Got to give the “Chicago” “Honolulu” kid some credit. In the midst of taking an ass whipping on the Hill he managed to persuade the highly regarded New Yorker to carry his water and spin a delightful but bullshit yarn about the killing of Osama Bin Laden. The “How Obama Got Some Osama” tale that hit the internets on Monday is 60% truth and 40% nonsense.
Nicholas Schmidle, the author of Getting Bin Laden, is the son of a senior Army general, which explains in part how the kid was given such “special access.” Can’t blame the kid for jumping at the story of a lifetime. Normally it is up to the editor at the New Yorker to recognize mythology being passed off as the “insider” account.
Let’s start with what is right in the story. The Navy SEALs did carry out the mission. They are a terrific unit. Unfortunately, their role in this mission was never supposed to be acknowledged in public. That’s the real story here. The Obama team panicked when the helicopter went down and abandoned the cover story that was going to protect the SEALs and the senior Pakistani Generals who helped the US close the chapter on Bin Laden.
So let’s go through Schmidle’s story methodically.
The story opens with the stealthy penetration of the US force into Pakistan:
Fifteen minutes later, the helicopters ducked into an alpine valley and slipped, undetected, into Pakistani airspace. For more than sixty years, Pakistan’s military has maintained a state of high alert against its eastern neighbor, India. Because of this obsession, Pakistan’s “principal air defenses are all pointing east,” Shuja Nawaz, an expert on the Pakistani Army and the author of “Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within,” told me. Senior defense and Administration officials concur with this assessment, but a Pakistani senior military official, whom I reached at his office, in Rawalpindi, disagreed. “No one leaves their borders unattended,” he said. Though he declined to elaborate on the location or orientation of Pakistan’s radars—“It’s not where the radars are or aren’t”—he said that the American infiltration was the result of “technological gaps we have vis-à-vis the U.S.” The Black Hawks, each of which had two pilots and a crewman from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or the Night Stalkers, had been modified to mask heat, noise, and movement; the copters’ exteriors had sharp, flat angles and were covered with radar-dampening “skin.”
True and not true. The truth is that the head of the ISI and the head of the Pakistani Army, Generals Pasha and Kiyani respectively, were witting of the movement of U.S. forces and took steps to ensure that Pakistani forces did not alert and respond. And we are not talking about only radars. None of the forces in Abottabad reacted.
USA Today reported in the immediate days after the raid:
“My younger brother and cousin living there witnessed some unusual troop movement, but then again Abbottabad has three Army training centers and a military academy so they thought maybe a chief of staff is visiting.”
He said the power in town went out a couple of hours before the raid, which was unusual as was the way in which unidentified troops were hustling about prior to the raid. The power was restored 15 minutes after the raid. . . .After an hour or two, the Pakistan military sealed off roads and blocked traffic.
In addition, in the immediate aftermath of the raid the Pakistani military swarmed the city collecting videos and cell phones. They didn’t want anyone sending out anything that would blow the cover story the Generals thought the US was going to honor. They were wrong.
Schmidle’s next ladle of fairy dust included this fantasy:
Since escaping that winter during a battle in the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan, bin Laden had defied American efforts to trace him. Indeed, it remains unclear how he ended up living in Abbottabad.
Nope. Quite clear. The Saudis brokered a deal with the Pakistanis who, in exchange for substantial financial support, agreed to keep Osama under the equivalent of house arrest. Remember, Pakistan’s greatest security concerns were (and are) India and Iran. Bin Laden was a poker chip they could play, possibly, down the road. You don’t toss away a trump card for nothing.
Schmidle turns out to be an unwitting fool in Obama’s reelection bid. It starts with creating the myth that Obama alone got Bin Laden:
Four months after Obama entered the White House, Leon Panetta, the director of the C.I.A., briefed the President on the agency’s latest programs and initiatives for tracking bin Laden. Obama was unimpressed. In June, 2009, he drafted a memo instructing Panetta to create a “detailed operation plan” for finding the Al Qaeda leader and to “ensure that we have expended every effort.” Most notably, the President intensified the C.I.A.’s classified drone program; there were more missile strikes inside Pakistan during Obama’s first year in office than in George W. Bush’s eight.
Like any good lie this is a clever mix of fact and fantasy. Yes, Obama was briefed on the state of the search for Bin Laden. However, taking credit for the “expanded” drone program is just a lie. The expansion started in the summer of 2008 under George W. Bush, when he and his “crack” team of national security mavens realized they were on the verge of losing Afghanistan and quickly shifted more CIA and Special Ops assets to the theater. But the CIA effort remained uncoordinated and disjointed. The ops run out of Kandahar, for example, were not coordinated with the ops out of Kabul. Remember the massacre at Forward Operating Base Chapman in December 2009?
The attack represented an audacious blow to intelligence operatives at the vanguard of U.S. counterterrorism operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing officials whose job involves plotting strikes against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups that are active on the frontier between the two nations. The facility that was targeted — Forward Operating Base Chapman — is in the eastern Afghan province of Khost, which borders North Waziristan, the Pakistani tribal area that is believed to be al-Qaeda’s home base.
Schmidle’s tall tale continues:
In August, 2010, Panetta returned to the White House with better news. C.I.A. analysts believed that they had pinpointed bin Laden’s courier, a man in his early thirties named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Kuwaiti drove a white S.U.V. whose spare-tire cover was emblazoned with an image of a white rhino. The C.I.A. began tracking the vehicle. One day, a satellite captured images of the S.U.V. pulling into a large concrete compound in Abbottabad. Agents, determining that Kuwaiti was living there, used aerial surveillance to keep watch on the compound, which consisted of a three-story main house, a guesthouse, and a few outbuildings.
Complete fabrication. The break came not because of analytical brilliance but good, old fashioned dumb luck and greed–a Pakistani intelligence officer walked into the US Embassy and ratted Bin Laden out. It was this that led the CIA to set up the safe house in Abbottabad and pursue a number of collection efforts to verify the Bin Laden was there. This included overhead and video surveillance, electronic surveillance and the collection of DNA.
By February of 2011 the CIA was confident that Bin Laden was in fact inside the house. They approached Obama about launching the mission but, at the urging of Valerie Jarrett, the President delayed making a decision. Why was Jarrett nervous? We still did not have 100% photo evidence that the figure seen walking outside of the house on occasion was Bin Laden. Obama listened to Jarrett who insisted on 100% proof.
This thumb twiddling continued for the next three months. Panetta, frustrated at the dawdling, finally turned to Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates. The three forced the issue with Obama and he reluctantly agreed to green light the SEAL mission.
Schmidle gives it a different spin:
Obama, though excited, was not yet prepared to order military action. John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, told me that the President’s advisers began an “interrogation of the data, to see if, by that interrogation, you’re going to disprove the theory that bin Laden was there.”
Obama was frozen until Panetta forced the matter.
Schmidle’s account of the SEAL preparation and training is accurate. What fascinates me about this is that the SEAL community has been forbidden to talk about the preparation and the mission–until now. Note that the entire tone of his piece is to portray Barack “The Duffer” Obama as the equivalent of George Patton. Carefully weighing decisions and moving methodically. That is simply not true.
Schmidle returns to fiction with this dollop of “insider” info:
Obama returned to the White House at two o’clock, after playing nine holes of golf at Andrews Air Force Base. The Black Hawks departed from Jalalabad thirty minutes later. Just before four o’clock, Panetta announced to the group in the Situation Room that the helicopters were approaching Abbottabad. Obama stood up. “I need to watch this,” he said, stepping across the hall into the small office and taking a seat alongside Webb. Vice-President Joseph Biden, Secretary Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed him, as did anyone else who could fit into the office. On the office’s modestly sized LCD screen, helo one—grainy and black-and-white—appeared above the compound, then promptly ran into trouble.
Nope. Biden and Clinton were sitting in the sit room watching the events unfold. Obama was in the next room. It was Biden who stood up and went out to Obama and said, “You need to watch this.” At that point Obama came into the room along with gaggle of aides and strap hangers.
I give Obama full credit for ordering the raid. It was like pulling horse teeth, but he finally did the right thing. It is a consistent pattern of “decision making” for Obama.
Schmidle gets the next part right:
When the helicopter began getting away from the pilot, he pulled back on the cyclic, which controls the pitch of the rotor blades, only to find the aircraft unresponsive. The high walls of the compound and the warm temperatures had caused the Black Hawk to descend inside its own rotor wash—a hazardous aerodynamic situation known as “settling with power.” In North Carolina, this potential problem had not become apparent, because the chain-link fencing used in rehearsals had allowed air to flow freely. A former helicopter pilot with extensive special-operations experience said of the pilot’s situation, “It’s pretty spooky—I’ve been in it myself. The only way to get out of it is to push the cyclic forward and fly out of this vertical silo you’re dropping through. That solution requires altitude. If you’re settling with power at two thousand feet, you’ve got plenty of time to recover. If you’re settling with power at fifty feet, you’re going to hit the ground.”
The helicopter going down is where the trouble began and the Obama White House team wilted. Originally the cover story was going to be that Osama bin Laden was killed in a drone strike and that his remains were recovered. When the chapter went down Obama, acting on the advice of National Security Advisor Donilon and John Brennan, decided to go public with the raid. They essentially betrayed Generals Pasha and Kiyani.
Now, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for those two blokes. They had been complicit in keeping Bin Laden under wraps. But when approached by the highest levels of the US Government they knew the gig was up and agreed to hand over their chip provided they did not get exposed. Intelligence operations is a big gray area. No clear black and white.
The Obama team was so worried about getting exposed for cutting a deal with the Paks that they decided, purely for domestic political advantage, to put SEAL Team Six out front. Sadly, they did not pause to think what this meant for our already troubled relationship with Pakistan. This amateur hour move pissed off both the CIA and the SEALs because it exposed classified capabilities and further tanked our ability to continue to work effectively with Pakistan.
Schmidle also unwittlingly exposes the reality of Osama’s “jail:”
Nevertheless, security precautions were in place. A locked metal gate blocked the base of the staircase leading to the second floor, making the downstairs room feel like a cage.
After blasting through the gate with C-4 charges, three SEALs marched up the stairs.
The metal gate separating Osama from the lower floor was designed to keep him locked up in the attic. He could only get out when the Pakistanis said he could.
Schmidle creates the illusion that he is giving you inside dope:
It also represented the team’s first serious attempt since late 2001 at killing “Crankshaft”—the target name that the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, had given bin Laden.
Though the Navy SEAL team storming into bin Laden’s Pakistan compound referred to the Al Qaeda leader as “Geronimo,” Pentagon and CIA analysts knew him by a more culinary nickname: “Cakebread.” The quirky piece of bin Laden death trivia comes from excerpts from a new book published by ABC News called Target: Bin Laden—The Death and Life of Public Enemy Number One.
Schmidle, to use play ground terminology, was getting his Crank yanked. Poor kid, he bought the bullshit.
One last bit of mythology. Schmidle tells a moving story of Osama’s body being carefully washed and buried at sea after being flown to the USS Carl Vinson. Only one little problem. Not a single sailor has come forward to recount their experience that night. You have 3000 plus sailors, who have cell phones and cameras, and no one got a shot? Right.
I heard from sources I trust that Osama’s body was dumped over the Kush. After taking off from Bagram in a V-22 Osprey he was simply pushed out into the night air.
Let’s focus on the big picture. Obama gets credit in my book for ordering the raid that ended Osama bin Laden. He finally let the SEALs do what they are trained to do. My beef is that the White House, like any White House, wants to portray the man as a heroic figure who, all alone, made the tough decision. The reality is something else. Obama flinched when the helicopter blew up and, as he has done to so many others, tossed the Pakistani Generals who helped our forces get to the target unimpeded under his bus of political ambition. One of these days I hope a first rate reporter gets the real story.