May 21, 2013
A Raid Without the Rush
Posted on Nov 8, 2012
By Dina Temple-Raston
Bowden devotes a great deal of the book to explaining “collaborative operations”—the fusion of special operators with real-time computer intelligence. “A near decade of combat had matured a generation of warriors and tools, battle tested and custom-made for finding and killing terrorists,” Bowden writes. “This is what author Bob Woodward had hinted at when he caused a stir in a 2008 interview with ‘60 Minutes’ by referring to a ‘secret operational capability.’ ... The new tool was everything: reconstituted human spy networks, supercomputers, state-of-the-art software, global surveillance, and elite commando units.” And it was those tools, Bowden maintains, that eventually led the United States to bin Laden.
He describes how the military created databases of suspects’ pocket litter and random pieces of information. In the past, that information might have taken weeks to process. Since 9/11, the United States has learned how to process information so fast it literally laps the terrorists: U.S. forces can launch multiple raids in Iraq and Afghanistan before word of the first raids even gets out.
The description of all of that, with the commentary of key players, could have made this book great. But everyone who spoke with Bowden seemed to be playing it too safe. He was never able to leverage his access enough.
For example, President Obama doesn’t reveal anything particularly surprising in the book. We hear about where he was on 9/11 (Chicago), and how he thought the case for it being bin Laden in the compound was a “50/50” proposition, and even learn that he considered putting bin Laden on trial in a federal court (as opposed to Guantanamo) if the al-Qaida leader were taken alive. But Bowden never gets (or at least doesn’t publish) the money quote—some revelation from the president or his advisers that makes this volume of bin Laden raid literature soar above a SEAL Team Six member’s on-the-ground version of events in “No Easy Day,” or Peter Bergen’s page-turner “Manhunt,” or Seth G. Jones’ “Hunting in the Shadows.”
That’s not to say Bowden’s book isn’t worth reading. It is. There is an excellent setting-the-record-straight section at the end that has been missing in other volumes. Bowden rightly chastises the Obama administration for overhyping the raid and embellishing it in the days after it happened. He takes issue with President Obama’s overuse of the word “I” during the announcement of bin Laden’s death in the East Room of the White House. “I directed Leon Panetta ... I was briefed ... I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed ... I determined ... and authorized ... Today at my direction ... .” And he goes further than Bergen did in “Manhunt” in suggesting that enhanced interrogation techniques may well have helped find bin Laden—something that is likely to raise hackles in the human rights community.
“There is no simplistic narrative of a hard-pressed detainee coughing up a critical lead, but there is no way of knowing if these disclosures would have come without resorting to harsh methods,” he writes. “Torture may not have been decisive, or even necessary, but it was clearly part of the story.”
Bowden makes one other tantalizing observation in the book’s closing pages: He questions whether someone in Pakistan actually turned bin Laden in, “if not because it was the right thing to do, then for the $25 million reward. It is possible that someone did, since the CIA has not told the whole story and will not say whether anyone has collected the reward.”
Which suggests there may still be some fodder left for other bin Laden raid books in the future.
Dina Temple-Raston is NPR’s counterterrorism correspondent and the author of four books including “The Jihad Next Door: Rough Justice in the Age of Terror.”
©2012, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group
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