Politics & Policy

SEALs and the Campaign

One of the Navy SEALs on the bin Laden raid accuses Obama of hogging the credit.

The biggest and most eagerly anticipated book of the year, written by an apolitical, previously unknown figure, could have unexpected effects on the last weeks of the presidential campaign.

No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden is written by a former member of the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group, commonly known as SEAL Team Six, under the pseudonym Mark Owen. Owen’s missions with the SEALs included the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009 and the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 1, 2011, which resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. The book describes the author as “one of the first men through the door on the third floor of the terrorist mastermind’s hideout, where he witnessed Bin Laden’s death.” On the cover of the book and in its text, the author’s name and the names of the other SEALs mentioned in No Easy Day have been changed for their security; the author’s real name has been revealed in subsequent news accounts

If Owen’s account is accurate, bin Laden’s death unfolded quite differently from the official descriptions. According to No Easy Day, bin Laden had already been shot in the head by the time the SEALs arrived at the floor where the al-Qaeda leader’s bedroom was located — although it is unclear whether bin Laden shot himself, or one of his bodyguards shot him to ensure he would not be captured alive.

The Huffington Post obtained a copy of the book, scheduled to be released September 4, and the Post’s Marcus Baram gives the following account:

Team members took their time entering the room, where they saw the women wailing over Bin Laden, who wore a white sleeveless T-shirt, loose tan pants and a tan tunic, according to the book.

Despite numerous reports that bin Laden had a weapon and resisted when Navy SEALs entered the room, he was unarmed, writes Owen. He had been fatally wounded before they had entered the room.

“Blood and brains spilled out of the side of his skull” and he was still twitching and convulsing, Owen writes. While bin Laden was in his death throes, Owen writes that he and another SEAL “trained our lasers on his chest and fired several rounds. The bullets tore into him, slamming his body into the floor until he was motionless.”

The account also describes lawyers “from either the Pentagon or the White House” telling the SEALs that while they were authorized to use deadly force to protect themselves, their mission was to detain the al-Qaeda leader.

The more interesting, and perhaps politically salient, point is the description of the irritation among the Navy SEALs at Obama for taking too much credit for the success of the operation.

Baram summarizes the relevant passages:

Though he praises the president for green-lighting the risky assault, Owen says the SEALS joked that Obama would take credit for their success. On his second night in Afghanistan waiting for final orders, sitting around a fire pit and joking about which Hollywood actors would play them in the bin Laden movie, one SEAL joked, “And we’ll get Obama reelected for sure. I can see him now, talking about how he killed bin Laden,” according to Owen.

Owen writes: “We had seen it before when he took credit for the Captain Phillips rescue. Although we applauded the decision-making in this case, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that he would take all the political credit for this too.”

Later, while watching Obama’s speech announcing the raid, Owen writes: “None of us were huge fans of Obama. We respected him as the commander in chief of the military and for giving us the green light on the mission.” When one SEAL jokes again that they got Obama reelected, Owen asks, “Well, would you rather not have done this?”

He writes: “We all knew the deal. We were tools in the toolbox, and when things go well they promote it. They inflate their roles. But we should have done it. It was the right call to make. Regardless of the politics that would come along with it, the end result was what we all wanted.”

Owen also offers an unflattering description of a visit to the White House, to meet President Obama and Vice President Biden:

After listening to Obama’s speech and enduring Biden’s “lame jokes that no one got (He seemed like a nice guy, but he reminded me of someone’s drunken uncle at Christmas dinner)” the president invited the team to return to his residence later for a beer.

But Owen writes a few weeks later: “We never got the call to have a beer at the White House.” Joking with a fellow SEAL, “Hey, did you ever hear anything about that beer?” Walt cracks: “You believed that [four-letter synonym for excrement]. I bet you voted for change too, sucker.”

Quotes like these are likely to energize Republicans who argue that Obama makes too much of his authorization of the raid, such as Romney campaign surrogate and former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, who scoffed that the president’s “left arm is about eight inches longer than when he started because he pats himself on the back every night.” Many in the media have dismissed this criticism as predictable partisan carping, but a complaint from one of the SEALs is likely to carry much more weight with the American public.

Month to month, the successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound varies in its prominence in the arguments of the Obama campaign. It represents one of the indisputable highlights and few popular accomplishments of Obama’s presidency.

Back in May, around the first anniversary of the raid, the Obama campaign released a web video that featured former president Bill Clinton praising Obama’s decision and suggesting Mitt Romney would not have made the same decision. In the video, Clinton asks, “Suppose the Navy SEALs had gone in there and it hadn’t been bin Laden? Suppose they’d been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for him.” The group Veterans for a Strong America aired a response ad questioning the notion that the capture or killing of Navy SEALs would have been particularly horrible for President Obama, compared to, say, the SEALs themselves.

One night of next week’s Democratic convention is expected to deal with national-security issues, and it is quite likely that Obama’s handling of terrorism will return to prominence around the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Political analyst Charlie Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report, wonders if the “too much credit” charge will carry as much weight against the president as previous arguments that the administration had been careless or reckless in managing classified information about national-security operations. (After the raid, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is said to have gently urged Obama’s national-securiy adviser to “Shut the [expletive] up.”)

“I don’t think the problem for the president was being seen as trying to claim credit for killing bin Laden as much as the White House leaking pertinent operational details that didn’t need to be disclosed,” Cook said. “With a SEAL involved in the mission writing a book and inappropriately disclosing more details, it lets the Obama White House off the hook some. I think the criticism of the White House disclosing too much was warranted but the outrage of Special Ops people now seems less acute, if one of their own violated the trust.”

The SEALs and their raid are likely to play a big role in the closing months of this campaign. In addition to Owen’s book, Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, will publish The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden on October 16. Bowden told Politico, “Although some recent accounts have sought to diminish the role played by President Obama, my reporting shows that he was instrumental in pushing the effort to find bin Laden, in supervising its planning, and in commanding its execution.” The book’s promotional materials declare that it focuses in part upon “President Obama, perceived by many as an anti-war candidate, whose evolving views and enormous responsibilities have turned him into one of the most determined warriors to ever inhabit the White House.”

There is one other aspect of Obama’s interaction with the SEALs that may become an issue in the campaign’s closing months. On August 6, 2011, 30 U.S. military personnel, including 17 members of an elite Navy SEAL unit, were killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.

As Jim Hoft reported on Wednesday, the parents of some of the slain SEALs are upset that they received identical form letters from the president, which appeared to have been signed by autopen (although the White House insists the president signs all such letters himself). Karen and Billy Vaughn, the parents of Aaron Carson Vaughn, spoke at a forum sponsored by the Tea Party Patriots outside the Republican Convention in Tampa. Considering the emotional punch of the White House seeming to insensitively treat condolences for their son’s death as a routine administrative matter, it is hard to imagine this is the last time the Vaughns’ story will be told in a political context.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


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