What were we paying Bush for, anyway?
Sahil Kapur and Eric Lach:
The Hunt For Bin Laden And President Obama: Consider the following scenario: U.S. intelligence gets a tip about the whereabouts of a senior Al Qaeda figure inside Pakistan. Plans are drawn up to fly into the airspace of an uneasy ally. Elite U.S. forces are readied. The administration is asked for the go-ahead.
In 2005, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reportedly called off such a mission, despite the fact that intelligence officials had “unusually high confidence” about the whereabouts of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s then-second-in-command. According to a 2007 New York Times report revealing the aborted raid, Rumsfeld was concerned about both the size of the operation — which grew to include several hundred military personnel and CIA operatives — and the potential reaction from the Pakistani government.
In 2011, President Obama was faced with a similar decision that obviously ended differently.
The decision to send U.S. troops into covert combat is not made lightly, and Rumsfeld may well have made the right call in 2005. But the comparison perhaps serves to underscore just how difficult such a decision is to make, an idea at the center of an ongoing partisan squabble over whether President Obama is correct to take credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden. The debate, though, does raise an important question: To what extent did the president himself lay the groundwork for the al-Qaeda leader’s death?
The answer, national security experts told TPM, is complicated. Obama deserves credit for ultimately making a risky decision that turned out to be successful, they said, and he made several moves that helped the 10-year manhunt reach its conclusion. But, they caution, he also benefited from years of efforts in tracking down bin Laden before taking office, as well as an improved capacity for intelligence gathering and surveillance in the years leading up to the kill.
“There is much more continuity on a counter terrorist matter like this than is generally perceived on the outside,” Paul Pillar, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a former intelligence officer, told TPM. “It’s a matter of opportunities arising after a long amount of work.”