The Navy SEAL team was ready. It had repeatedly rehearsed assaulting a life-size replica of Osama bin-Laden’s Abbottabad compound.
But before President Obama gave the final go-ahead for the raid, he had to deal with a vexing problem: nobody was sure bin Laden was really there. Some experts put the chance at as little as 40 percent.
And when the president went around the table of top national security advisors, two of them – the Vice President and Secretary of Defense – advised against launching the assault.
Obama decided to sleep on it, and made the right call.
But when I read the detailed account of the planning for the Abbottabad raid in Peter Bergen’s new book Manhunt, what struck me was how jarringly different this president’s approach to a critical national security decision was from President George W. Bush’s rush to war in Iraq.
Bergen was my guest on Fresh Air yesterday, and it’s a great interview, for which I take no credit. Bergen knows as much about bin Laden as any Western journalist alive, and was the only reporter permitted to tour the bin-Laden compound before it was razed by Pakistani authorities.
But back to my point about Obama’s decision to authorize the raid. For years, intelligence operatives had pieced together enough information to identify bin-Laden’s trusted courier and the compound where he lived, which was clearly the residence of a lot of people, including someone very important and security conscious.
Bergen describes how the intelligence folks tried everything they could think of to be sure bin Laden was in the compound, but couldn’t be certain. A host of options were considered for the raid, along with potential problems, including getting into a firefight with the Pakistani military, which would respond to the helicopter raid, perhaps thinking it was an assault from India.
After all the planning had been done, the SEAL team rehearsed on a mock-up of the compound, and the administration did one more thing.
It gathered a bunch of military and intelligence experts, dubbed the Red Team, and gave them an assignment: Convince us that this is a bad idea. Give us every reason to think bin-Laden isn’t there. Think of everything that could go wrong. Envision every nightmare scenario, and give it to us straight.
It was only after the Red Team did its best that Obama gathered his top people for a final talk-through. And it’s clear from Bergen’s account that his advisors felt free to speak candidly.
Bergen writes that Obama showed he’s prepared to take a risk, once he’s assembled the best information he can get and considered it carefully.
Contrast this with the Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence in the approach to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It’s now abundantly clear from a wide variety of sources that Vice President Dick Cheney was cherry-picking intelligence and manipulating public opinion to support a pre-determined conclusion: that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and had to be stopped.
Remember the leaked story about aluminum tubes the Iraqis were supposedly using in centrifuges to enrich uranium? Bogus.
Remember the yellow-cake uranium in Africa tale? Bogus.
And the administration relying on a wacky source code-named Curveball that told tales of mobile biological weapons labs? Bogus again.
And to state the obvious, there was no Red Team on this one.
The result was a headlong rush into what veteran military writer Thomas Ricks has called perhaps the worst foreign policy blunder in American history.
This will sound partisan in an election year, but I don’t mean it that way. This is really about how government ought to work. There’s no reason a Republican can’t use these principles for a crucial decision – get the best information you can, vet it thoroughly, encourage your advisers to speak candidly, then make the best call you can.
By the way, you can listen to the Peter Bergen interview online or get a podcast at the Fresh Air website.