Osama bin Laden’s death on May 1 secured long-delayed justice for millions of Americans. Few who experienced the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, did anything other than rejoice at the news, delivered by President Obama, that a small force of Navy SEALs had done the deed.
And most of us didn’t particularly care how it had been accomplished. The President’s remarks, mentioning a firefight that suggested armed resistance and including the news that no Americans had been harmed, was really as much information as most of the country needed to know.
But, of course, the White House staff couldn’t leave well enough alone. Pressed by media reporters and journalists for additional details, Homeland Security advisor John Brennan described an “intense firefight” and said that bin Laden’s last moments included his use of one of his wives as a human shield. He also claimed that bin Laden offered armed resistance.
All of those details were inaccurate, or to be more blunt, they were untrue. Mr. Brennan is much admired in the administration with respect to his role in national security, but as a press spokesperson he was clearly out of his element.
The revised story from the White House, probably intended to provide cover for Brennan’s gaffe, was that the wife in question was not being used as a human shield but had instead been shot in the leg as she charged at the SEALs. And bin Laden, when he was shot in the head (and, as later revealed, the chest), was not armed. But, as the revised report went on to “clarify,” he was “resisting.”
Really? How, exactly, might he have been doing that? Was he perhaps raising his fists so as to throw a few punches? (Remember, we’re talking about a grey-bearded, 54 year-old man.) Or was he, more probably, raising his hands in an effort to surrender? I’m guessing he was stunned that his security had been breached and was more dumbfounded than anything else.
But the misinformation went on. Later reports clarified that the “intense firefight” was actually limited to small arms fire (i.e. a handgun) that one of bin Laden’s couriers fired at the SEALs. That clarification still might not have it right. My guess is that there was no exchange of gunfire at all because the SEAL’s assault caught the inhabitants of the residence flat-footed.
But whatever actually happened, whether it was a full-blown firefight with bin Laden firing rounds from a high-powered assault weapon or a stealth attack by the SEALs that had all the residents of the compound begging for mercy, the end result – the death of bin Laden – was clearly the goal of the mission.
In other words, this was a “take-no-prisoners” assault. And, lest there be any doubt, such an operation had to have been ordered by the President himself. The Navy SEALs are pros. They carry out orders. They would not shoot an unarmed adversary without explicit directions to do so. We aren’t talking about a bunch of Blackwater “contractors” here. These guys play it by the book, and in this case, the book was written by the Commander-in-Chief.
What I’m saying is that the President ordered bin Laden’s assassination and the White House then tried to cover up that fact.
This kind of dissembling shouldn’t be a big surprise. Transparency (the political word for honesty) is almost never applicable in government-speak. What is a surprise is how inept each administration is at creating “cover stories.” Time after time, we’ve seen presidents or members of their administrations offer bogus stories of events or explanations of decisions, only to have the truth ultimately come out.
And we wonder why voters distrust their government.
In this instance, the cover story was entirely unnecessary. A capture of a live bin Laden would have been a terrible result, almost as bad as a botched mission that didn’t get him at all. A captured bin Laden would have been an immediate source of Al Qaeda recruitment, not to mention efforts to secure his release through kidnapping of American officials and citizens, as the United States tried to figure out what to do with him.
Would he have been subjected to imprisonment at Guantanamo, there to be tried by a military tribunal? Would he have been tried in our domestic criminal courts? Would he then have been allowed all the due process rights accorded other criminal defendants in our system?
How many Americans would have been kidnapped in any number of countries to serve as hostages in demands for his release? How many terrorist attacks on U.S. interests would have been attempted while he remained in custody (perhaps even for years as he awaited execution pending appeals)?
And what would most Americans be feeling while this mastermind of the 9/11 attacks remained alive and in custody?
What President Obama should have said was that he had ordered the operation and that his orders were to kill bin Laden on sight. That would have been honest, and he would have been applauded by all but a very few Americans for giving those orders.
Instead, the President and his administration will now face months of Congressional hearings, investigative reports, and cable-news/talk-radio backbiting as the truth slowly comes out, drip by drip.
But Presidents (being politicians first and foremost) cannot learn this lesson. Their instincts tell them that the truth is dangerous. You never know, the thinking goes, who will take offense if you tell the truth or honestly state the reasons for your decision.
So you try not to say very much at all or, when pressed, you throw out something you think will be less offensive or less likely to create controversy or put you in a negative light.
Often, that approach works. Many events and most decisions aren’t all that significant, and even though questions might be asked, they don’t often have “legs” as the news hounds say.
But this one will have legs. Investigative reports will be published by major newspapers and aired on network and cable news shows, and books will be written about it by historians. Ultimately, the truth will come out, and it will not be particularly pretty, however justified the action was. Moreover, it will again confirm to the American people that while they might be able to trust their President to do the right thing, they can’t trust him to tell them the truth.
President Obama made the right call in killing bin Laden. He made the wrong call on how he reported it.