May 1 2012
It is the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The Navy SEALs who swooped in and got him, President Obama, and the intelligence officers who made it possible are to be thanked. George Bush, whose policies yielded so much intelligence, also deserves our gratitude.
Like many Americans, I was distressed when the president’s campaign cut an ad saying that Mitt Romney would not have made the gutsy call that killed America’s number one enemy. It was an ad that misrepresented what Romney had said, but mostly it was sad: the death of bin Laden, on an order given by Barack Obama, was an important moment for our country. The president would have been accorded more credit had his campaign said less.
Now we find ourselves in a sad and unworthy little tussle over the “bragging rights” of bin Laden’s death. Former George W. Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey writes today in the Wall Street Journal:
Consider the events surrounding the operation. A recently disclosed memorandum from then-CIA Director Leon Panetta shows that the president's celebrated derring-do in authorizing the operation included a responsibility-escape clause: "The timing, operational decision making and control are in Admiral McRaven's hands. The approval is provided on the risk profile presented to the President. Any additional risks are to be brought back to the President for his consideration. The direction is to go in and get bin Laden and if he is not there, to get out."
Which is to say, if the mission went wrong, the fault would be Adm. McRaven's, not the president's. Moreover, the president does not seem to have addressed at all the possibility of seizing material with intelligence value—which may explain his disclosure immediately following the event not only that bin Laden was killed, but also that a valuable trove of intelligence had been seized, including even the location of al Qaeda safe-houses. That disclosure infuriated the intelligence community because it squandered the opportunity to exploit the intelligence that was the subject of the boast.
Mukasey compares the president’s response to the killing of bin Laden to the response to another victory by a president to whom President Obama is wont to compare himself:
Abraham Lincoln, on the night after Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender ended the Civil War, delivered from the window of the White House a speech that mentioned his own achievements not at all, but instead looked forward to the difficulties of reconstruction and called for black suffrage—a call that would doom him because the audience outside the White House included a man who muttered that Lincoln had just delivered his last speech. It was John Wilkes Booth.
Mukasey also mentions yet another president to whom President Obama has often—and quite favorably—compared himself:
The man from whom President Obama has sought incessantly to distance himself, George W. Bush, also had occasion during his presidency to announce to the nation a triumph of intelligence: the capture of Saddam Hussein. He called that success "a tribute to our men and women now serving in Iraq." He attributed it to "the superb work of intelligence analysts who found the dictator's footprints in a vast country. The operation was carried out with skill and precision by a brave fighting force. Our servicemen and women and our coalition allies have faced many dangers. . . . Their work continues, and so do the risks."
He did mention himself at the end: "Today, on behalf of the nation, I thank the members of our Armed Forces and I congratulate them."
Someone suggested on a news show last night that the Obama campaign is sending the Romney campaign a message with the Osama ad: Shut up about foreign policy because I got Osama. It won’t work. The international issues confronting us are too serious to be dismissed. The American people are going to want to hear their candidates talk about them.
But today, it is worth having a few quiet and grateful thoughts about the many people, including two presidents and the brave SEALs, who helped with the massive project of killing bin Laden and provided a bookend to that horrible day in 2001 when America was attacked.