Following up on Rich’s column yesterday, in which he explored why we had to kill and not capture bin Laden. In my column today, I ask why we had to tell the world we killed him so soon. An excerpt:
The White House says the information in bin Laden’s compound is the equivalent of a “small college library,” potentially containing incalculably valuable and unique data on al-Qaeda operations, personnel, and methods.
It’s going to be great even if only 10 percent of it is actionable,” a government official told Politico’s Mike Allen.
I’m no expert on such matters — though I’ve talked to several about this — but even a casual World War II buff can understand that the shelf life of actionable intelligence would be extended if we hadn’t told the whole world, and al-Qaeda in particular, that we had it.
It’s a bit like racing to the microphones to announce you’ve stolen the other team’s playbook before you’ve had a chance to use the information in the big game.
But that’s exactly what President Obama did. He raced to spill the beans. The man couldn’t even wait until morning. At just after 9:45 p.m., the White House communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, informed the media: “POTUS to address the nation tonight at 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time.”
The announcement came less than three hours after Obama had been informed that there was a “high probability” that bin Laden was dead and that the Navy SEAL helicopters had returned to Afghanistan.
In other words, it seems that the White House planned to crow as soon as possible. Why? Nobody I’ve talked to can think of a reason that doesn’t have to do with politics or hubris.
A few points in response to the barbed criticism I’ve already received.
1) The usual types focus on my self-deprecating admission that I am no expert on this stuff (nor I would add are the folks sniping at me). But they ignore the fact that I talked to several experts who do know this stuff very, very well. None of them thought there was any need to announce it right away and all of them thought that waiting and more creativity would have been better.
2) Many then say that it wouldn’t have mattered because you couldn’t keep this a secret for long.
For instance, this is from a long e-mail from a reader of the LA Times version of the column:
You have an editor, a boss, someone to whom you report, no? If you were let’s say killed by Navy Seals one night, don’t you think that by the end of the day, or at least in a couple of days at the most, they would miss you? Wouldn’t the same be even truer for someone of Bin Laden’s position–people communicating with him would kind of notice he and his couriers were not in touch anymore, like almost immediately? Do you really think that announcing his death cut off lines of information and communication? I mean, really? Do you really think that his underlings can change their locations, plans, etc, so radically? I mean, really?
The reader misses my point so badly it’s like she’s fencing with a blindfold on. As I note in the column, hours or days could be extremely valuable. Certainly no one in the White House knew what would be in that treasure trove of intelligence and whether even a few extra hours would be useful in nabbing other senior leaders, rolling up operations, or setting up surveillance on new, previously unknown, suspects.
Similarly the supposition that only those people who knew bin Laden was there would find out first would mean that their chatter might be very informative. There were no phone lines into the house. If the SEALs had captured (or killed) the witnesses, nobody in the loop would know for sure what happened for quite a while, and some might fear the U.S. had captured bin Laden alive.
One expert suggested we could have blown up the compound after seizing the material with our official story being that bin Laden was killed in the explosion and no materials were recovered. The story might not hold for too long, but how long would CIA analysts need it to hold?
3) I am not denying Obama’s prerogative to gloat about this stuff. That would happen no matter what (birds got to fly, fish got to swim). Indeed, he’d be able to gloat even more about how he kept the secret of his success quiet.
4) Last, immediately announcing to the world that we killed bin Laden may prove to have been the best way to go, just as killing him may indeed have been preferable to capturing. My chief objection is that nothing I’ve read or seen about the White House planning suggests the idea of keeping it secret even came up. The timeline suggests that Obama couldn’t wait to take credit (I, me, I, me, me, me) and launch his “I killed bin Laden” campaign tour.