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What might have been: The trial of Osama bin Laden

What might have been: The trial of Osama bin Laden

Lost in the fallout of last week’s presidential debate was an astonishing preview of Mark Bowden’s forthcoming book, The Finish, an excerpt of which will appear in the November Vanity Fair. Bowden’s account contradicts the image of a bold Obama who decided on the Abbottabad raid in the face of a split among his advisors. According to Bowden’s research, nearly every one of the president’s advisors favored the raid. "The only major dissenters were Biden and Gates, and before the raid was launched, Gates would change his mind."

According to Bowden, in the event that Osama bin Laden had been captured alive at his Abbottabad hideout, Obama’s plan was to put him on trial in a federal court, resurrecting the idea that Attorney General Eric Holder had put forward in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that proved to be a fiasco for the administration. As Obama explained to Bowden:

"I mean, we had worked through a whole bunch of those scenarios. But, frankly, my belief was if we had captured him, that I would be in a pretty strong position, politically, here, to argue that displaying due process and rule of law would be our best weapon against al-Qaeda, in preventing him from appearing as a martyr."

It is an astonishing admission on two counts. First, it shows just how much Obama backed Holder’s idea of putting KSM and other terrorists on trial in the United States. Holder took the fall when the plan collapsed, but it appears that Obama was fully supportive of the idea, and remained committed to it even after it collapsed in the face of Congressional and public opposition.

Second, Obama’s statement brings into focus just how much he benefited politically from a tactical decision by SEALs on the ground to kill bin Laden. Just think: If things had gone differently, Joe Biden’s tag line at this summer’s Democratic National Convention would have been: "General Motors is still alive…and so is Osama bin Laden!"