DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, November 2, 2012

Killing bin Laden

When best-selling writer Mark Bowden heard reports that the Obama administration was leaking details of the raid which killed Osama bin Laden to make itself look better, he had to chuckle. "They sure as hell didn't leak anything to me. I just had to wait and wait," says Bowden, who recently appeared at Politics and Prose to discuss his new book The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden.

Bowden said that his new book, while about the actions of war, is very different from his most popular book on that subject, Black Hawk Down. "Black Hawk Down was all about the action, but The Finish is really a 10-year story with a very exciting 40-minutes at the end," he noted. "It's the story of a long, careful, relentless search over years. Ninety-five percent of the story takes place in Washington, DC. The success of this story is a bureaucratic success."

Essentially the story is about 2 men - Osama bin Laden and Barack Obama - who "make a decision to kill," Bowden said.

"But they could not have been more different," he contended. While Obama was born as an international person and spent his life moving in an outward direction, bin Laden, fueled by hatred and walled off by his narrow views of Islam, continued to withdraw until finally his whole world consisted of 2 small floors in a compound in Pakistan.

Bowden said he wasn't surprised that the hunt for bin Laden took as long as it did. "It's actually more surprising that they did find him," he said. "Here was a guy who knew how to hide. There were people living in the compound (that bin Laden was living in) that didn't know."

When U.S. officials finally came to believe that bin Laden was probably housed inside the compound, Obama was faced with 3 choices:
  1. don't do anything but wait and seek more information
  2. fire a small, deadly missile from a drone at the person who was believed to be bin Laden
  3. send a squadron of highly-trained SEALS into the compound to capture or kill the Al Qaeda leader. 
Despite much advice to the contrary, Obama chose option 3. He was fully aware that sending an armed team into Pakistan could enrage leaders there, but he insisted that the finding of bin Laden, which he had made America's national security priority since his early days as president, was worth the risk. He also rejected the idea that if the SEALS were discovered, they should wait inside the compound until America could diplomatically negotiate their release. "If you're going in, I want you to be able to fight your way out," the president declared.

Bowden said that it is clear that in today's war against terrorism a president is much more directly involved in the fighting. "It becomes the president's decision to pull the trigger. It's like he is at one end of what is basically a sniper rifle," he maintained.

The long hunt and killing of bin Laden demonstrated the 3 crucial areas of the conflict against terrorists, which the military has called the 3 Fs - finding, fixing, and finishing, Bowden said. First, there is the ability to conduct raids. The bin Laden raid was just 1 of 1,000 of raids American teams have undertaken. Then there is the drone technology that allows suspects not only to be terminated, but also to be under surveillance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And there is the use of super computers with innovative software designed especially for the military. 

Bowden did have 1 concern after working on the book. Currently there are no approved guidelines for such actions as the bin Laden campaign. "I think it may be too easy to go after someone," Bowden said. "We need well articulated procedures in place. The whole thing needs to become a little more transparent.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
While Bowden began his writing career as a journalist, he jokingly described himself as "a lousy reporter"  whose primary interest has always been story telling. "You don't just empty your reporting on the page, you  tell a story," he said. "You ask yourself - what is this story ultimately about? Where does this story begin and where does it end? Who are the key players involved in all this? You might think it is self-evident in nonfiction, but it's not."

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