The Oil and the Glory

Was it necessary to kill Bin Laden?

It seems fairly clear from the White House’s revised account of Osama Bin Laden’s dramatic death in the compound pictured above that he did not have to be killed – he was unarmed, and the only possibly lethal danger present during the moment of truth was his lunging wife, who was rendered harmless by a ...

Aamir Qureshi  AFP/Getty Images
Aamir Qureshi AFP/Getty Images

It seems fairly clear from the White House’s revised account of Osama Bin Laden’s dramatic death in the compound pictured above that he did not have to be killed – he was unarmed, and the only possibly lethal danger present during the moment of truth was his lunging wife, who was rendered harmless by a shot blast to the leg. Yet a Navy SEAL elected to shoot Bin Laden in the eye, killing him instantly.

These facts are not particularly troubling given the individual we are discussing. But, as the Obama Administration navigates the aftermath of the greatest manhunt in U.S. history, it is clear that it is at once in a glorious, yet wholly uncomfortable spot. On the one hand, it brought to ground its No. 1 Most Wanted Man. On the other, it is hard to think of an equivalent wartime capture-or-kill operation carried out under such a spotlight, specifically the coldly instantaneous decision to slay Bin Laden, and the more calculated one to dump his body in the ocean. It’s hard to explain officially targeted killing with a light touch.

Does it matter? For the same reason that Bin Laden’s body was dumped into the Arabian Sea, it is entirely possible that the Central Intelligence Agency preferred not to take him alive. Out of the loop for the last several years while al Qaeda cells operated independently, Bin Laden was possibly of little intelligence value — a potentially invaluable trove of hard and thumb drives was scooped up, but there was probably a minuscule chance that he himself would reveal trustworthy intelligence. On the other hand, alive he would be of continued fascination for current and would-be followers. Read to the jump for some interesting video, and more on how to explain the decision to kill.

Here is White House spokesman Jay Carney revising the official account:

 

In a separate interview, CIA Director Leon Panetta suggested to PBS’s Jim Lehrer that the SEALS could have captured Bin Laden, but that there was so much confusion and tension that — short of throwing up his hands and shouting Hallelujah — he simply was not going to come out alive. Lehrer asked Panetta whether Bin Laden attempted to engage the SEALS verbally:

To be frank, I don’t think he had a lot of time to say anything. It was a firefight going up that compound. By the time they got to the third floor and found Bin Laden, this was all split-second action on the part of the SEALS. 

Lehrer then asked whether Bin Laden was armed.

There were some firefights that were going on as these guys were making their way up the staircase in that compound, and when they got up there, there were some threatening moves that were made that clearly represented a clear threat to our guys, and that’s the reason they fired.

Finally Lehrer asks if there were orders to shoot.

The authority here was to kill Bin Laden. Obviously under their rules of engagement, if he had in fact thrown up his hands and surrendered and didn’t appear to be representing any kind of threat, then they were to capture him. But they had full authority to kill him.  

 

There is bipartisan consensus on that point. Interviewed by the New York Times, John Bellinger, legal counsel at the National Security Council and State Department in the George W. Bush administration, agreed with Panetta. "If he were surrendering, or knocked out and unconscious on the ground, that would raise serious questions," Bellinger told the newspaper.  "But this is a guy who’s extremely dangerous. If he’s nodding at someone in the hall, or rushing to the bookcase or you think he’s wearing a suicide vest, you’re on solid ground to kill him."

Put more simply, face to face with Osama Bin Laden, most people on the planet might have the first instinct to shoot, even if he were holding cotton candy in both hands.

Now, with Bin Laden’s body in hand, what to do with it? Steve Coll, the author of Ghost Wars and a former colleague in the old Pakistan reporting days in the early 1990s, reckons that the CIA had long ago decided what it would do if it came into possession of Bin Laden’s body. Interviewed by PBS Frontline, Coll said Saudi Arabia — Bin Laden’s homeland — was asked on an apparent pro forma basis whether it wanted his body. It was pro forma because Bin Laden had been explicitly attempting to bring down the Saudi government for two decades. Coll speaks:

 

The larger question at this point is not how the United States handled Bin Laden in his final moments and the couple of hours hence, but how Pakistan may have abetted his comfortable last months or years of life in a military cantonment.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>