I have very little to say about Osama bin Laden, and you can read people like Mohsin Rizvi, Juan Cole, Steve Coll,Glenn Greenwald, or Chris Hedges if you want (or everyone else). His life made the world a worse place, but I don’t know that his death has improved it. And there’s enough residual Christianity in me to find it hard to celebrate the death of a human soul, even one whose life was as misbegotten as was his.
I do think, though, that we need to think carefully about what actually happened in Abbottabad yesterday, and what kinds of precedents it sets (or reinforces). When I was reading the administration’s account, for example, several things leaped out. One is that this mission — apparently — was built on intelligence acquired from “detainees in the post-9/11 period”:
From the time that we first recognized bin Laden as a threat, the CIA gathered leads on individuals in bin Laden’s inner circle, including his personal couriers. Detainees in the post-9/11 period flagged for us individuals who may have been providing direct support to bin Laden and his deputy, Zawahiri, after their escape from Afghanistan.
One courier in particular had our constant attention. Detainees gave us his nom de guerre or his nickname and identified him as both a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of September 11th, and a trusted assistant of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the former number three of al Qaeda who was captured in 2005.
Detainees also identified this man as one of the few al Qaeda couriers trusted by bin Laden. They indicated he might be living with and protecting bin Laden. But for years, we were unable to identify his true name or his location.
Who knows how true this really is, of course; this is a “Senior Administration Official” talking. But he’s presenting the foundation of this case as intelligence obtained from detainees, and he repeatedly stresses that point. This gives me pause, because the way we obtain intelligence from detainees is, you know, by torturing them and holding them without due process. In other words, he’s indirectly — but clearly — saying that torturing people was how we found and killed Osama bin Laden. There are already people pointing to this aspect of the event as justification for “detainee interrogations.” Since that has meant and still means, in practice, torture, it worries me as precedent.
Beyond that, I’m struck by the apparent shakiness of the actual intelligence that they say they used to pinpoint the compound. After much effort (about which they will say little) they found the courier and his brother:
When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw — an extraordinarily unique compound. The compound sits on a large plot of land in an area that was relatively secluded when it was built. It is roughly eight times larger than the other homes in the area.
When the compound was built in 2005, it was on the outskirts of the town center, at the end of a narrow dirt road. In the last six years, some residential homes have been built nearby. The physical security measures of the compound are extraordinary. It has 12- to 18-foot walls topped with barbed wire. Internal wall sections — internal walls sectioned off different portions of the compound to provide extra privacy. Access to the compound is restricted by two security gates, and the residents of the compound burn their trash, unlike their neighbors, who put the trash out for collection. The main structure, a three-story building, has few windows facing the outside of the compound. A terrace on the third floor has a seven-foot wall privacy — has a seven-foot privacy wall. It’s also noteworthy that the property is valued at approximately $1 million but has no telephone or Internet service connected to it. The brothers had no explainable source of wealth.
Intelligence analysts concluded that this compound was custom built to hide someone of significance. We soon learned that more people were living at the compound than the two brothers and their families. A third family lived there — one whose size and whose makeup matched the bin Laden family members that we believed most likely to be with Osama bin Laden. Our best assessment, based on a large body of reporting from multiple sources, was that bin Laden was living there with several family members, including his youngest wife.
Everything we saw — the extremely elaborate operational security, the brothers’ background and their behavior, and the location and the design of the compound itself was perfectly consistent with what our experts expected bin Laden’s hideout to look like. Keep in mind that two of bin Laden’s gatekeepers, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libbi, were arrested in the settled areas of Pakistan. Our analysts looked at this from every angle, considering carefully who other than bin Laden could be at the compound. We conducted red team exercises and other forms of alternative analysis to check our work. No other candidate fit the bill as well as bin Laden did. So the final conclusion, from an intelligence standpoint, was twofold. We had high confidence that a high-value target was being harbored by the brothers on the compound, and we assessed that there was a strong probability that that person was Osama bin Laden.
Apparently they were right, and it was OBL. But look closely at the thought process that they are presenting to us: they found something that was strange, a house that did not meet their expectations of what an innocent house in this area should look like. And the house might well be OBL’s hideout: ”Everything we saw…was perfectly consistent with what our experts expected bin Laden’s hideout to look like.”
They decided that it seemed likely someone was being harbored there, by a person who — according to information taken from “detainees in the post-9/11 period” – had connections to OBL, and after “considering carefully who other than bin Laden could be at the compound” they decided that “No other candidate fit the bill as well as bin Laden did.” They couldn’t think of anyone else it could be (the epistemology of someone presuming the completeness of their knowledge). And on that basis, they “assessed that there was a strong probability that that person was Osama bin Laden.” And then they landed a helicopter in the compound and went at it.
“This was a kill operation,” the official said, making clear there was no desire to try to capture bin Laden alive in Pakistan.”
I don’t have nearly enough information to assess what actually happened, whether this was the only feasible way to proceed, and whether they had other options that didn’t involve going guns blazing at human beings they had “strong probability” were OBL and his family (who, of course, are fair game). Because all I know is what the administration tells me, I know very little at all.
In that regard, after all, it seems completely plausible to an ignorant like me — given that “Bin Laden was hiding almost under the nose of the Pakistani military, which has a major garrison in Abbottabad and the Pakistani version of West Point” — that the US knew exactly who was there, having been tipped off by someone who knew exactly that he was there, and that they proceeded on the basis of that certainty. It seems likely to me that they knew a lot more than what they’re telling us, that the administration’s account of what happened probably excludes most of the most important information on which they based their decision, because they’re trying not to give up their sources.
Given the sensitive complexity of the relationship with Pakistan’s military and security forces — and our administration’s disinclination to do things in the open — we have no particular reason to invest much confidence in their own account of what happens, and plenty of reasons to distrust its completeness, especially as more details emerge. This, in fact, is precisely why I’m so disturbed by the central place “detainee intelligence” is given in their reconstruction of the investigation: if they knew more than they say, then we have to conclude that they are using “detainee intelligence” as the cover story for that, thereby reinforcing the legitimacy of that method of intelligence gathering.
Anyway, if we look at this story as revelatory of who we are now, what ethical constraints, imperatives, and licenses are being instantiated in the Global War on Terror, then I think we have a lot of reasons to be distinctly un-celebratory. The fact that his code name was “Geronimo” makes me tired and sad. If this is the story we are meant to celebrate, then we should think carefully about what it is that we are supposed to be happy to be defined by: the use of torture to get intelligence from detainees, a kill-first, hold-the-trial-later operation which targets households (and includes the deaths of nearby family members), and the idea that OBL’s corpse is more important than, say, capturing him and putting him on trial.
We may decide that these things as justifiable, may think that the ends legitimize the means. But it may also only confirm a great deal about who we already knew ourselves, as a country, to be: our security apparatus has been doing exactly this sort of thing for years now. And can we really be comfortable with that? Can we be happy with it? Can we call it victory, justice? And is this the conclusion or the final normalization of “9/11″?
Cross-posted from Aaron Bady’s blog, zunguzungu.