WH Stenographer: Obama Took Big Risk in Deciding to Go after Bin Laden

There’s not all that much in this Bob Woodward piece on the raid to get Osama bin Laden that hasn’t already been reported generally elsewhere: just some details about the surveillance leading up to the raid (which I’ll discuss below) and a cute anecdote about how they measured bin Laden’s corpse to make sure it was taller than six feet.

When bin Laden’s corpse was laid out, one of the Navy SEALs was asked to stretch out next to it to compare heights. The SEAL was 6 feet tall. The body was several inches taller.

After the information was relayed to Obama, he turned to his advisers and said: “We donated a $60 million helicopter to this operation. Could we not afford to buy a tape measure?”

So it’s fair, I guess, to take the article’s selected emphasis as the narrative the White House wanted told. And that narrative focuses on what a risky decision it was to approve the raid.

The [phone call between Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti and a friend, from which Woodward includes direct quotes] and several other pieces of information, other officials said, gave President Obama the confidence to launch a politically risky mission to capture or kill bin Laden, a decision he took despite dissension among his key national security advisers and varying estimates of the likelihood that bin Laden was in the compound.

To communicate what a difficult decision it was, Woodward provides the competing estimates of the chances that they had really discovered OBL.

Several assessments concluded there was a 60 to 80 percent chance that bin Laden was in the compound. Michael Leiter, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, was much more conservative. During one White House meeting, he put the probability at about 40 percent.

When a participant suggested that was a low chance of success, Leiter said, “Yes, but what we’ve got is 38 percent better than we have ever had before.”

To back that up, Woodward provides details about the limits of the US intelligence. Of note, Woodward describes that the US was never able to positively ID OBL, in spite of the fact that a man–presumably OBL–paced around the compound for an hour or two every day. While Woodward doesn’t say whether the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency was able to get a view of his face (the implication is it was not), he does say that the absence of any information about the size of windows or walls in the compound made it difficult to even measure the height of the pacing man.

So we can take two lessons from the story President Obama’s top advisers leaked to Bob Woodward. First, Obama took a pretty big chance when he ordered SEALs to jump into a compound in the middle of a Pakistani garrison town. And second, if you want to evade our surveillance, keep your battery out of your cell phone until you’re at least 90 minutes away from your stationary location and build that location such that any outside space offers no features to allow the NGA to get a good read on you.

  1. WilliamOckham says:

    But officials said the delicate process of sifting this intelligence bonanza is made more challenging because of worries that using the wrong passwords could trigger a pre-planned erasure of digital information.

    This is how we know that somebody knows Woodward is a fool. They give him a colorful detail that is totally bogus because they know he will print it without checking it out. Here is a clue for the non-technical. In forensic work, you always work on copies of the data, not the original. And you do it in an environment where code (required for data erasure) can’t run.

    • PJEvans says:

      When I’m editing a spreadsheet or a database, I’m probably using a copy, so that I can go back to the previous version if I fuck up or if I decide that it isn’t useful to continue on that path.

    • Phoenix Woman says:

      Furthermore, the “instantaneous erasure” concept — a common trope of novelists — is impossible, as anyone who’s ever formatted a hard disk for real (and to mil-spec standards) knows. Even running degaussing magnets over the drive is no guarantee of fast and complete wiping. The only “instantaneous erasure” that would do the trick would involve throwing the drive into a blast furnace.

      I know of at least one friend, a guy who codes for a living, whose computer was attacked by a virus that tried to shut down the machine; it moved slowly enough that he was able to box it in and kill it before it could do any real damage.

  2. bilzim says:

    They didn’t know how high the walls were (to measure against the Pacer)? What in the hell was cia team in town doing?

  3. bobschacht says:

    Somebody recently let slip the detail that a key factor in the last few weeks leading up to the decision to raid OBL’s compound was a warrantless wiretap. There has been almost no press coverage of this. Can someone pinpoint the source and ID the details?

    Bob in AZ

  4. orionATL says:

    when asked to estimate “pacer’s” height,

    one of the nation’s intelligence services came up with the estimate 5’8″ to 6’8″. let’s see now, that covers maybe 45-50% of the world’s males.

    • emptywheel says:

      I actually buy that it was a tough decision to make, if only bc it was sure to piss of the Pakistanis more than they already were.

      But why you need Woodward to do a story on that, I don’t know. It seems narcissistic.

      • harpie says:

        I guess I was responding to, what seems to me, Woodward’s hagiographic style.

        I’m not so sure Obama was worried about pissing off Pakistanis, but maybe. Woodward says it was “politically risky”. What does he mean by that? I think O was, as usual, most concerned about the possible domestic political repurcussions of the decision.

  5. orionATL says:

    from the first wide-angle photo of the bin laden compound i’ve wondered why it was built with so many windows facing those hills.

    that would have been where i would have gone hunting for a confirmatory photo op.

    for me, the take-away from woodward’s story was what a prisoner bin laden had become – a prisoner of his own making, a prisoner of his beliefs.

    can any of us imagine what it would be like to live years -and years- without being able to go outside your compound?

    i think not.

    but the guys imprisoned for the last 6-10 years in guantanamo wouldn’t have any problem imagining.

  6. TheDancingKid says:

    A day or two before Bin Laden was killed, a NATO attack in Libya killed three of Muammar Gaddafi’s grandchilren, two toddlers and a 4-year-old.

    Virtually nothing has been written about this. Apparently it’s wrong to kill innocents only when they are U.S. innocents. Western values permit the deaths of all others to be ignored.

    And considering all the targeted assassinations Obama has been involved in(more than Bush, by the way), doesn’t decency demand that he remove the statue of Martin Luther King from atop his Oval Office desk?

  7. spanishinquisition says:

    “he does say that the absence of any information about the size of windows or walls in the compound made it difficult to even measure the height of the pacing man.”

    Hasn’t anyone in the Obama administration ever heard of the Pythagorean theorem?

    • myshadow says:

      That was my first thought. There are too many elements with known scale that would make extrapolation easy.
      Also the SEALS built a mock up of the compound to do practice runs in, so woodward is pulling this stuff out his ass before last night’s dinner leaves.

    • chaeronea says:

      This is one of many reasons I think we should all listen to bob. Or maybe cut public schools more! Math is not your friend… =P /s

  8. Sharkbabe says:

    Holy crap what a stupefyingly stunning universe of bullshit within endless bullshit topped with bullshit sauce in which we find ourselves.

    Yes please do splain it to me Bob Woodward.


  9. TarheelDem says:

    Geospatial immaging satellites are so far up that the possibility of seeing anything other than the top of OBL’s head is highly unlikely because of the angle required. The same problem exists in the oblique views in Google Maps. I doubt that the US geospatial intelligence organizations have solved that particular problem. It is why aerial photography is still useful. But aerial intelligence might have been detected. It is why human intelligence gathering is still useful. But that depends on the intelligence, experience, and loyalty of the human capturing the intelligence. A Western tourist with a camera on an 18-foot pole snapping away at a building in what is essentially a military cantonment would be pretty obvious and would quickly get arrested for espionage.

  10. texan99 says:

    “if you want to evade our surveillance, keep your battery out of your cell phone until you’re at least 90 minutes away” — That, and don’t murder 3,000 of our citizens in a publicity stunt on our own soil.

  11. spanishinquisition says:

    “My point had to do with identifying the face. Getting a view over the wall at the right time is the issue.”

    So then it was outright murder. Obama ordered someone killed without even knowing who it was.