Today, Time magazine got hold of a memo written by then-CIA head Leon Panetta after he received orders from Barack Obama’s team to greenlight the bin Laden mission. Here’s the text, which summarized the situation:
Received phone call from Tom Donilon who stated that the President made a decision with regard to AC1 [Abbottabad Compound 1]. The decision is to proceed with the assault.
The timing, operational decision making and control are in Admiral McRaven’s hands. The approval is provided on the risk profile presented to the President. Any additional risks are to be brought back to the President for his consideration. The direction is to go in and get bin Laden and if he is not there, to get out. Those instructions were conveyed to Admiral McRaven at approximately 10:45 am.
This, of course, was the famed “gutsy call.” Here’s what Tom Hanks narrated in Obama’s campaign film, “The Road We’ve Traveled”:
HANKS: Intelligence reports locating Osama Bin Laden were promising, but inconclusive, and there was internal debate as to what the President should do.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: We sat down in the Situation Room, the entire national security apparatus was in that room, and the President turns to every principal in the room, every secretary, “What do you recommend I do?” And they say, “Well, forty-nine percent chance he’s there, fifty-one … it’s a close call, Mr. President.” As he walked out the room, it dawned on me, he’s all alone. This is his decision. If he was wrong, his Presidency was done. Over.
Only the memo doesn’t show a gutsy call. It doesn’t show a president willing to take the blame for a mission gone wrong. It shows a CYA maneuver by the White House.
The memo puts all control in the hands of Admiral McRaven – the “timing, operational decision making and control” are all up to McRaven. So the notion that Obama and his team were walking through every stage of the operation is incorrect. The hero here was McRaven, not Obama. And had the mission gone wrong, McRaven surely would have been thrown under the bus.
The memo is crystal clear on that point. It says that the decision has been made based solely on the “risk profile presented to the President.” If any other risks – no matter how minute – arose, they were “to be brought back to the President for his consideration.” This is ludicrous. It is wiggle room. It was Obama’s way of carving out space for himself in case the mission went bad. If it did, he’d say that there were additional risks of which he hadn’t been informed; he’d been kept in the dark by his military leaders.
Finally, the memo is unclear on just what the mission is. Was it to capture Bin Laden or to kill him? The White House itself was unable to decide what the mission was in the hours after the Bin Laden kill, and actually switched its language. The memo shows why: McRaven was instructed to “get” Bin Laden, whatever that meant.
President Obama made the right call to give the green light to the mission. But he did it in a way that he could shift the blame if things went wrong. Typical Obama. And typical of him to claim full credit for it, when he didn’t do anything but give a vague nod, while putting his top military officials at risk of taking the hit in case of a bad turn.