For a week, people have been asking, “Why won’t the president release Osama bin Laden’s photo?” That’s the wrong question. We should be asking, “Why was Barack Obama in such a hurry to tell us bin Laden was dead?”
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.
Yes, killing Osama bin Laden would have been a big secret that would have been hard to keep for long. Certainly, Pakistan would grow agitated if we simply said nothing about the incursion, though sweating the Janus-faced Pakistanis with silence for a couple of days might yield its own intelligence rewards. In other words, even waiting 24 hours might generate some interesting “chatter.” The Pakistanis working with al-Qaeda certainly would have been the first to spread the news that bin Laden was dead or captured.
But the real treasure trove is that “college library” of intelligence.
And while reports are pouring out from a gloating White House that’s leaking like the Titanic in its final hours, one can only assume our analysts have barely begun to exploit the data. Couldn’t they have at least tried to give the CIA a week, a day, even a few more hours to look at it all before letting Ayman al-Zawahiri and the rest of al-Qaeda know about it? Why give him the slightest head start to go even further underground?
Operation Neptune Spear was the culmination of years of patient intelligence-gathering. The CIA identified bin Laden’s compound nearly ten months ago, in August 2010, and monitored it by satellite and from a secret safe house in Abbottabad at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.
And even that was breakneck speed compared with the years our government spent hunting bin Laden. In 2002, the CIA heard about a possible courier codenamed Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. In 2004, it learned that he might have worked closely with bin Laden. It wasn’t until 2007 that it got al-Kuwaiti’s real name. It took two more years to track him down to a specific region.
That, of course, barely skims the surface of American patience and sacrifice. We’ve spent billions of dollars and lost numerous American and allied lives trying to defeat al-Qaeda. Those efforts have ripped apart our politics, from the debates over waterboarding and what some claim is torture to extraordinary rendition, black sites, and Guantanamo Bay. Some of those techniques and decisions seem to have led us to bin Laden’s door.
Surely one more week of harmlessly searching hard drives while the public was kept in the dark wouldn’t have been too great an additional burden. The White House would have still gotten their moment to preen and to ride their bump in the polls as far as they could. All they had to do is hold their tongues for a little while longer.
Obama says he won’t release bin Laden’s death photo for fear that American triumphalism might hurt American interests. Would that he had the same concern when it came to White House triumphalism.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.