I’ve been on the fence about the books covering the raid on bin Laden’s compound. I just haven’t seen the potential value in these accounts. In the latest issue of Vanity Fair, though, Mark Bowden has a piece adapted from his new book, The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden (Grove/Atlantic). The piece is good, and it’s actually made me want to read the book. Bowden, most famously, is the author of Black Hawk Down.
President Obama saw it as a “50–50” proposition. Admiral Bill McRaven, mission commander, knew something would go wrong. So how did the raid that killed bin Laden get green-lighted?
The article is filled with well-written accounts of how the decision was made – it’s actually not long enough, of course, which is a large part of why I now want to read the book. I’m fascinated with how and why certain policies are made, not just what that policy is – this is something I’ve often thought is lacking in foreign policy-analysis, at least to the levels and details I’m interested in, or if it’s not a “scandal” (like the Iraq War decision…).
Bowden sets up the piece rather nicely, too:
There had been no scent of the al-Qaeda leader for more than eight years, ever since he had slipped away from the mountain outpost of Tora Bora during a botched siege by allied troops. The Bush administration maintained that he was somewhere in the mountainous regions of northwestern Pakistan, but, in truth, they had no idea where he was. On May 26, 2009, Obama had concluded a routine national-security briefing in the Situation Room by pointing to Donilon, Leon Panetta, his newly appointed C.I.A. director, Mike Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff.
“You, you, you, and you,” he said. “Come upstairs.”
The four followed Obama through the warren of narrow West Wing hallways to the Oval Office. They didn’t sit down.
Obama said, “Here’s the deal. I want this hunt for Osama bin Laden and [Ayman] al-Zawahiri to come to the front of the line. I worry that the trail has gone cold. This has to be our top priority and it needs leadership in the tops of your organizations.” He added, “I want regular reports on this to me, and I want them starting in 30 days.”
I think the only part I didn’t think was well written, was the section about the decision to invade Iraq and how that experience compared with this one. First of all, Bowden explains that, “following the agency’s erroneous conviction, a decade earlier, that Saddam Hussein had been hiding weapons of mass destruction… the C.I.A. had instituted an almost comically elaborate process for weighing certainty… like trying to craft a precise formula for good judgment.” All CIA analysts were “now asked not only to give their opinion but also to place a confidence level on it—high, medium, or low,” and then required to explain why they had assigned that level of confidence in their findings. Unsurprisingly, Bowden writes, this just resulted in “more confusion”.
At one meeting, President Obama asked Michael Morell, the “head of the C.I.A.’s bin Laden team” for his take, and Morell apparently put the probability that bin Laden was the man at this compound in Pakistan at 60 percent. Now, this is where the article started getting a little iffy, in my mind. Morell had been “personally involved in the flawed analysis of Saddam’s weapons capability and yet had felt more certain about that than he felt about this.” To me, that would have suggested he is not the man to be in charge of this endeavour… Bowden continues his account:
“People don’t have differences because they have different intel,” he said. “We are all looking at the same things. I think it depends more on your past experience.”
Which, frankly, in the case of Morell was highly flawed and evidenced highly questionable judgment. Bowden writes that Morell
“explained that counterterrorism analysts at work on al-Qaeda over the past five years had enjoyed a remarkable string of successes. They had been crushing the terror group inside Pakistan and systematically killing its top leadership. So they were very confident.”
This, actually, is connected to one of my issues with the ongoing war on terrorism and al Qaeda, and administrations’ reports on same (both the George W. Bush and Obama): just how many times are U.S. forces going to kill the al Qaeda “Number Two”? Is there a more dangerous job, with a higher mortality rate and shorter tenure…?
Those who had been at work longer, like himself, had known failure. They knew the fragility of even the soundest-seeming intelligence analysis. The W.M.D. story had been a brutal lesson. “Mr. President,” he said, “if we had a human source who had told us directly that bin Laden was living in that compound, I still wouldn’t be above 60 percent.” Morell said he had spent a lot of time on both questions, W.M.D. and Abbottabad. He had seen no fewer than 13 analytical drafts on the former and at least as many on the latter. “And I’m telling you, the case for W.M.D. wasn’t just stronger—it was much stronger.”
This last paragraph just worries me no end about the C.I.A.’s sources – we know now that the Iraq W.M.D. “intel” was totally bogus, and that it had actually come from basically one highly unreliable source (I forget the codename for the source, but believe it was something like “Curveball”?).
Despite this bit, I think this adaptation has definitely sold me on reading this book, so expect it to feature more on the blog in the near future.