'This Is 50-50': Behind Obama's Decision to Kill Bin Laden

New details emerge from the raid that killed Osama bin Laden

RTR2MC06-615a.jpgHo New/Reuters

Best-selling author and Atlantic national correspondent Mark Bowden 's new book The Finish leverages access to key White House, military, intelligence, and foreign-policy officials -- including President Obama himself -- to get behind the the intricate story of how SEAL Team Six was sent to Abbottabad, Pakistan, to kill Osama bin Laden.

The Finish is a second-draft-of-history book; and given the interest in the hunt for bin Laden, there will be many more drafts to come. But what this one presents is close to a textbook example of complex national-security decision making. Scheduled for release three weeks before election day, The Finish won't just provide fodder for partisans, including those who believe the White House has leaked national security details to politically bolster the president; it will also help frame the election's stakes.

The Slow Grind

Bowden reviews the evolutionary progress made in intelligence processing and military capabilities that led to the raid on Abbottabad. The effort that produced the lead on bin Laden involved immense resources, trial-and-error, technological advancement, presidential pressure, and, according to Bowden, torture.

President Obama, like President George W. Bush, pushed on the bureaucratic players to find bin Laden, but Bowden thinks the success "resulted not from redirection but from a slow grind":

On May 26, 2009, four months into his presidency, [President Obama] had ended a routine national security briefing in the Situation Room by pointing to [then-Deputy National Security Adviser Tom] Donilon, Leon Panetta, his newly appointed CIA director, Mike Leiter, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center, and Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff. "You, you, you, and you," he said. "Come upstairs. I want to talk to you guys about something."

As Donilon would tell [Bowden], Obama said: "Here's the deal. I want this hunt for Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri to come to the front of the line. I worry that the trail has gone cold. This has to be our top priority and it needs leadership in the tops of your organizations [...] And I want regular reports on this to me, and I want them starting in thirty days."

At his regular daily briefings, [President] Bush would routinely ask, "How're we doing?" and everyone knew what he was talking about. It was the same with Obama. After that impromptu meeting in his office with his new intelligence chiefs in 2009, he would bring it up at nearly every security briefing.

"Are we any closer?"

"What have we learned?"

Bowden had his own judgments on the pressure:

"The newly elected president did make it clear that he regarded the hunt for bin Laden [...] as the top national security priority of his administration. But did that really change anything? One senior intelligence official told [Bowden] that it did not [...]

Obama's urgency did have an effect, he said, forcing the various bin Laden team leaders to prepare regular progress reports [...]

"[...] I think that requiring regular updates pushed our guys even harder, but I doubt that was the reason for the breakthrough. The resources available didn't change at all. Our focus on [al Qaeda] senior leaders never suffered from a lack of resources, certainly not the hunt."

In an "effort that began under President Clinton and improved markedly after 9/11 under President Bush," the intelligence gathering and analysis juggernaut found bin Laden:

[by] storing every scrap of intel about al Qaeda and related groups gathered by the nation's very active military and spy agencies, transforming them into data, and then plumbing that data for leads. The hunt for bin Laden and others eventually drew on an unfathomably rich database [...]" [aided by software] "[...] capable of ranging deep and fast and with keen discernment -- a problem the government itself proved less effective at solving than were teams of young software engineers in Silicon Valley.

In 2007, the agency learned that [bin Laden's courier's] real name was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. It will not say how the connection was made. It might have been as simple as an informant, perhaps someone detained and being interrogated in another country, or it might have emerged from the wizardry of its supercomputers [...] One senior official said that the information came from a 'third country.'

But, according to Bowden and contrary to Obama administration claims that "torture played no role [...] torture, or at the very least coercive interrogation," helped light the way to bin Laden.

If the Pakistanis sounded an alarm, there would have to be a confrontation. Obama told the admiral to be fully prepared to fight his way out.
It should [...] be noted this effort did involve torture, or at the very least coercive interrogation methods. The first two mentions of Ahmed the Kuwaiti were made by Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Mohammed al-Qahtani in coercive interrogation sessions. The third, the misleading characterization of the Kuwaiti as retired by Khalid Sheik Mohammed, came during one of his many water-boarding sessions. Hassan Ghul verified the Kuwaiti's central role during secret interrogation sessions at an undisclosed CIA detention center.

After reviewing the intelligence breakthroughs, the Obama administration had to grapple with the data's resulting uncertainty. When asked for confidence that bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound, the estimates ranged from 10 percent to 95 percent certainty. Several red teams worked to "poke holes" in the analysis and finding. Bowden on the president's reaction:

So as the conversation around him about levels of certainty wore on, the president... interrupted.

"This is fifty-fifty," he said. That silenced everyone. "Look guys, this is a flip of the coin. I can't base this decision on the notion that we have any greater certainty than that."

Presented by

John A. Gans Jr. studies international relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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