA-planned assassinations. Welcome to the pride parade everybody!
But Iowahawk was a bit in error. Obama and his closest advisors obviously gave in to the demands of CIA head Panetta when the operation was in motion, but they did it so half-heartedly. Obama had to be dragged in from the golf course to the situation room to pose for a picture in which, looking like someone who'd been brought into a bring your son to work day, he and the others pretended to watch the operation which Panetta later informed us they could not have done because there was nothing transmitted during it to the White House or anywhere else. The assembled saw the helicopters over the compound and then neither heard nor saw a single thing until they got the communication "Geronimo" which signaled the success of the mission. (The photo shot also showed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looking visibly anguished, but shortly after Panetta's disclosure, this ham actress claimed that wasn't a picture of anguish, she just was having problems with her allergies.) Some folks at Free Republic quickly captured what the real situation in the White House situation room was:
The operation was a success, thanks to the military and some long, hard slogging for years by our intelligence people in places and using techniques Obama the candidate had repudiated. Nevertheless, Obama quickly tried to grab all the credit for it, but the administration message was so garbled, contradictory and self-promoting that no one paying attention could keep track of the many versions of events. It did appear that the President had no choice in the matter because Wikileaks had already exposed Osama's likely location and delay was likely to allow him to escape our clutches. Tom Maguire:
As Obama enjoys his victory lap following the death of Osama bin Laden, his unrelenting critics can find grist for their mill in this AP tick-tock of the hunt and eventual raid. By mid-February, the officials were convinced a "high-value target" was hiding in the compound. President Barack Obama wanted to take action.
"They were confident and their confidence was growing: 'This is different. This intelligence case is different. What we see in this compound is different than anything we've ever seen before,'" John Brennan, the president's top counterterrorism adviser, said Monday. "I was confident that we had the basis to take action."
Options were limited. The compound was in a residential neighborhood in a sovereign country. If Obama ordered an airstrike and bin Laden was not in the compound, it would be a huge diplomatic problem. Even if Obama was right, obliterating the compound might make it nearly impossible to confirm bin Laden's death.
Said Brennan: "The president had to evaluate the strength of that information, and then made what I believe was one of the most gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory."
Obama tapped two dozen members of the Navy's elite SEAL Team Six to carry out a raid with surgical accuracy.
As they explain, bombing an upscale suburb of Islamabad was not a live diplomatic option. That means the choices were a manned raid, or continued dithering while waiting for more intel.
But dithering may not have been an option either - it was just last week that Wikileaks dumped some info that can be pieced together to lead back to the compound in Abbottabad:
Buried in a document from 2008 released by WikiLeaks last week are notes from the interrogation of a Libyan, Abu al-Libi, who had apparently been with Bin Laden in Afghanistan.
According to the document, Libi fled to Peshawar in Pakistan and was living there in 2003 when he was asked to become one of Bin Laden's messengers. The document says: "In July 2003, detainee received a letter from [Bin Laden's] designated courier, Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan, requesting detainee take on the responsibility of collecting donations, organising travel and distributing funds for families in Pakistan. [Bin Laden] stated detainee would be the official messenger between [Bin Laden] and others in Pakistan. In mid-2003, detainee moved his family to Abbottabad (Pakistan) and worked between Abbottabad and Peshawar."
Hmm - one would have presumed that Osama et al had thought through the implications of the al-Libbi capture. Would they really have first learned from WikiLeaks that al-Libbi might have been cooperating with his interrogators? Then again, maybe they had persuaded themselves that the trail back to Osma had gone cold. Still, seeing Osama's home base cited in a CIA memo might have re-opened an old debate at Osama's headquarters and reinforced a faction arguing that it was time to move on.
Tricky. I can imagine that advisors in the White House were very worried that these leaks would prompt the departure of whatever HVT was within the compound. And if it were subsequently leaked that Obama lost an HVT to WikiLeaks while waiting for more intel... one can only imagine the pressures on the man with the loneliest job in the world.
The missteps by the White House were so pronounced that even Time's Mark Halperin, certainly not known as an Obama critic, commented on five of them.
My friend jmh observed:
It's interesting that four of the five errors Halperin points out have to do with losing control -- over the story, the photo debate, the Afghanistan debate & the Pakistan debate. I keep going back to Matt Yglesias accidental prescience in identifying Obama's accidental foreign policy at the get-go.
It's ironic that Halperin points out a missed opportunity to bring the country together by being more generous in his praise of GWB, in light of Obama's ex post facto coming-together drum beat -- which Halperin ignores. Back to error #1:
The administration deserves mountains of credit for its painstaking, conspicuous effort to brief the world on the mission, knowing a lot of information would have to be held back to protect sources, operatives, methods, and sensitive data. Which makes the carelessness of the errors somewhat surprising.
Halperin doesn't make the obvious leap: Obama lost control of the timing too. Thomas Lifson points out multiple factors which strongly suggests that is, in fact, the case. I doubt that Obama could/would have risked waiting till October to green light the mission -- although it would be hard to think of a more effective October surprise -- but he must have had an unhappy 16 hours. Put it all together, and you've got an Administration which has lost both substantive control of policy and political control of the narrative.
There was a sea of other serious risks here, though, and I do think Obama deserves some credit for making the right call, despite what will surely be plenty of ham-handed attempts to exploit the success politically ex post facto.
I think I know to some degree why the administration's explanations of what happened have been so contradictory and unpersuasive.
In the first place, like his Attorney General and the folks who voted him into power, he shared the Archbishop of Canterbury's cuckoo notions about "international Law" and was concerned that the operation not be considered illegal -- remember at this moment Attorney General Holder is prosecuting Seals for rough treatment of someone they had captured.
In this case, the notion is utterly preposterous, and that he should be tied in knots like this on a basic issue of national defense is as good as argument as I can find for never again voting into the office of the president a lawyer.
Still, if it is legal concerns, not sheer incompetence behind the song and dance of Carney-Brennan-Obama-Panetta and Clinton, perhaps he should have read Harold Koh , the Depart of State's legal Advisor, on leave from his professorship at Yale:
PROF. KENNETH ANDERSON: Suppose John Brennan Had Simply Repeated Harold Koh? "The NGOs and advocates and academics have an instinctive sense for exploitable weakness and go after it. Brennan (as well as later spokespeople, including Holder) was not direct in stating that of course it was legal to target OBL, legal to target with lethal force, legal to target without warning or invitation to surrender, and that has always been the US legal position. I don't understand how this entirely obvious question wasn't briefed and anticipated, with an answer directly from Harold Koh's 2010 American Society of International Law address on exactly this point.
‘Some have argued that the use of lethal force against specific individuals fails to provide adequate process and thus constitutes unlawful extrajudicial killing. But a state that is engaged in an armed conflict or in legitimate self-defence is not required to provide targets with legal process before the state may use lethal force ....
The principles of distinction and proportionality that the US applies are ... implemented rigorously throughout the planning and execution of lethal operations to ensure that such operations are conducted in accordance with all applicable law ....
Some have argued that our targeting practices violate domestic law, in particular, the longstanding domestic ban on assassinations. But under domestic law, the use of lawful weapons systems - consistent with the applicable laws of war - for precision targeting of specific high-level belligerent leaders when acting in self-defence or during an armed conflict is not unlawful, and hence does not constitute ‘assassination'.
It's also true that pressure will be brought by Congress to substantially cut aid and other programs that assisted Pakistan. Programs that gained them billions in recent years under the premise that they were cooperating with us on bringing Osama and other Islamic terrorists to justice. For a man who in his previous life barely dared to do more than vote "present" such a momentous decision must fill him with dread.
There can be no doubt that Pakistan -- or at least elements of her military, governmental and intelligence forces -- were well-aware of Obama's presence in Abbottabad. I'm no expert on the Pakistan hill towns , but I consider Christopher Hitchens to be one and he is quite positive that the occupant of this complex had to be known to Pakistan government apparatchiks. Having said that, he concludes Obama will be forced to cut off arms and financing to them
The martyr of Abbottabad is no more, and the competing Führer-complexes of his surviving underlings will perhaps now enjoy an exciting free rein. Yet the uniformed and anonymous patrons of that sheltered Abbottabad compound are still very much with us, and Obama's speech will be entirely worthless if he expects us to go on arming and financing the very people who made this trackdown into such a needlessly long, arduous and costly one.
There are few English language papers in Pakistan. One of the leading ones is Dawn which reports the defense of the Pakistan authorities on the question of their knowledge.
Asked why they had not checked out a building so close a major military facility the ISI said that the compound had actually been raided when the house was under construction in 2003 when the authorities believed an Al Qaeda operative Abu Faraj Al Libbi was there. On that occasion he escaped.
So, there you have it: They raided the House in 2003 and found out a major Al Qaeda operative was there, an operative who -- oh my -- miraculously escaped their reach so a few years later when another mysterious, well-guarded stranger moved in, very near the Pakistan equivalent of West Point, they never bothered to check him out.
The buzz around here was that that was even lamer than the White House explanation of what happened.