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A Raid Without the Rush

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Posted on Nov 8, 2012

By Dina Temple-Raston

“The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden”
A book by Mark Bowden

Here’s something you might not have known about the plan to kill Osama bin Laden: the Obama administration had considered a third option for taking out the al-Qaida leader—a sniper drone still under development.

Until now, the reporting (and there has been lots of it) had suggested that President Obama was given two unpalatable choices: a commando raid deep inside Pakistan fraught with potential bad outcomes, or a massive bomb attack that would turn the Abbottabad compound into a mound of dust. In the latest addition to the growing pile of bin Laden raid literature, Mark Bowden’s “The Finish” reveals that the Obama administration considered using a new kind of sniper drone to do the job. The size of a man’s forearm, the new weapon in theory could end a decade-long search for the al-Qaida leader with a single, quiet shot.

Here’s how the drone’s biggest proponent, Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, laid out the plan, according to Bowden. The United States would “wait for the tall man dressed in the shalwar kameez and prayer cap to emerge for his daily exercise around the vegetable garden and shoot him down with a small missile fired from a drone. It would require great precision, but the Air Force could do it with the equivalent of a sniper drone. There would be no smoking hole in the center of Abbottabad, no dead wives and children, little collateral damage, if any, and there would be no potential dead or wounded SEALs.”

book cover


The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden

By Mark Bowden


Atlantic Monthly Press, 304 pages


Buy the book

The drone’s appeal was obvious. You can almost hear the thunk of the hit and see bin Laden’s body kicking up dust in the courtyard. And while Bowden writes that no one would discuss the particulars of the new device with him, his reporting led him to a 13-pound baby drone made by Raytheon. It is a GPS-guided missile called an STM, a small tactical munition.

“If the missile missed, or if the Pacer turned out not to be bin Laden, well, then it would just be an unexplained explosion in Abbottabad,” Bowden writes that Cartwright argued. “No one need be the wiser. And if the missile did not kill bin Laden, any Pakistani anger over an unauthorized drone strike would likely be offset by the embarrassment of revealing that the world’s most wanted terrorist had been living safely not just in Pakistan, but only a short drive from Islamabad and less than a mile away from its national military academy.” Interestingly, the word “assassination” never appears in the book, but you can’t help wondering whether that will be the new drone’s use in the future.

Given that he is the author of “Black Hawk Down,” a best-seller about the 1993 battle in Mogadishu, Bowden would seem like the perfect person to tell the bin Laden story. And, in a way, the expectation of that weighs on his latest offering. The Mogadishu story had a decidedly different ending, but Bowden’s reputation from that book was apparently one of the reasons the Obama administration decided to give him unprecedented access for this one. He spoke with President Obama in the Oval Office and clearly interviewed CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, and deputy national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes.

Maybe good news stories are harder to write than bad news ones. Sadly, “The Finish” doesn’t have the same heart-pounding adrenaline rush of “Black Hawk Down.” But that may not be Bowden’s fault: a story about politicians and their advisers deliberating doesn’t lend itself to much tension. “The Finish” is really a different animal than “Black Hawk Down.” It is a Washington book about process—a case study for how clearly intelligent people make difficult decisions in an age when real-time intelligence data is as much a part of war as shooting a gun.

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