Thursday, May 19, 2011

Some General Thoughts on Killing Bin Laden

I know it's a little late to weigh in on Bin Laden, but let me give a few general thoughts. I hope to get to the question of torture soon. But let me add a few, mostly bureaucratic, thoughts.


Look, I know this isn't very original, but when I heard that for all these years Bin Laden had been hiding, not in the Pakistani border areas, but in a town only about 30 miles from Islamabad, my first thought was that the Pakistani intelligence service must be either grossly incompetent, or more complicitous than we ever suspected.

Our intelligence services

First and most obviously, congratulations to our intelligence services for a job well done. This is the sort of cooperation among agencies that everyone has been advocating. That being said, it is also easier to achieve this sort of triumph given (1) unlimited time and resources, and (2) a narrow and limited objective. The second point is the more important. It is always easier to achieve a narrow and specific objective like "find Bin Laden" than than an extremely broad, general, open ended one like, "identify and stop all possible threats to us." And yes, I know, in order to avoid tunnel vision we really do need broad, open-ended mandates like figuring out what threats are out there. My point is not that we should give up broader objectives for narrower ones, but that we should not expect this impressive success to mean that our intelligence agencies are now infallible. They aren't.

Raid vs. bombing

From what I understand, Obama was presented with three choices -- send in special forces, bomb the compound, or watchful waiting. Without claiming any special information, I would guess that the military probably favored bombing (it would be their men whose lives were on the line, after all), and the intelligence services favored the raid. I would expect the intelligence services to favor a raid in hopes of capturing documents, laptops and other such information. By all accounts, their hopes have been well vindicated. Bombing would have destroyed all this valuable information. Bombing would have had other drawbacks as well, most notably the risk of collateral damage. After all, the compound was in a residential area, and might not have housed Bin Laden. (Apparently he never left the house, so aerial surveillance was not able to confirm his presence). So, once again, congratulations on a job well done.

The birth certificate

Yes, seriously. Seeing the raid come so soon after Obama released the long form certificate reminded me of The Essence of Decision, a history of the Cuban Missile Crisis with a particular focus on the bureaucratic operations of the respective governments. It discusses how Kennedy sought to conceal preparations for the confrontation by carrying on with normal activities, such as meeting with astronauts and foreign dignitaries and making commitments in Connecticut and Cleveland. He succeeded in distracting the Washington press core and (through them) the general public. But there were signs of a crisis brewing that could not be hidden from more sophisticated observers in Washington. Lights were burning late in the Pentagon and the State Department. Cots were being moved into offices. Certain prominent officials became inaccessible while their cars assembled together at the White House. Observing which sections were lighting up revealed where the crisis would be. British intelligence was able to figure out what was happening within 36 hours. Top investigative reporters for the New York Times and Washington Post figured out what was happening withing five days and had to be persuaded not to print the story ahead of the President's public announcement. One organization that was not able to figure out what was going on, despite an extensive intelligence apparatus in Washington, was the KGB.

It seems safe to assume that al-Qaeda does not have anything like the KGB's intelligence network in Washington, to say nothing of the slowness of communication by courier, but Obama still had to keep the attack secret until it was over. So a part of me wonders whether the timing of the birth certificate was a clever (and highly successful) ploy to distract. The timeline, if nothing else, is interesting:

March 14, 2001: The first of five national security meetings on how to respond to the compound.
Thursday, April 21: White House counsel asks the President's personal counsel to contact Hawaiian officials about how to request a waiver.
Friday, April 22: Obama sends the request to the Hawaii Department of Health
Monday, April 25: Counsel goes to Hawaii to pick up the birth certificate
Tuesday, April 26: Birth certificate delivered to the White House
Wednesday, April 27: Obama releases the long form
Thursday, April 28: Obama is asked for the final decision on the attack
Friday, April 29: Obama authorizes the commando attack on the compound, but it is delayed by inclement weather
Saturday, April 30: Obama attends the White House Correspondent's dinner and roundly mocks Donald Trump
Sunday, May 1: Bin Laden killed

It will, no doubt, be some time before we learn about all the meetings going on in Washington in the days leading up to the attack, but top officials must have had some idea it was near at hand. So I wonder if close observers of the Washington scene, ones too shrewd to be distracted by Birther nonsense, could observe signs of a crisis brewing, similar to the ones before the Cuban Missile Crisis.



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