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When Something Goes Right

Three reasons the U.S. was able to kill Osama bin Laden.

On Sunday night, President Obama seized the brass ring that his two immediate predecessors, and dozens of their counterterrorism appointees, had longed for: the chance to appear in front of the nation and announce that Osama bin Laden was dead. Predictably, twelve hours had not gone by before commenters were either insisting that this success could be linked back to actions of President Bush, or debunking that view. It’s worth trying to unpack that argument in a bureaucratic, rather than partisan way. If, however, it takes talent to get lucky, it’s also worth asking what new talents were unleashed in America’s national security bureaucracy with this event, and how. While we wait for the historians’ judgment, here are three first-draft answers: post-9/11 intelligence reforms finally yielded results; better intelligence partnerships emerged from less torture, not more; and, when it was needed, command leadership was effective.

Intel Reform—Better Sharing, Better Use. Steve Coll writes in The New Yorker:

After President Obama took office, he and the new Central Intelligence Agency director, Leon Panetta, reorganized the team of analysts devoted to finding Osama Bin Laden. The team worked out of ground-floor offices at the Langley headquarters. There were at least two-dozen of them. ... The Langley analysts were one headquarters egghead element of the hunt. Similar analytical units at Central Command in Tampa and at the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul sorted battlefield and all-source intelligence, designated subjects for additional collection, and conducted pattern analysis of relationships among terrorists, couriers, and raw data collected in the field. … Overseas, C.I.A. officers from the Directorate of Operations and the Special Activities Division-intelligence officers who ran sources and collected information, as well as armed paramilitaries-carried out the search for informants from bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Units from the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which includes the Navy Seals, Delta, and other specialized groups, joined in.

This may sound obvious and laundry-list-ish, but it seemed beyond imagining in 2002, when the September 11 commission called for “a better balance between security and shared knowledge” and on the president to “lead the government-wide effort to bring the major national security institutions into the information revolution.” To contemplate the CIA, Navy SEALs, and other agencies working together to bring off an operation that was watched on digital camera in real-time from the Situation Room, including the real-time identification of bin Laden’s corpse by analysts in the United States, is to realize that perhaps imperfect but real progress has been made.

Interrogation Reform—A Different Quality of Partnership. We’ve seen some diehard torture supporters arguing that, because some of the first clues to the identity of bin Laden’s courier came from Bush-era Guantánamo detainees, “torture worked.” There are two problems with this assertion. First, the Bush administration claimed to have barred the most objectionable interrogation practices in 2003 and extended Geneva protections to detainees in 2006—but, as Jane Mayer points out in The New Yorker, the real name of the courier apparently wasn’t obtained until four years ago. And on Monday, former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said,It is true that some information that came from normal interrogation approaches at Guantánamo did lead to information that was beneficial in this instance. But it was not harsh treatment and it was not waterboarding.” It’s thus hard to say the torture is what led to this weekend’s mission in Abbottabad.

Second, and more important, any tips from Guantánamo had to be supplemented by a flood of on-the-ground work, and presumably more interrogations, and more talk with friendly sources, and more purchased intelmuch of which, apparently, came in the last eight months. Not coincidentally, we have seen considerable improvement in cooperation with Pakistani and Western intelligence agencies in the post-Bush years, as confidence in U.S. interrogation practices, and thus in the political safety of admitting cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies, improved. I’m not arguing that everything is perfect now, just that no one has been sent to Guantánamo lately and global perceptions have improved, the results of which have been increased ability to operate on the ground and receive shared information

Military Command—More Effective Leadership. Navy SEALS and other Special Operations forces train intensively and perform impressively, no matter who is president—and they are trained to get in, kill, and get out. Still, Obama took steps leading up to Sunday’s mission as commander and chief that are important to point out. According to The Washington Post, he “had directed Leon Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to make the pursuit of bin Laden the agency’s top mission. And he made the bold decision to try a more daring and more precise raid, limiting civilian casualties and providing better documentary proof than a pile of flattened rubble from a bombing. This bespeaks strategic sense, leadership, and—especially for a Democrat old enough to remember the image of helicopters grounded in the Iranian desert after President Carter’s failed hostage raid—political courage.

Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network.

Articles on the death of Osama bin Laden: Dalton Fury on the near miss at Tora Bora; Lawrence F. Kaplan asks if we'll overestimate the importance of bin Laden's death; James Downie on the legal justifications; Leon Wieseltier on the celebration in Lafayette Park; Jonathan Kay on the emergence of conspiracy theories; Paul Berman on the symbolism of bin Laden's death in the history of American democracy; Sean Wilentz asks if bin Laden's demise will loosen the grip paranoid politics has on America; David Greenberg on the only satisfying resolution possible to the story of 9/11; Louis Klarevas asks if the loss of bin Laden will hasten Al Qaeda's demise; Jonathan Chait on what bin Laden's death means; a photo essay on how America responded to the news of bin Laden's death.

TNR Classics on bin Laden and Al Qaeda: Peter Bergen on the Bush administration's failed attempt to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora, on the troubling merger of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, on Al Qaeda's revolt against bin Laden (co-authored with Paul Cruickshank), how bin Laden beat George W. Bush, and on bin Laden's activities before 9/11; Nicholas Schmidle on what the murder of a bin Laden confidant says about Pakistan; Michael Crowley on Robert Gates; David Cole on Obama's war on terror.