John Brennan: Immunizing the Truth

The first time I read Nicholas Schmidle’s breathtaking account of Osama bin Laden’s killing, I gave up when I got to this passage:

John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, told me that the President’s advisers began an “interrogation of the data, to see if, by that interrogation, you’re going to disprove the theory that bin Laden was there.” The C.I.A. intensified its intelligence-collection efforts, and, according to a recent report in the Guardian, a physician working for the agency conducted an immunization drive in Abbottabad, in the hope of acquiring DNA samples from bin Laden’s children. (No one in the compound ultimately received any immunizations.)

The article, which alternated between incredibly detailed accounts of the SEALs’ actions with more generalized depictions of Obama’s leadership, seemed designed to puff up the operation anyway. And while I’m not at all qualified to fact check the military details of it, the fact that Schmidle cited the Guardian–and not any of his own sources–for the most criticized aspect of the raid tells you a lot about the agenda of his sources. Furthermore, the fact that the Guardian provided slightly different details about the outcome of the immunization operation than Schmidle …

A nurse known as Bakhto, whose full name is Mukhtar Bibi, managed to gain entry to the Bin Laden compound to administer the vaccines. According to several sources, the doctor, who waited outside, told her to take in a handbag that was fitted with an electronic device. It is not clear what the device was, or whether she left it behind. It is also not known whether the CIA managed to obtain any Bin Laden DNA, although one source suggested the operation did not succeed.

… may indicate yet another level of manipulation on this detail of the raid.

Since that first reading, a number of people who are qualified to fact check the military details have suggested it was a nice propaganda piece. But they all remained mum about how they could tell.

Which is why I found this article, which describes Schmidle’s efforts to avoid questions about his sourcing, instructive. Among other things, it explains that Schmidle has made linguistic mistakes when covering Pakistan in the past, and suggests he might have limited linguistic understanding here, too.

He even describes how the translator Ahmed hollered in Pashto at the locals that a security operation was ongoing to allay their suspicions about the nature of the cacophony in the cantonment town. (This detail caught my eye as the majority of persons in Abbottabad, where the raid took place, speak Hindko rather than Pashto.)

While this piece doesn’t tell us what details are false, it emphasizes that Schmidle did not source the article where it appears to be sourced, to the SEALs who took part in the operation.

Now, I’m not surprised folks within the Obama Administration are leaking such heroic versions of the OBL raid. But in the context of the Administration’s war on leaks, it deserves more discussion. For example, I find it telling that a “counterterrorism official” repeatedly refutes the events presented from the perspective of the SEALs that–we know–Schmidle isn’t reporting directly.

After blasting through the gate with C-4 charges, three SEALs marched up the stairs. Midway up, they saw bin Laden’s twenty-three-year-old son, Khalid, craning his neck around the corner. He then appeared at the top of the staircase with an AK-47. Khalid, who wore a white T-shirt with an overstretched neckline and had short hair and a clipped beard, fired down at the Americans. (The counterterrorism official claims that Khalid was unarmed, though still a threat worth taking seriously. “You have an adult male, late at night, in the dark, coming down the stairs at you in an Al Qaeda house—your assumption is that you’re encountering a hostile.”)

[snip]

Three SEALs shuttled past Khalid’s body and blew open another metal cage, which obstructed the staircase leading to the third floor. Bounding up the unlit stairs, they scanned the railed landing. On the top stair, the lead SEAL swivelled right; with his night-vision goggles, he discerned that a tall, rangy man with a fist-length beard was peeking out from behind a bedroom door, ten feet away. The SEAL instantly sensed that it was Crankshaft. (The counterterrorism official asserts that the SEAL first saw bin Laden on the landing, and fired but missed.)

These are, after all, some of the details that raise legal questions about the raid (and which John Brennan botched in the days immediately following the raid). And by presenting this story falsely as if Schmidle spoke directly to the SEALs, it allows whatever Administration official who gave it to him the ability to both admit that SEALs fired at unarmed men while providing a Hollywood version that glosses over that part. From a narrative perspective, it’s worthy of a popular novelist.

Finally, though, the whole thing raises questions about who leaked this, presumably with Obama’s explicit or implicit permission.

Here’s a list of the named sources Schmidle relies on, in rough order of appearance:

Shuja Nawaz, an expert on the Pakistani Army

John Radsan, a former assistant general counsel at the C.I.A.

General James Cartwright

John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser

Cartwright

Brennan

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser

And here’s a list of the anonymous sources:

Senior defense and Administration officials

special-operations officer who is deeply familiar with the bin Laden raid

A senior counterterrorism official

a senior Defense Department official

a Pakistani senior military official

a senior adviser to the President

the special-operations officer

the special-operations officer

the counterterrorism official

The counterterrorism official

the special-operations officer

A former helicopter pilot with extensive special-operations experience

the special-operations officer

The senior adviser to the President

the senior Defense Department official

the special-operations officer

the special-operations officer

the special-operations officer

the special-operations officer

the special-operations officer

the special-operations officer

The senior adviser to the President

In other words, this story relies almost entirely on four sources: the special-operations officer, the senior counterterrorism official, the senior Defense Department official, and the senior adviser to the President. And among the named sources in the article are Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, General James Cartwright, and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. (Former helicopter pilot and assistant commander of JSOC, Brigadier General Marshall Webb, figures prominently in the narrative, though is not quoted by name.)

And Brennan and Rhodes were reported by Schmidle to be present at some of the key low attendance events described here, such as the meeting at which Obama announced his decision to go with a SEALs operation, and the meeting at which the SEALs briefed Obama after the mission. Which is all the more telling, given that Schmidle attributed his story’s sourcing to the SEALs recollections.

…some of their recollections—on which this account is based—may be imprecise and, thus, subject to dispute.

In other words, it seems likely that Brennan and Rhodes serve as both anonymous and named sources for this story.

John Brennan had a direct role in Jeffrey Sterling’s battles with the CIA. Sterling is now being tried for allegedly leaking information equivalent to the information included in this story. Mind you, if Brennan leaked these details, he no doubt did so under the Insta-Declassification schtick that Scooter Libby used when he leaked Valerie Plame’s identity and the contents of the Iraq NIE. If the President okays leaks, they’re legal in this day and age; otherwise, they deserve the harshest punishment.

Still, this story is so thinly-veiled an Administration puff piece, it ought to attract as much attention for the sheer hypocrisy about secrecy it demonstrates as it will for the heroism such hypocrisy attempts to portray.

Update: Here’s the reason I focused on Webb (shown typing on his computer above) as the “special-forces official.”

Brigadier General Marshall Webb, an assistant commander of JSOC, took a seat at the end of a lacquered table in a small adjoining office and turned on his laptop. He opened multiple chat windows that kept him, and the White House, connected with the other command teams. The office where Webb sat had the only video feed in the White House showing real-time footage of the target, which was being shot by an unarmed RQ 170 drone flying more than fifteen thousand feet above Abbottabad. The JSOC planners, determined to keep the operation as secret as possible, had decided against using additional fighters or bombers. “It just wasn’t worth it,” the special-operations officer told me. The SEALs were on their own.

Obama returned to the White House at two o’clock, after playing nine holes of golf at Andrews Air Force Base. The Black Hawks departed from Jalalabad thirty minutes later. Just before four o’clock, Panetta announced to the group in the Situation Room that the helicopters were approaching Abbottabad. Obama stood up. “I need to watch this,” he said, stepping across the hall into the small office and taking a seat alongside Webb. Vice-President Joseph Biden, Secretary Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed him, as did anyone else who could fit into the office. On the office’s modestly sized LCD screen, helo one—grainy and black-and-white—appeared above the compound, then promptly ran into trouble. [my emphasis]

First, this passage describes Webb alone in the office that ultimately filled up. Sure, others must have known he was there, alone in the office, but it is a detail that no other people were present for.

More tellingly, why include the detail that Obama took a seat alongside Webb? It’s a detail that Schmidle could get from the photo–so it’s not a question of how Schmidle learned the detail. Rather, it’s a question of who would care (and who would orient the President’s actions from Webb’s perspective, rather than orienting Obama’s position in the room generally). In a way, it feels like one of those renaissance paintings that includes an image of the patron in the corner of the frame, just to make sure the viewer knows who sponsored the whole thing.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

17 replies
  1. Mary says:

    When he’s asked about it, it seems Schmidle tries to make the story seem more deeply sourced than perhap it is.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/freelance-journalist-scores-coup-with-account-of-bin-laden-raid/2011/08/02/gIQAEiaeqI_story.html

    “As Schmidle describes it, the story was built on about two dozen interviews, including with Brennan and other senior officials. “It’s a circuitous process,” Schmidle said. “One source was willing to share something that gets a second source to talk. That opens up a third source. And then you go back to the first source.”


    Schmidle says he wasn’t able to interview any of the 23 Navy SEALs involved in the mission itself. Instead, he said, he relied on the accounts of others who had debriefed the men.

    But a casual reader of the article wouldn’t know that; neither the article nor an editor’s note describes the sourcing for parts of the story. ”

    It almost makes you wonder if it isn’t even more circuitous – like the second source takes you back to the first source who becomes your “third” source by going “anonymous” for the bounce back.

    The linked story also notes that Schmidles father is “, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert E. Schmidle Jr., the deputy commander of the U.S. Cyber Command.”

    Anyway, the difference in the narratives highlights limiting the feed to the drone’s exterior feed.

  2. jo6pac says:

    three SEALs marched up the stairs.

    I read your work but stopped reading the leaked shit on this line. I’m not sure, never been in the military but marching up the stairs doesn’t pass the test.

  3. MadDog says:

    I read Christine Fair’s takedown yesterday as well.

    The take I liked best was that Schindle’s piece seemed like the writing for a movie script.

    But back on the Brennan issue, it surely was a deliberate leaking of classified info for political purposes.

    And no more likely to be prosecuted than any other political leaking of classified info by those in power.

  4. rkilowatt says:

    EW demonstrates rigorous training in analysis, as do others here.

    The subject work shows how LITERATURE beats HISTORY as the source of “knowing”.

    Those without scientific training and without qualified peer-review of their data, present LITERATURE as “truth”.

    HISTORY must suffer through rigorous inspection and must successfully defend itself in transparent exposure of source material, before it can be established as HISTORY.

    And, what are the qualifications of the judges of such matters. Who controls them with $ and an unlimited litany of other real benefits..and threats.

    How often is “truth” etablished by pronunciamento !. Or by taking a vote. Or without transparency by a preselected group!

    E.g., the councils of Nicea 1500 years ago voting on what is true/sacred writing and what is not…before there was any rigorous training in objective analysis.

    The basic qual for “good” LITERATURE is that it sells.

    Real HISTORY is nearly always overwhelmed by good LITERATURE.

    We are all inculcated with much false-HISTORY from infancy, ingesting much data without inspection because it came from “authorities”, you know, as parents, teachers, spiritual advisors, J Yoo, etc.

    EW rocks!

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Mr. Schmidle should be getting a government pension if he keeps selling government yarns like that. And, yes, given his sources, his version of events is readily suspect. His sources, most unnamed, will get kudos for being cutouts for the government version of events – otherwise known as domestic propaganda, which is illegal. If they that list of operatives had actually “leaked” to Schmidle, instead of told him the government yarn they were given to tell, they’d be in the brig or at some US prison in Afghanistan that we claim isn’t ours.

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I love the Renaissance painting analogy. This sort of indirect “disclosure” masquerading as reporting is hard to categorize as anything but Machiavellian.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @earlofhuntingdon: I have my questions about his background. But for the moment, I’ll just assume his daddy connected him with the top general who was ready to spill his guts.

  8. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Funny how a total unknown gets elevated into the limelight.

    And that says something about the intent of the leakers.

    Something like: “We can’t afford to roll this out with a real journalist. They might tell the truth. Got to have a patsy we can control.”

  9. blueskybigstar says:

    Marcy, now they are saying that the people who took part in the raid were not in the helicopter. I doubt this.

  10. Bob Schacht says:

    Before reading the comments, I am suspicious of any report that begins like this: “After blasting through the gate with C-4 charges, three SEALs marched up the stairs.” *Marched*? really? Then later on in the same paragraph: “…craning his neck…”, “…overstretched neckline…”. I mean, really, its cool that the administration is providing employment for unemployed English majors to make stuff up, but golly, can’t they do better than that?

    Bob in AZ

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