Mark Bowden, the author of the recently released “The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden,” says not every president would have ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and that some credit for the successful operation should go to former President George W. Bush.
“A more timid president would have waited,” Bowden told The Daily Caller, assessing President Obama’s decision.
“A more cautious president would have opted for the missile attack, with its relatively minimal risks in every respect except certainty of hitting bin Laden. Obama gambled big.”
Bowden also said that former Bush “deserves credit” for the success of the operation.
“The remarkable ‘targeting engine,’ the fusion of special ops and intelligence gathering, played a huge role in this, and was fully developed under his administration,” Bowden explained.
Bowden is the author of critically acclaimed books about, or partially about, special operations, like “Black Hawk Down” and “Guests of the Ayatollah.” Asked what he thinks of the criticisms of President Obama for his handling of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Bowden chalked them up as purely political.
“This is a tragedy that has been spun into a political attack,” he said.
“Once the election is over, the controversy will evaporate. Ambassador [Christopher] Stevens knew he was serving in a very risky place, and would have been the first to argue that surrounding himself with an armored platoon would have made it impossible for him to do his job. Foreign service officers routinely accept such risks. Diplomats rely on host governments for protection, they do not travel with beefed up forces of their own. Where local authority is weak, as in Benghazi, the risks are very high, indeed. But so, too, are the potential rewards.”
Check out TheDC’s full interview with Bowden below about his book, why Vice President Joe Biden opposed the bin Laden raid, what he thinks of enhanced interrogation techniques and much more:
Why did you decide to write the book?
I think the mission to find and kill bin Laden was particularly interesting to me because I have written so much about special operations, going back to the failed rescue mission to Iran in 1979. In contrast to some of the other stories, this was a big success. The primary motivation for all of my work is curiosity.
How much did the memory of the failed 1979 operation to end the Iranian hostage crisis weigh on President Obama and those giving him advice?
It was a big factor, because it illustrated so plainly how such a mission can spectacularly fail. The Iran mission never even reached Tehran, and eight American servicemen were killed. It was an enormous embarrassment for the country, and probably cost Jimmy Carter a second term. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates had been working in the White House as a CIA officer when the Iran disaster happened. This bin Laden mission was similar in many ways, right down to the long flights in and out, and the refueling point on the outskirts of the city. So memories of the old episode were strong and cautionary, and right there in the Situation Room as the decision was made.
In the end, Joe Biden was the only main participant to object to any type of operation. What was his reasoning?
In light of the enormous risks involved, to the men on the ground, to the critical U.S. relationship to Pakistan, to his and the president’s political hopes and legacy, Biden wanted to be more certain that the target in Abbottabad was bin Laden before launching any kind of attack. His advice was to wait and gather more intel.
Other than Biden, you write there was a general agreement among the principles to launch the operation (though two preferred an aerial attack). Do you think any president, with maybe the exception of a President Joe Biden, would have ordered the operation?
No, I don’t. A more timid president would have waited. A more cautious president would have opted for the missile attack, with its relatively minimal risks in every respect except certainty of hitting bin Laden. Obama gambled big.
You quote a senior CIA official telling President Obama that the case for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq was “much stronger” than the evidence bin Laden was in the compound. Does that the suggest the evidence for WMD in Iraq was that strong — or the evidence for bin Laden being in the compound was that weak?
The answer to both questions is yes, in the eyes of Michael Morrell, the deputy CIA director. Not everyone saw it that way. I think it actually says more about the WMD issue than the raid, and, as Morrell makes clear, about how uncertain intelligence analysis is as a rule.
There is a debate over how much enhanced interrogation methods like waterboarding played in securing crucial information that ultimately led to bin Laden. What did your reporting tell you? Does enhanced interrogation work?
I don’t think this story provides a clear answer. Torture was most certainly a part of the story. We will never know if the same intel would have come from noncoercive interrogation, and there was certainly never a moment when someone “broke” and coughed up the location and identity of Ahmed the Kuwaiti, the courier who led the CIA to bin Laden. In the case of Khalid Sheik Mohammad, waterboarding produced misinformation, although in this case the lie, contrasting so sharply with other detainee statements, actually proved helpful. My opinion is that all forms of coercion should be banned, and practiced only in the most drastic of circumstances and even then at the legal peril of the interrogators.
How much credit, if any, should George W. Bush get for the bin Laden raid – i.e., did the policies he put in place ultimately help lead to discovering the location of bin Laden?
He deserves credit. The remarkable “targeting engine” — the fusion of special ops and intelligence gathering — played a huge role in this, and was fully developed under his administration.
Does it strike you as credible that the Pakistani military or the intelligence services didn’t know bin Laden was hiding in the compound, which is so close to their top military academy?
Yes. I believe no one in authority in Pakistan knew that bin Laden was there. I don’t believe bin Laden would have risked it. He regarded the Pakistani government as the “near enemy,” as opposed to the U.S. as the “far enemy,” and said so in his correspondence. And the fact that he never left the compound in five years, that there were some living on the compound itself who did not know he was there, suggests to me that he dared show himself to no one. If he were living there under some kind of official sanction, I doubt he would have had to hide with such determination.
President Obama has been lambasted by critics, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, for receiving most of his daily intelligence briefings in written form instead of engaging with intelligence analysts. Do you think this is a serious dereliction of duty on the president’s part, or much ado about nothing?
Much ado about nothing. It’s purely a matter of preference and style. You might just as easily say that Bush preferred oral briefings because he couldn’t read, and you would be just as wrong.
At the time of his death, how involved was bin Laden in directing the operations of al-Qaida? How significant a blow was his death to the terror group?
He was as involved as his isolation would allow, and that was to a surprising degree. He was promoting men to take the place of leaders killed by drone attacks, issuing broad instructions about policy and making decisions about how al-Qaida should respond to appeals and actions by those throughout the region acting under the organization’s banner. His death was capstone to the destruction of the international organization he created — and the one that planned and pulled off the 9/11 attacks — and was a severe blow to the aspirations of wannabe groups throughout that part of the world. Today, al-Qaida is more a defiant banner than a real international terror group. The local branches are very dangerous in their own neighborhoods, but pose far less of a threat to this country than bin Laden did.
Do you have any thoughts on the attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi? The Obama administration is under fire from critics for not securing the Benghazi consulate properly and for not rapidly deploying troops from a base in Italy in the midst of the attack.
This is a tragedy that has been spun into a political attack. Once the election is over, the controversy will evaporate. Ambassador Stevens knew he was serving in a very risky place, and would have been the first to argue that surrounding himself with an armored platoon would have made it impossible for him to do his job. Foreign service officers routinely accept such risks. Diplomats rely on host governments for protection, they do not travel with beefed up forces of their own. Where local authority is weak, as in Benghazi, the risks are very high, indeed. But so, too, are the potential rewards.
What’s your next book going to be on?
Not ready to say yet.