Friday, May 25, 2012

"Geronimo EKIA" - A Review of Peter Bergen's "Manhunt"

Peter Bergen is well known for being one of the last journalists to interview Osama Bin Laden.  Bergen has been a dogged reporter on all things Al-Qaeda for more than a decade and has just released his latest book, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden - from 9/11 to Abbottabad. The book is two stories in one - the first one has to do with the lead up to 9/11 and the failed effort by the Bush Administration to catch Bin Laden; the second, about how the Obama Administration finally tracked him down and took him out. 

The Bush years will sound familiar to anyone who follows politics and policy. Bush largely ignored Bin Laden in the nine months he was President before 9/11 and afterwards, under-resourced the military's attempt to capture him at Tora Bora after we invaded Afghanistan.  Once the Iraq War started, assets that could have been devoted to finding Bin Laden were diverted to Iraq and the trail largely went cold.  No actionable intelligence was produced before Bush left office that gave intelligence agents or the military any sense of Bin Laden's whereabouts and, as Bergen notes, the trail had "gone cold" by the time Obama took office. 

Bergen's story shifts to the Obama Administration and a renewed effort, directed by Obama himself, to invigorate the CIA's efforts to produce leads that might lead to the terrorist mastermind.  This commitment paid off in mid-2010, when the CIA intercepted a conversation from a courier known as "the Kuwaiti" who was believed to be affiliated with bin Laden.  Through that call, the CIA tracked the Kuwaiti to the Abbottabad compound, leading to months of intelligence gathering and analysis of the suspicious facility - its high walls, practically nonexistent use of heat or electricity, lack of Internet connectivity, and a layout that included a suspicious third floor that itself had a wall surrounding it, as if to keep out any view of a person who was seen walking along the balcony and was dubbed "the pacer."  

Maintaining an extraordinary amount of secrecy, this information was shared with the President in November 2010, but even then, the briefing reflected dissent among the intelligence gatherers, with opinions on the likelihood of bin Laden being in the compound ranging from 80 percent down to 60 percent. Because the third floor balcony was obscured by the high retaining wall, there was no way to get a positive identification on "the pacer," and even attempts at triangulating his measurements against shadows and the wall's height led to wildly divergent estimates of his height (bin Laden was 6 foot 4 inches). What the CIA knew was that a bin Laden courier and a large extended family that referred to an "uncle" who never left the home, lived there. The composition of the larger family matched that of bin Laden's polygamous group of wives and children, but the entire brief on whether bin Laden himself was there was entirely circumstantial. 

As the months progressed, Obama directed staff to come up with options for attacking the compound and what he received in return were four choices: (1) a raid by special forces; (2) an aerial bombardment from B-2s; (3) a surgical strike by drone aircraft; and (4) doing nothing, awaiting a higher level of probability of bin Laden's presence.  Of course, complicating any decision was the fact that the site was more than 100 miles inside Pakistan and any attack on the compound would by definition require an invasion of Pakistan's air space, and with it, all of the attendant risks of military reaction and/or diplomatic fall out.  While the former concern weighed on the decision making, that is, a special forces raid that was detected by Pakistani military and resulted in a firefight would be a catastrophe, Pakistan was ostensibly an American ally, and violating its airspace to kill the most wanted terrorist in the world would land us in uncharted political and diplomatic waters.  After all, the main supply roads into and out of Afghanistan ran through Pakistan, the country has nuclear weapons and had assisted (to a degree) in allowing special forces and drone strikes at suspected terrorists on its soil. 

Bergen underscores the intensive level of planning and discussion that Obama led - more than two dozen "principals only" meetings, carried out off the official schedules of the President, the Vice President, Secretaries of State and Defense, National Security Advisor, CIA Director and a few others, to hash out the myriad issues involved in making this decision.  Obama is portrayed as highly engaged, asking difficult questions, seeking counsel and shaping the planning in meaningful ways. For example, when a more specific plan for sending Navy SEALs was advanced, Obama demanded what would end up being a key fail safe - the inclusion of a stand by team of SEALs to protect against the potential for the loss of helicopters or the Pakistanis discovering the mission in progress. Bergen quotes Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, "Obama is the one that put in the Chinook-47s. He is the one that said, 'There is not enough backup.'"  Further complicating the discussions were opposing views by highly esteemed members of Obama's foreign policy team. General James Cartwright, who Bergen describes as Obama's "favorite" general, advocated the B-2 strike, not the SEAL team assault and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, like Mullen, a holdover from the Bush Administration, was skeptical of the SEAL team raid, constantly asking contrarian questions about its likelihood of success and raising the spectre of the failed "Desert One" assault in Iran under Jimmy Carter.  Lurking in the background of all of these discussions was the fact that a failed raid would likely torpedo Obama's presidency and have a deleterious effect on his chances of re-election.

The intensive scrutiny that Obama and his team placed on the intelligence was in stark contrast to the cherry picking done by the Bush team in the lead up to the Iraq War and the behind the scenes reporting that Bergen does further disabuses any reader of the idea that this decision was a "slam dunk."  Even as Obama moved closer to signing off on an attack in Abbottabad, his advisors remained stubbornly at odds. Vice President Biden recommended against striking at all; Secretary Gates thought the raid option was too fraught with peril and supported the B-2 option; General Cartwright advocated the use of a drone, while others supported the SEAL raid.  While it is easy to Monday morning quarterback Obama's decision based on what we now know, every option presented to Obama had significant risks. For example, the B-2 raid would eliminate almost any risk to American lives, but would preclude confirmation of bin Laden's death (and analysts were concerned the amount of tonnage dropped on the compound might trigger an earthquake).  Moreover, bombing is imprecise and there was no guarantee bombs wouldn't take out innocent civilians (or hit the intended target!).  On the other hand, the drone attack would not risk any American lives (or a bomb induced earthquake) but the missile it would fire was untested and there was no guarantee it would be potent enough to level the compound.  

Even as Obama was turning over his options, he was also double checking his work. As Bergen explains, a "red team" is a group of analysts brought in from outside the intelligence gathering to offer a fresh set of eyes and view the information skeptically, look for alternative explanations and holes in conventional thinking.  For the Abbottabad raid, Obama had not one, but two red teams to screen the intelligence.  The second team, made up of representatives from the National Counter Terrorism Center, put the likelihood of bin Laden being in the compound at anywhere from as low as 40 percent to as high as 60 percent.  As Obama is quoted as saying, "it was basically a 50/50 proposition." Anyone familiar with the manner in which the WMD case was made by Bush, Cheney, Rice, Powell and others will immediately see how thorough and thoughtful the Obama team was in comparison. Instead of "fixing the intelligence and facts around the policy" as the Downing Street Memo famously noted regarding Bush's pre-Iraq War planning, Obama and his team did the exact opposite.  

As Bergen reports, Obama was ultimately convinced the SEAL raid was his best option for several reasons: (1) it would confirm bin Laden's death; (2) it would likely result in a treasure trove of intelligence; and (3) his unshakable faith in his special forces.  Bergen spends some time providing background on the evolution of the SEALs during this past decade of war into a lethal fighting force capable of carrying out dangerous raids under complex circumstances.  The head of Special Forces, Vice Admiral William McRaven, is portrayed as a dispassionate and detail oriented leader whose firm commitment to his SEALs' ability to carry out the Abbottabad mission was dispositive, not only in reassuring Obama  (McRaven didn't think the military component was among the more complex operations his team was capable of carrying out, but that the political and diplomatic layers turned it into a much different calculation) but in his meticulous planning, which included fail safe upon fail safe to ensure every eventuality could be planned for while recognizing that certain things happen in the field that planners have no control over. 

Bergen recounts the raid and reports consistently with other accounts - of a President that performs a deft comedy routine at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, travels to Alabama to comfort those affected by a tornado, and who kept such a level of secrecy about the attack that he did not even tell his wife ahead of time.  McRaven's exhaustive planning, and Obama's demand that additional troops be held on stand by ends up being critical as the mission unfolds.  As Bergen discusses, the first helicopter failed to land safely within the compound, and while the pilot made a split second decision that probably saved the lives of all on board, those SEALs were now, as Bergen puts it "without a ride home." Thankfully, the Chinooks Obama directed be part of the mission were idling about 50 miles away, and were immediately dispatched to help support the SEALs on the ground.  

Other nuances to the mission bubble to the surface.  A translator keeps the couple of stragglers who approached the compound at bay, advising them to return to their homes.  The second helicopter pilot, upon seeing the crash of the first chopper, shifts to his 'Plan B' landing spot just outside the compound and quick thinking SEALs within the perimeter unlock a gate to let their comrades in. Bin Laden himself ends up making a fatal mistake - failing to secure the door to his 3d floor suite, allowing SEALs to quickly break through and kill him. Pathetically, his "escape plan" was comprised of having several thousand Euros sown into his clothing and a couple of cell phone numbers.  In the end, once Bin Laden has been killed and evacuated, McRaven and Obama are able to share a moment of levity.  Once forensics had confirmed, with 95% certainty, that it was Bin Laden, McRaven drolly apologized for the helicopter that crashed and was left behind, telling Obama that he (McRaven) owed the President $60 million.  Obama retorted that he was more upset that McRaven hadn't spent $1.99 on a tape measure (Special Forces wanted to measure Bin Laden, but did not have a tape measure, so a SEAL of approximately the same height laid down next to the corpse).  When McRaven went to the White House a few weeks later, Obama presented him with a gold-plated tape measure on a plaque.  Pre-planning had already landed on what would be done with Bin Laden's body - he was quickly washed, wrapped in a shroud and buried at sea in order to avoid any memorial being erected to him. The whole mission lasted a little more than 3 hours and by the time word began leaking, spontaneous celebrations happened outside the White House gates and in cities throughout the country.  

Bergen ends on a sanguine note.  Because Obama opted for the SEAL raid, an enormous cache of intelligence was collected and that information confirmed that Obama's strategy of ramped up drone strikes, electronic eavesdropping and secession of the term "war on terror" had all negatively impacted Al-Qaeda - degrading their leadership, limiting their ability to communicate (Bin Laden was completely "off the grid" and corresponded by written letter carried by couriers, resulting in a 2-3 month lag time in communication exchanges) and softening views in the Muslim world about America's role in it.  Al-Qaeda's off shoots did not help.  Their use of suicide bombings against fellow Muslims and absence from the "Arab Spring" both served to further undermine Bin Laden's influence.  His successor, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is portrayed as pedantic and unpopular and the few terrorist attempts that have been attempted in the West since 2005 have been foiled.  Bergen posits that Bin Laden's strategy of attacking the U.S. has largely been destroyed, but his ideas may have a longer shelf life.  

There can be no question that win or lose in November, the bin Laden raid is a signature Obama achievement and while the book does not delve into the politics of the decision, it fairly pushes back against Republican tropes about either the simplicity of the decision to attack the compound or how the intelligence that got us there was generated.  For example, Mitt Romney recently claimed that "any" President would have made the same call Obama did to raid Bin Laden's home.  As Bergen points out, however, when candidate Obama stated that he would violate Pakistani sovereignty if he possessed actionable intelligence on Al-Qaeda leaders and Pakistani leaders were  unwilling to go after them, he was ridiculed by Romney (as well as McCain and Clinton).  Further, Bergen's book shows that the reason Obama was even in position to make a call on the raid was because he recommitted resources to finding Bin Laden, with CIA Director Panetta pushing his analysts to provide reports to him three times a week on their efforts to find him.  

Once intelligence indicated that Bin Laden may have been found, the rigorous scrutiny the information went through, the two red teams, the more than two dozen principals meetings and the endless hours of gaming out potential outcomes depending on what attack option was chosen still failed to yield consensus.  Indeed, Romney's claim that this was somehow an easy call is undermined not only by his own statements in 2007-8 (he was quoted as saying it was not worth moving heaven and earth to find "one man"), but by the fact that two separate incursions into Pakistan, in 2002 and 2005, to take out high value Al-Qaeda targets, were called off by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers and Secretary Rumsfeld, respectively, in part out of concern over what Pakistan's reaction would be to that type of assault by U.S. troops. Further, Republicans often like to fall back on the idea that they defer to decisions of the generals on the ground, yet in this case, the "generals" were not of one mind as to what should be done.  The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs disagreed about which option Obama should choose (Gates wanted a bombing raid; Mullen supported the SEAL strike) and his own Vice President counseled against any attack.  The SEAL team raid also had the greatest downside military risk, including, some or all of the following - that Bin Laden was not even in the compound, that the attack went south, resulting in a "Black Hawk Down" situation or a firefight with troops from a purported ally, the loss of life, military secrets and international opprobrium. Finally, Obama took an incredibly political risk by opting for the SEAL raid.  If it failed, he would take the blame and the fall out would have been devastating. For Romney to blithely claim that he would have made the same call is laughable on its face and is his attempt to attach himself to what Secretary Gates, who worked for six Presidents, "one of the most courageous calls" he had witnessed a President make.  

Moreover, Obama's intimate involvement and shaping of the mission led to the insertion of additional troops, something that we can never know a hypothetical President Romney would have done.  In addition, because Obama was following the mission in real time, he showed great restraint in allowing the SEAL team to continue its mission even after the first helicopter crashed within the walls of the Bin Laden compound.  Again, there's no way of knowing how such a scenario would have played out under another President, but the book persuasively shows that under this President a deeply analyzed and considered decision was made with an understanding of options and choices and once made, was allowed to be executed.  For that, all Americans should be proud. 

The one kernel of support Bush supporters may try to draw from the book is the fact that torture of Al-Qaeda terrorists in 2005 produced "the Kuwaiti" as a lead that ultimately led to Bin Laden.  But even here, the evidence is at best equivocal.  Through CIA torture, the Kuwaiti was identified; however, his role was unclear and his actual name was not known until years later.  One captured Al-Qaeda operative indicated that the Kuwaiti was a courier for Bin Laden, but he was contradicted by Khalid Sheik Muhammed, who claimed the Kuwaiti was "retired." Further, another Al-Qaeda operative, Abu Faraj al-Libi, told the CIA that the Kuwaiti was not an important "player" in Al-Qaeda and was not a courier for Bin Laden.  As Bergen notes, "there were other steps along the way to finding bin Laden that had little to do with the information derived from Al-Qaeda detainees."  Regardless, Bush's people were unable to connect the dots between the Kuwaiti and bin Laden, and the Kuwaiti fell off the grid for five years, until the CIA pinged him through a cell phone and from there, followed him to the Abbottabad compound. 

Manhunt is an important book for those interested in understanding the years between 9/11 and Bin Laden's death in 2011.  It shows an increasingly isolated and impotent terrorist leader living a squalid life while hiding in plain sight and the indefatigable efforts of many hard working and brave Americans to bring him to justice.  It is impossible to finish this book and not feel great pride in the mission that killed him or the work that went into getting him.  

1 comment:

  1. Like so many, I was surprised and so happy to see President Obama come on TV (after speculation by network talking heads, who'd somehow learned at least the outline of what was going on) to announce that America's #1 enemy had been eliminated. The plan was so excellent, to include burial at sea, and it worked! The utter secrecy of the planning was necessary, and quite frankly, I cannot imagine Trump being as sophisticated as was Obama, who was one of the speakers at a highly-publicized dinner on the same night. Thanks for such a detailed explanation of what was really going on that important time in our history.