In fact, the plan was to capture Bin Laden if he did not offer any resistance, though officials considered it unlikely that he would give himself up. Still, the question is tantalizing: if he had not offered resistance and the Seals had taken him alive and brought him into custody, what would be the plan going forward?
Like Kahlid Sheik Mohammed, who is the acknowledged mastermind of the September 11 attacks, he would have to be incarcerated somewhere – Guantanamo? The very place that Obama promised to close? – and, again, like Kahlid Sheik Mohammed, put on trial. Only last month, the Obama administration made the decision to cease plans to try Mohammed in civil courts and proceed instead with a trial before a military commission as outlined in the Military Commissions Act of 2006. One of the reasons was that it was impossible to find a suitable venue. New York City, where the attacks were carried out, did not want the trial since it would no doubt have been a challenge to provide security. If there were security challenges for a trial of Mohammed, imagine the security challenges to a trial for Bin Laden.
Put aside for the moment whether Bin Laden would have been tried in a civilian court or a military commission. Under either circumstance, would a trial demonstrate the civilized American system of justice – even the military commissions require evidence and decision by a jury -- or would it have turned into an opportunity for Bin Laden to send his message of hatred directly onto a world stage, one bigger than anything he could have dreamed of? Would it have proved to have been an advertisement for the American system of a deliberative justice or a recruitment tool for a revitalized al Qaeda?
2. Would a trial have turned to Bin Laden’s advantage?Put aside for the moment whether Bin Laden would have been tried in a civilian court or a military commission. Under either circumstance, would a trial demonstrate the civilized American system of justice – even the military commissions require evidence and decision by a jury -- or would it have turned into an opportunity for Bin Laden to send his message of hatred directly onto a world stage, one bigger than anything he could have dreamed of? Would it have proved to have been an advertisement for the American system of a deliberative justice or a recruitment tool for a revitalized al Qaeda?
3. Could Bin Laden have faced the death penalty?
When Attorney General Eric Holder announced the decision to move the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed to a military commission, he said he was doing so reluctantly. Had the Justice department been able to try Mohammed and five others also at Guantanamo in federal court as planned, it would have sought the death penalty. But, Holder said, is an “open question” as to whether the death penalty can be imposed by a military commission if the defendant pleads guilty. (More on that in a later post)
4. Was there anything special to this operation that made it successful as compared to, say, the failed hostage rescue attempt undertaken by Jimmy Carter’s administration in 1979?
This is one issue that cries out for discussion by the mainstream media. More than thirty years ago, in April 1980, President Jimmy Carter ordered Operation Eagle Claw to rescue Americans being held hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, Iran. It failed. One of the reasons for the failure was that the various competing branches of the U.S. armed forces could not work together on a coherent plan. Each had its own special forces but there was no overall command and control between them. Coordinating a joint operation required working through the independent leadership within each branch. This was only the latest example of this organizational flaw within the Pentagon. Critics, including Sen. Sam Nunn or Georgia and Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, argued that the prosecution of the Vietnam War was hampered by similar inter-service rivalries.
The result was the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that established the Joint Command structure that operates now. The Combatant Commander of CENTCOM (US Central Command), for instance – GEN James Mattis, of the United States Marine Corps – is responsible for US operations in the Middle East and central Asia, not the individual service chiefs. CENTCOM is based in Tampa, Florida.
Most important to today’s discussion, however is USSSOCOM, or United States Special Operations Command, which was created out of Goldwater-Nichols in 1987 and includes the special operations units of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. It owes its esablishment directly to Operation Eagle Claw (or Desert One, as it is also called, using the name of the base from which the failed mission was launched and then aborted). SOCOM (Special Forces Command) was first employed in the Panama invasion of 1989 under President George H. W. Bush. It was also responsible for the toppling of the Taliban in 2001 and, most recently, Sunday’s operation to kill Osama Bin Laden. Vice Admiral William H. McRaven is commander of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) within SOCOM. It is he who was calling the shots on Sunday’s mission More on him, too, in a later post.
5. Should Obama take all the credit for the success of this mission or should it be shared with George W. Bush?
In the discussion over who should be credited for the success of this mission, there is, understandably, considerable controversy. Certainly the search for Bin Laden began under the administration of George W. Bush and Bush is well remembered for his Wild West statement about wanting Bin Laden “dead or alive.” Yet in 2002, Bush backed off of saying that the capture of Bin Laden was Mission One for his administration. “Who knows if he’s hiding in some cave or not? …The idea of focusing on one person really indicates to me people don’t understand the scope of the mission. Terror is bigger than one person.”
During the 2008 campaign, candidate Barack Obama, criticizing the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, adopted the familiar Democratic attitude about 9/11: that it was a crime and that those who committed these acts need to be brought to justice, not that it was part of a larger war, a “war on terror” as George Bush had pronounced it. All of this would argue that the capture or killing or Osama Bin Laden should be seen as an act consistent with the Obama campaign statement and the Democratic party’s “crime” approach. The fact that the Navy Seals killed Obama and did not capture him should not dissuade this view any more than a police action to capture a murder suspect and bring him into custody would shift if the suspect resisted his capture by firing on the police and the police in self defense fired back. So far, the reports on the attack on Bin Laden’s compound indicate that there was a forty-minute firefight preceding the killing of the Al Qaeda leader.
Of course, the Seals are not the police and while the administration maintains that its intention was for them to take Bin Laden alive, we may doubt that, especially when you consider the questions posed earlier in this post about what a trial of Bin Laden would have looked like. Furthermore, while President Obama had to have the considerable courage to order this mission despite a tremendous amount of uncertainty and the risk of failure, early indications are that it was planned through a long path of intelligence, some of which no doubt was achieved through the controversial techniques adopted by the Bush administration which were criticized by many as inconsistent with the American tradition of civil liberties.
No doubt more details will make this picture a bit clearer, but lead to even more penetrating questions. Stay tuned.Todd Brewster is the Director of the Peter Jennings Project and the Center for Oral History at West Point.