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-Qaeda leader — a sniper drone still under development.
Until now, the reporting (and there has been lots of it) 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-Qaeda 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.”
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,” the bestseller about the 1993 battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, 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 one reason the Obama administration decided to give him unprecedented access for this one. He spoke with 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 are as much a part of war as shooting a gun.
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 2001, the United States has learned how to process information so fast it laps the terrorists: U.S. forces can launch multiple raids in Iraq and Afghanistan before word of the first raid 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, Obama doesn’t reveal anything particularly surprising in the book. We hear about where he was on Sept. 11, 2001 (Chicago), how he thought the case for it being bin Laden in the compound was a “50/50” proposition and even that he considered putting bin Laden on trial in a federal court (as opposed to Guantanamo) if the al-Qaeda 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 6 member’s on-the-ground version of events in “No Easy Day,” or Peter Bergen’s page-turner “Manhunt,” or Seth G. Jones’s “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 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 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 future bin Laden raid books.
The Killing of Osama bin Laden
By Mark Bowden
Atlantic Monthly Press. 266 pp. $26