The Navy SEALs were on the ground at the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan for only 40 minutes. But the investigation and planning took over two years. (More)

The Big Event, Part I – Haste vs. Speed

This week Morning Feature looks at the U.S. operation that killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Today we examine the background, investigation, and planning of the raid. Tomorrow we’ll look at how the news changed over the course of the week. Saturday we’ll consider what Bin Laden’s death may mean over the coming months and years.

No time for reflection.

The Fox television series 24 was an ideal frame for the conservative view of leadership. The “global war on terror” was a national emergency. Our nation was in crisis, with events flashing by at a dizzying pace, and we needed leaders willing to make immediate decisions. In a world filled with immediate danger, only a unitary executive could act quickly enough. And that unitary executive must be allowed to employ any means he deems necessary. As Judge Richard Posner wrote, the Constitution was Not A Suicide Pact.

It was no time for reflection, we were told, especially as snap decisions turned into quagmires. That time would come later, or perhaps never. As Ron Suskind wrote, quoting a Bush aide:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Within the 24 frame of leadership, torture made sense. We heard all about ticking time bombs and the need for immediate, actionable intelligence. Yes, conventional interrogation methods might get the information sooner or later. But there was no time for that. Right this minute, Al Qaeda might be about to launch an operation that would kill hundreds, thousands, maybe millions. If there was even a one-percent chance, we had to act … now.

The alternative, as Keith Riler wrote in March in American Thinker – pardon the irony – was “dithering.” The Atlantic‘s Clive Crook voiced a similar argument later that month. It’s been a common criticism throughout President Obama first term. He “thought too much” and “weighed too many variables.”

Years of investigation.

According to the New York Times, the first clues that led to Monday’s raid in Pakistan emerged in 2002, with the pseudonym of Osama Bin Laden’s courier. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush era officials rushed to defend the use of torture in eliciting that information. But both the Associated Press and Times reports say that Khalid Sheik Mohammed revealed the pseudonym only later, in an ordinary interrogation that did not involve torture. And even then, the CIA had only a pseudonym.

In 2005, realizing they had too few local assets, the CIA put more case officers in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a plan dubbed “Cannonball.” The case officers recruited Pakistani agents, one of whom finally learned the family name of Bin Laden’s courier. The courier was critical, because Bin Laden had quickly realized any electronic communications could be intercepted and tracked. He allowed no telephones or computers in his presence, applying a low-tech solution to the West’s high-tech surveillance: messages to and from other Al Qaeda leaders were carried by hand.

Sometime in 2010, the National Security Administration intercepted a telephone call made by the courier. Last July, Pakistani assets working for the CIA spotted the courier’s car in the Peshawar province. After weeks of surveillance, they followed the car to the compound in Abbotabad. The CIA began investigating the compound, and learned it had no telephone or internet connections. The courier and his brother lived in the sprawling home with an estimated price of $1 million, but they had no discernible source of income.

Weeks of discussion.

Another family also lived at the home, and by February 2011 the CIA were growing confident that other family was Osama Bin Laden, along with one of his wives and a son. On March 14, CIA director Leon Panetta laid out the case to President Obama and offered a set of options: an air strike with B2 bombers, a raid using helicopters, or a combined operation with the Pakistanis

On March 22, President Obama asked his chief advisors for their analysis. Defense Secretary Robert Gates initially favored the air strike, until analysts determined it would require 32 tons of bombs and would have, as one official told the Times: “created a giant crater, and it wouldn’t have given us a body.” The air strike also raised political concerns, including the Pakistani government’s reaction to the inevitable civilian casualties.

With Bin Laden living only a few hundred yards of the Pakistani military academy, it seemed likely he had contacts in the Pakistani military or intelligence, or both. A combined operation might be blown before it could be launched, allowing Bin Laden to disappear once again. That left a special operations raid with helicopters, and discussions frequently haunted by references to Iran in 1980 and Somalia in 1993.

Last Thursday, the day he released his “long form” birth certificate, President Obama met with his advisors. By then, Director Panetta had asked other CIA analysts to review the evidence and offer their opinions. All agreed Bin Laden was probably living in the compound. The discussion went around the room. The advisors laid out the risks. Finally, President Obama spoke:

“I’m not going to tell you what my decision is now — I’m going to go back and think about it some more.” But he added, “I’m going to make a decision soon.”

The next morning, President Obama called four aides into the White House Diplomatic Room. They began another briefing, but he interrupted with three words: “It’s a go.”

Haste vs. Speed

In Closing With the Enemy, Michael Doubler wrote about how army officers learned to distinguish “haste” and “speed” in World War II. Hasty attacks took little time for reconnaissance, planning, or briefing. Troops and tanks simply rushed headlong at enemy positions … and usually paid a steep price. The survivors learned the value of careful analysis and preparation. Having done that, they could press a coordinated attack home with speed and capture the objective with fewer casualties.

The Navy SEALs were on the ground in Abbotabad for only 40 minutes. The raid was speedy … but not hasty.

The Bush administration’s haste cost thousands of lives, stained our national character, and left Bin Laden at large. The Obama administration’s patience and persistence – “dithering” – worked.


Happy Thursday!