Was killing instead of capturing bin Laden the right call?

McClatchy NewspapersMay 4, 2011 

WASHINGTON — As details surface about the mission earlier this week to find Osama bin Laden, one thing is clear: Capturing the long-sought terrorist mastermind alive might have been an option, but it wasn't a top priority.

The Navy SEAL team that slipped into Pakistan and entered bin Laden's walled hideout put a bullet in his head and helicoptered away with his corpse. He was buried at sea.

Experts were divided on whether that was the wiser course. The risks were high either way.

"The costs of capturing bin Laden, as opposed to killing him, were pretty stark," said Seth Jones, a counterinsurgency and counterterrorism specialist who's advised the military on Afghanistan. "It creates almost a desperate push (by his followers) to get him free. Then what do you do with him? Who tries him? Where do you keep him? What sort of justice do you put him through?

"It was probably wise to kill him right there."

CIA Director Leon Panetta told NBC this week that the SEAL team was authorized to kill bin Laden but could have taken him alive if the opportunity arose.

"But that opportunity never developed," he said.

U.S. officials have said that bin Laden was unarmed but had resisted in some unspecified manner.

"If he had run out of the compound with his hands held up, obviously it might have been different," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., a former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman. "The first thing you want to do is accomplish the mission: Take the head of the snake."

But several former members of the intelligence community and the military said that bin Laden was a potential gold mine of information. Imprisoned senior al Qaida leaders, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, have provided useful information about terrorist links and activities, they said.

"Once a decision was made to put boots on the ground and put our guys deeply in harm's way, I believe it should have been a capture operation and not a kill operation," said Louis Tucker, a former SEAL and former minority staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Arthur Hulnick, a former analyst for the CIA, said killing bin Laden was "a lost opportunity" and could lead his followers to view him as a martyr. But after more than three decades in intelligence, Hulnick, who teaches at Boston University, said, "It's too bad it came about that way, but in the rush of things I am sure there was no time to sit around and decide."

Still, concerns about turning bin Laden into someone larger than life after his death might have influenced the thinking behind the mission's goal.

Indeed, there's a cemetery in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where a number of al Qaida fighters were buried several years ago. It's since become a shrine for sympathizers and a place women go to be blessed.

As President Barack Obama and his advisers weighed the risks of the bin Laden operation, the tactical hurdles of the mission, policy realities and political needs could have dictated that simply ending bin Laden's chapter in the war on terrorism was the best thing to do.

On the one hand, he was a worldwide symbol of menace who'd been the target of a 10-year international manhunt. Capturing him and putting him on trial might have served to discredit the image of someone who'd led a campaign of terrorism in the name of Islam but many of whose victims have been Muslims.

More than half a century ago, President Harry S. Truman was a strong advocate of putting the Nazi hierarchy on trial after World War II so the world would know its crimes.

Likewise, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, when he was the supreme allied commander, wanted the concentration camps exposed once they were liberated.

"Ike was insistent that the world would know exactly what had transpired," presidential historian Robert Dallek said.

On the other hand, bringing bin Laden back alive and determining his fate probably would have inflamed the debate over policies about torture and the treatment of prisoners.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that given the controversies, killing him was "less problematic to the United States than having him in Guantanamo and bringing him up on charges. It would be a very difficult set of years to go through that whole legal process."

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama vowed to close the prison at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It remains open, however.

"The core of Obama's political support believes that all of these things were wrong," said Peter Feaver, who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "I could well imagine (the administration) saying, 'We like the intelligence we got from the hard drives and phones and intelligence cache and we're kind of glad we don't have him.' "

Still, Feaver said that Obama took a serious risk with the mission, which could have backfired and forever stained him, as the failed rescue of the Iranian hostages did to President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

"It's the signal achievement of the Obama administration, in terms of national security," he said.

(Lesley Clark and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.)

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