According to Steve Coll in a recent article at the New York Review of Books titled “Dead or Alive,” as a practical and political matter the administration rejects the capture of terrorists during military operations. Drawing on Navy SEAL Mark Owens’ recently published book on the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Coll writes:
…the Obama administration’s terrorist-targeting and detention system is heavily biased toward killing, inconsonant with constitutional and democratic principles, and unsustainable. The president has become personally invested in a system of targeted killing of dozens of suspected militants annually by drone strikes and Special Forces raids where the legal standards employed to designate targets for lethal action or to review periodic reports of mistakes are entirely secret.
When he ordered the mission that killed bin Laden, Obama slew a dragon at once dangerous and shrouded by myth. Bissonnette [Mark Owens] expressed a kind of contempt for bin Laden for not fighting back:
I think in the end, he taught a lot of people to do—you know, martyr themselves and he masterminded the 9/11 attacks. But in the end, he wasn’t even willing to roger up himself with a gun and put up a fight. So I think that speaks for itself.
Operation Neptune Spear succeeded on its own terms but it has exposed how far the grinding machinery of American counterterrorism operations has drifted from the ideals Obama enunciated in his National Archives speech. If Obama is elected to a second term, he will have the political space to reset his kill list policies, to restore to greater primacy missions that seek to capture terrorists and diminish and expose them by putting them on trial for their crimes. Such a change of course would require a fuller measure of political courage than that needed to order the SEALs to Abbottabad.
The account of this extreme reluctance to capture bin Laden is confirmed in Mark Bowden’s recent report on the Abbottabad raid at Vanity Fair, “Inside Osama Bin Laden’s Final Hours—and How the White House Chose Their Assassination Plot“:
Three SEALs came up the stairs methodically, scanning different angles, searching while protecting one another. The first man up spotted a tall, bearded, swarthy man in a prayer cap wearing traditional Pakistani clothes, a knee-length flowing shirt over pajama-like bottoms. The SEAL fired and the man retreated quickly. The teammates followed. As the first SEAL entered the bedroom, he saw bin Laden on the floor, but first had to contend with [Bin Laden's wife] Amal, who shouted and moved in front of her husband. The SEAL knocked her aside as his teammates stood over the mortally wounded bin Laden and fired killing shots into his chest.
The engagement was over in seconds. Amal had been shot in the leg. Bin Laden had weapons on a shelf in his bedroom, but had not picked them up. His identity was unmistakable, even with the grotesque hole through his right forehead. When he was shot he had not been surrendering, but neither had he been resisting. It is impossible to second-guess men in a firefight, but the available evidence suggests that if the SEALs’ first priority had been to take bin Laden alive he would be in U.S. custody today. What is more likely is that the SEALs had no intention of taking bin Laden alive, even though no one in the White House or chain of command had issued such an order. It would have taken a strong directive to capture him alive to preempt the instinct to kill him. The men who conducted the raid were hardened to violence and death. Their inclination would have been to shoot bin Laden on sight, just as they shot the other men they encountered in the compound.
From the account it’s clear that the SEALs’ “first priority” wasn’t the capture of Bin Laden. And it’s easy to see why: The United States had been hunting the al-Qaeda mastermind for over a decade, and most Americans would have little quarrel with the death during firefight of the man considered responsible for the September 11 attacks. But the evidence suggests that a firefight never took place. Bin Laden never lifted a weapon in self-defense. And since the SEALs were not killing the occupants of the safe house indiscriminately, it’s entirely possible that Bin Laden could have been arrested on the spot.
But doing so would have created enormous problems inherent to the history of the Obama administration’s national security policy, from the much-criticized policy of targeted killings to the attempts to try terrorists in civilian courts. Running for office on a platform of humanitarian idealism is one thing. Carrying out an effective counter-terrorism policy amid an enormous range of domestic and international constraints is another. What’s most likely is that the invocation of “bringing the terrorists to justice” is just a horribly dishonest ruse that this administration keeps alive for convenient but coldly calculated political utility. And as such, it’s clear that Republican attacks of deceit and dishonesty against Obama — with growing claims of a cover up on the entire Libya debacle — are in fact embedded in a history of national security duplicity that this president has foisted on the American people since taking office. The election on November 6 will ultimately reveal whether the country has had enough of it.