The Corner

Re: re: Er, Not Exactly

Dan, I think that’s exactly right. Over a year ago, I wrote a column about the Obama policy to choose “kill” when the options are kill or capture — a policy driven by the box in which the Obama Left has put us by making it so much more difficult to detain and interrogate enemy combatants. As I said back then, I agree with my pals Marc Thiessen and Shannen Coffin, to name just two, that it would be far preferable to capture and interrogate top terrorists. Fresh intelligence from high-ranking, insulated sources is the most valuable defense we have against terrorist attacks. Still, I’ve been inclined to cut the Obama administration some slack on this score.

Largely, that’s because of low expectations. I was afraid that Obama would abandon the fight. He hasn’t. As long as he’s killing terrorists, that’s a lot better than abandoning the fight, even if it’s not optimal — optimal being: capture, interrogate, and execute at some later point, after their usefulness as intelligence sources fades. The Obama administration ought to rethink this, but they’d then have to rethink everything that has caused them to end up with this policy. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.

For what it may be worth, I think the real intelligence lapse here is not the failure to interrogate bin Laden (as much a coup as that may have been). It is the haste to get in front of the cameras and take credit. Not that Obama doesn’t deserve credit — that’s not my point.

The reports coming out today indicate that the “motherlode” of intel (computers, hard-drives, discs, documents, etc.) was found in bin Laden’s compound. Officials are saying it may be the most significant trove of information about al-Qaeda ever seized. Well, if that is the case, there is a good chance that it could have helped analysts figure out where other top Qaeda leaders (like Zawahiri) are, where important camps are, and where active cells are located. But the only way you can exploit that kind of information is by keeping quiet about bin Laden for a few days while the analysts go through it and get the leads to the military and intelligence operatives so they can act on it — maybe roll up other key parts of the organization. Once you go public on bin Laden, it tells everyone else in al-Qaeda to get in the wind. The intel trove will still be very valuable for other reasons, but you’ve lost the opportunity to capture other big fish.

I understand how government works, and this is an ancient tension between the political actors who want to take credit (after all, they get the blame when things go wrong), and the investigators who want to act on the information in the small window they have while it is still actionable. I can’t help thinking, though, that the government could have kept the bin Laden operation quiet for a few days. If they hadn’t announced it for, say, a week, they’d still get just as much credit . . . and maybe more credit if the intel haul had led to other kills/captures.

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