Barack Obama (and the Three Musketeers of Selective Leaking) Says Barack Obama Wanted an OBL Trial

The AP made some news yesterday with this Barack Obama quote from Mark Bowden’s new book, The Finish.

Frankly, my belief was if we had captured him, that I would be in a pretty strong position, politically, here, to argue that displaying due process and rule of law would be our best weapon against al-Qaida, in preventing him from appearing as a martyr.

It’s a quote repeated and expanded in this exclusive piece from Vanity Fair, which will have an excerpt of the book in its next edition.

Now, both of these excerpts make it clear: This is a direct quote of an Obama claim, made after the fact. But if that didn’t already make you suspect the political efficacy of telling this story just weeks before the election, check out Bowden’s acknowledgements, above.

Not only does Bowden thank the Three Musketeers of Obama’s selective leaking, John Brennan, Tom Donilon, and Denis McDonough.

But it also thanks Obama personally.

(It also thanks CIA Director David Petraeus, a man who never met press coverage he didn’t like.)

Look, I’d love to imagine that Obama would have made the political effort to give Osama bin Laden a trial had he been captured alive. I’ve even rationalized how much easier that would be, given that we presumably would avoid the whole torture phase that has made trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

There are both political and legal reasons why it serves Obama’s interests to say he considered the possibilities of a live capture followed by a trial. And given how closely Bowden worked with those trying to make the most of Obama’s OBL killing, I don’t see any reason to treat the claim as credible.

And this book–with Obama’s top aides identified as sources so clearly–is yet another reason why I think Mark Bissonnette won’t experience any legal troubles for publishing a book covering the same topic.

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.

6 replies
  1. scribe says:

    No one has asked me before so I haven’t said, but I’ve thought since the raid that had I been in Obama’s shoes, my orders to the SEALs would have been that bringing bin Laden in alive was more important to the country and the world than any particular SEAL’s personal survival and they’d damn well better bring him in alive and in condition to be tried, that killing him was all but completely out of the question. Frankly, I think killing OBL was more likely an act of gross (and probably political) insubordination by the SEAL who did it than of heroism.

    I think back to one of the lessons imparted during my officer’s training, that of a young lieutenant during the Korean War who won the DSC. His orders were to take his patrol out and bring in live prisoners for intelligence purposes. The patrol captured one or two. When the patrol hit a firefight on the way back, to make sure the prisoner got back alive and in shape to be questioned, the lieutenant put his own helmet and body armor on the prisoner. I don’t recall if he was wounded or killed or not – what mattered is he put the mission and its purposes ahead of his own personal safety.

    Sailors/soldiers and particularly spec-ops folks join and re-up with the knowledge that their lives can be spent by the pols they work for. If they don’t know that going in, the part of basic designed to knock the sense of “being special” out of them should have long since disabused them of any lingering misconceptions.

  2. KWillow says:

    Obama won’t even give Pvt.Manning a “fair trial”, what possible technique would have been used to give Bin Laden one? Hand him over to the Hague? Its to laugh.

  3. harpie says:

    In the screen shot of the acknowledgments, third row down in the middle…what does that say? “Larry …”?

  4. Peterr says:

    @harpie: Larry James

    This guy, whom earlofhuntingdon describes like this:

    Dr. James claims he was sent to Abu Ghraib to fix it. But this is how he describes his role, from his book, Fixing Hell, An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib:

    “It was clear to me that I was no longer a doctor but rather a combatant with the sole purpose of helping the Army kill or capture the enemy.”


  5. harpie says:

    @Peterr: Thanks. Wow. I thought that’s what it said. [couldn’t believe my eyes…well, I couldn’t really see it all that well… :-)]

    Thanks for the EoH link.
    Here’s Glenn Greenwald:
    Top Bush-era GITMO and Abu Ghraib psychologist is WH’s newest appointment; 3/25/11

    and here’s Jeff Kaye:
    White House Denies Existence of “Task Force” Ex-Guantanamo Psychologist Claims He Was Appointed to by Michelle Obama3/26/11

    I think they would be interested in this. I’ll try to get Greenwald in comments. Do you know a way to get in touch with EoH and/or Jeff?

  6. prostratedragon says:


    scribe, I agree with you on what the President’s order ought to have been. But I’ve never heard before this any indication —even a reference in passing to the desirability of a trial or the robustness of our judicial system— from any President, that taking Bin Laden alive was the primary directive.

    I guess we’ll know more when the SEAL’s book comes out, but would a rogue having to act in the midst of witnessing others have disregarded a prime order so blatantly? And things having gone as they did, surely the President would combine quiet reprimands with an insistence on public silence on the matter. That is, I’m also skeptical of Bowden’s report, or of what Obama someone told him.

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