The Confusion about When Hassan Ghul’s Torture Started

In this post, I noted that John McCain seemed to be talking about Hassan Ghul when he spoke of a detainee who gave up key information on Osama bin Laden’s courier without being tortured.

It’s the other detail I find even more interesting: that info on Abu Ahmed’s real role and his real relationship with OBL came using “standard, noncoercive means.” This break in intelligence has fairly consistently been attributed to Hassan Ghul in tick tocks of the hunt for OBL. And while McCain doesn’t confirm that Ghul provided the intelligence, if he did, then consider what it probably means.

I have noted that a detainee who appears to be Ghul was held for six months–from January to August 2004–before the CIA started getting approval for his CIA-led interrogation. If the detainee who provided the key information on Abu Ahmed was Ghul and did so through noncoercive means, it means that Ghul’s interrogation before CIA got him–presumably, Ghul’s interrogation by military interrogators not using torture–yielded the key piece of information that would eventually lead to OBL. And (such a scenario would further imply) CIA insisted on taking custody and torturing him, even after he yielded information that would lead to OBL. Which might explain the legal sensitivities around Ghul’s torture, because if they got key info without torture the claims they based torture on would all be demonstrably false.

Reuters has a piece on Ghul that may accord with my earlier speculation. (h/t MadDog) They describe DiFi confirming that key information came form Ghul, but before his torture started.

Earlier this week, [Dianne] Feinstein told Reuters about a CIA detainee who “did provide useful and accurate intelligence.” But she added: “This was acquired before the CIA used their enhanced interrogation techniques against the detainee.” Three U.S. officials said Feinstein was referring to Ghul.

Reuters relies heavily on declassified CIA documents to understand Ghul’s treatment–which I assume means they’ve confirmed that the May 2005 mention of Ghul was to Hassan Ghul, and not a second Janat Ghul that may have been held in CIA custody.

But if that’s true, they seem to be missing the key documents–the August 2004 documents cited in the May 2005 documents that ask for and get approval for four more torture techniques–dietary manipulation, nudity, water dousing and abdominal slap. From those documents, we can at least presume that Ghul was being subjected to his first round of CIA interrogations between August 2 and August 25, 2004, when CIA asked for the four additional techniques (though there are other possibilities I laid out here).

Just as interesting is the paper trail discussing the CIA getting custody of a detainee–and the Principals Committee discussing the treatment of a detainee named “Ghul”–on July 2 (Jay Bybee has said that detainee was Janat Gul, but unless there’s a CIA detainee named Janat distinct from the Janat who was in Gitmo, that seems unlikely). At the Principals Committee meeting, they appear to have approved certain treatment of this Ghul, notably after the torture skeptics left the meeting.

In other words, if FOIAed documents do pertain to Hassan Ghul (and Reuters appears to suggest they do), then Ghul was likely not in CIA custody until July 2004. That is, it appears Ghul was not turned over to exclusive CIA custody until six months after he was captured. His initial torture approval came on August 2, and his second torture approval came on August 26.

So when DiFi says the key information from Ghul “was acquired before the CIA used their enhanced interrogation techniques against the detainee,” that probably also means that information was acquired before Ghul was transferred to CIA custody. That doesn’t mean CIA didn’t have access to him earlier than that, or that DOD didn’t use some kind of torture on him before then (again, see this post for some of the possibilities).

All of which has two really big possible implications.

First, that the Principals Committee–without input from key DOJ officials–approved the torture of Hassan Ghul after he had already given up vital information leading to Osama bin Laden’s location. And given that the torture approvals were always premised on the claim that a detainee wouldn’t give up information without torture, this would mean a key claim made to justify torturing Ghul appears to have been false. This would tie an illegal torture authorization directly to people like Dick Cheney, having effectively bypassed the normal DOJ approval process.

Also, this could mean that obfuscation happening here serves to hide the possibility that what we now call a CIA detainee gave up his most important information while still in DOD custody.

JSOC Decides It’s Ready to Return to Shadows … Soon

Vice Admiral William McRaven, the Commander of the Joint Special Operations Command–which has been celebrated for the last two weeks for its role in getting Osama bin Laden–told Marc Ambinder (who has long been one of the most informative writers on JSOC and wrote a detailed profile of them last week)–that he’d like JSOC to return to the shadows … soon.

Vice Adm. William McRaven, JSOC’s commanding general, expected a degree of exposure before the raid but hopes that his command’s 15 minutes of fame are over soon, two military officials said.

Though some other JSOC officers are not so sure they want to return to complete obscurity.

Some senior JSOC officers are prepared to deal with a future that includes more openness about their operations.

But it does seem rather remarkable that, after almost two weeks of barely anonymized national security sources leaking like justifiably proud sieves, someone has decided there has been enough.

Ambinder describes several details that national security types now worry may have revealed too much. Obama revealing–indirectly–that the special features on the Blackhawk we lost cost $10 million. The revelation that OBL relied on thumb drives to give couriers to transport his emails to a remote location to be sent. Or this list of CIA-related issues: “the existence of a CIA safe house in Abbottabad, the use of a sophisticated drone to surveil the compound, and the extent to which the CIA was able to monitor what was happening inside.”

But I wonder whether this newfound sensitivity–and the blame placed by “some” on the “dozens of [members of Congress] who have been given extensive briefings on the intelligence and the raid,” rather than the White House personnel who have obviously been behind most of the leaking, doesn’t have to do with stories like this coming out, with CBS’s animated simulation of the raid complete with details taken from the operatives’ head cameras:

  • The only firefight took place in the guesthouse, where one of bin Laden’s couriers open-fired
  • No one in the main building got off a shot or was even armed (although there were weapons nearby)
  • When the second SEAL entered bin Laden’s bedroom, bin Laden’s wife rushed at him, or perhaps was pushed forward by bin Laden

In other words, we’re beginning to learn solid details that undercut the narrative the government has been trying to tell for the last two weeks.

I also wonder whether the leak of several month old intelligence showing OBL doesn’t trust or care for Anwar al-Awlaki, who we keep trying to kill because of a purported relationship between the two, has renewed national security types’ concern about leaking.

Most of the leaking so far has fit under the Bob Woodward rule that says no secret is too sensitive if it makes the high level person who authorized the leak look good. Or if it makes the country’s nemesis look like a dirty old man (though doesn’t our country already know that religious conservatives tend to be dirty old men?)

But as is typical, as soon as the flood of leaks starts to solidly challenge the preferred narrative, all of sudden leaks get to be a problem again.

Which says the leaks are probably just starting to get interesting.

Yemen’s Head of Al Qaeda Scrambles to Make Anwar al-Awlaki Al Qaeda’s #3

It’s now a perennial joke. Every time we kill the next Number Three in al Qaeda, we joke about how no one wants to take that guy’s place.

Which was my first impression when I read this bit from ProPublica’s review of what the intelligence from Osama bin Laden’s compound has thus far revealed.

Bin Laden also managed to retain authority over al Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen, North Africa and Iraq, the U.S. official said.

“It was not the same degree of detailed involvement, but he played a huge role in leadership,” the U.S. official said.


Intelligence gathered months before the raid revealed a tell-tale exchange with the al Qaeda leader in Yemen. The leader, a Yemeni, wrote to bin Laden with a surprising proposal: He suggested that he step down as chief of the affiliate in favor of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American ideologue. Awlaki’s influence has been revealed in a string of recent plots against the U.S., including the attempted Christmas bombing on a Detroit-bound flight in 2009.

The leader explained that naming Awlaki as his replacement would be a propaganda coup. It would take advantage of the cleric’s popularity among Westerners, especially Americans, and have a strong impact on recruitment, according to the counterterror official.

The leader in Pakistan rejected the proposal, however, according to the official. “Bin laden’s message was essentially, I know you. I trust you. Let’s keep things the way they are.” [my emphasis]

Note, though, that this intelligence didn’t come from the raid, though it appears to have been leaked by the same “US official” (who is not a counterterrorism official) leaking the findings of the raid.

The report is interesting for a number of reasons.

First, because, aside from the raid, where were we getting intelligence on OBL’s reported letter-based exchanges? Where were we getting both sides of written exchanges between Yemen and OBL “months before the raid”?

Then there’s this bit, from a “senior intelligence official” who rolled out the OBL home movies last week. After being asked, for a second time, whether the cache at OBL’s compound revealed anything about al-Awlaki, he made what I assume to be a very odd misstatement–or a remarkable truth.

Q: And is Awlaki a possible successor as part of that?

SR. INTEL OFFICIAL: I think we addressed Awlaki before, but–

(Cross talk.)

Q: — to bin Laden? Is that shown in the records?

SR. INTEL OFFICIAL: I can’t say specifically at this point whether that’s in the records, per se, or in the documents, but, you know, it would be highly unsurprising if bin Laden didn’t know about Anwar al-Awlaki.

Let’s unpack the grammar of this, the official transcript: It would be highly unsurprising (meaning, it would not be surprising, meaning it would be likely) if bin Laden didn’t (that’s “did not”) know about Anwar al-Awlaki. It would be likely that bin Laden did not know about al-Awlaki.

That can’t be right. That can’t be what the SIO meant to say. Obviously, OBL at least knew about al-Awlaki. I mean, we saw him watching the tellie, right? Al-Awlaki’s all over the tellie.

But of course, the ProPublica exchange, from intelligence collected months before the raid and offered in support of the assertion that “Bin Laden also managed to retain authority over al Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen but without “the same degree of detailed involvement” shows that OBL doesn’t care all that much–or doesn’t trust–Anwar al-Awlaki. Indeed, elsewhere the ProPublica report describes OBL’s criticism of Inspire magazine, produced by an American in Yemen. That is, OBL made what ProPublica rightly suggests are rather incredible complaints about a magazine that filled the same niche al-Awlaki does: popularized outreach to English speakers.

It seems like OBL doesn’t care that much for the Americans waging jihad, in English, in Yemen.

All of which brings us to the reason so many journalists are asking these questions about al-Awlaki.

You know, the drone strike targeting an American citizen? The drone strike launched just days after OBL’s death, which led a lot of people to believe it was a direct response to something we found in OBL’s compound? The drone strike on a guy that this US official at least suggests OBL doesn’t trust all that much?

That drone strike?

But then there’s the final implication of all this. People within al Qaeda are feeding into the notoriety we’re according al-Awlaki for trying to bomb him so much. The insiders appear to not trust him. But they recognize that he’s a great figure for propaganda.

At least partly because we made him one.

There’s something very hinky with the intelligence on al-Awlaki we found–or didn’t find–in OBL’s compound. Charitably, this “US official” who spoke to ProPublica might just be feinting, discussing outdated information to lead al-Awlaki to let his guard down (though if that’s true, shouldn’t we assume everything else he said is propaganda, too?). More likely, he’s answering the umpteenth question about any ties between intelligence we found at OBL’s compound and our attempt to assassinate al-Awlaki last week, with no due process.

And the best explanation he can offer is months old intelligence, showing that OBL doesn’t trust al-Awlaki.

Marc Thiessen, You Are My Piñata

Normally, Marc Thiessen’s torture apologies aren’t worth my time. But seeing as how I didn’t whack any piñatas on Cinco de Mayo, why not Thiessen’s latest, in which he claims those who deny CIA interrogations played a part in nabbing bin Laden are the latest birthers?

Note the formulation, though: Thiessen’s not talking about torture. He’s talking about CIA interrogations generally, even while he links to a Sully post that in turn links to me (thanks Sully!). Sully was explicitly talking about torture, not interrogations generally, and I was talking specifically about waterboarding, and from that Thiessen concludes we deny CIA interrogations had any role in nabbing OBL.

What’s the matter, Marc? Is your shifting of the debate indication you know you’ve lost the torture debate?

And boy does he lose that debate. Thiessen spends much of his column talking about people whose interrogations led to other plots, some of them totally debunked even within the documents Thiessen quotes. About the only piece he really connects to OBL is this interpretation of the intelligence Abu Faraj al-Libi contributed.

Take, for example, the file on Abu Faraj al-Libi — one of several CIA detainees who helped lead the agency to bin Laden’s courier. The document describes Abu Faraj as the “communications gateway” to bin Laden who once in custody “reported on al-Qai’das methods for choosing and employing couriers, as well as preferred communications means.” Based on intelligence obtained from Abu Faraj and other CIA detainees, it states that “in July 2003, [Abu Faraj] received a letter from UBL’s designated courier” (to whom he referred by a false name, Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan) in which “UBL stated [Abu Faraj] would be the official messenger between UBL and others in Pakistan.” The file also notes a vital piece of intelligence: To better carry out his new duties “in mid-2003, [Abu Faraj] moved his family to Abbottabad” — the city where bin Laden eventually met his end — “and worked between Abbottabad and Peshawar.” And the file reveals that “in mid-April 2005, [Abu Faraj] began arranging for a store front to be used as a meeting place and drop point for messages he wanted to exchange” with bin Laden’s courier and was captured while waiting to meet him.

So to summarize Thiessen’s spin of how al-Libi helped nab OBL:

  • Al-Libi told the CIA that at a time when he was a key messenger for OBL, he had been in Abottabad
  • Al-Libi told the CIA how important couriers were
  • Al-Libi managed to hide the name of the all-important courier through whom we eventually found OBL, even under torture

Okay, Marc, so what did the CIA do with that intelligence? As Jose Rodriguez (who was head of Clandestine Services at the time) helpfully explained, they concluded from al-Libi’s interrogation that OBL was just a figurehead.

Al-Libbi told interrogators that the courier would carry messages from bin Laden to the outside world only every two months or so. “I realized that bin Laden was not really running his organization. You can’t run an organization and have a courier who makes the rounds every two months,” Rodriguez says. “So I became convinced then that this was a person who was just a figurehead and was not calling the shots, the tactical shots, of the organization. So that was significant.”

And later that same year, the CIA shut down its dedicated hunt for OBL.

The Central Intelligence Agency has closed a unit that for a decade had the mission of hunting Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, intelligence officials confirmed Monday.

The unit, known as Alec Station, was disbanded late last year and its analysts reassigned within the C.I.A. Counterterrorist Center, the officials said.

The decision is a milestone for the agency, which formed the unit before Osama bin Laden became a household name and bolstered its ranks after the Sept. 11 attacks, when President Bush pledged to bring Mr. bin Laden to justice “dead or alive.”

The realignment reflects a view that Al Qaeda is no longer as hierarchical as it once was, intelligence officials said, and a growing concern about Qaeda-inspired groups that have begun carrying out attacks independent of Mr. bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

It wasn’t until the intelligence community got the courier’s real identity, and with it traced him back to Abbottabad–neither of which (according to reports thus far) came from al-Libi–that the intelligence community managed to track the courier in Abbottabad and in turn to OBL.

Now, as even the little bit I wrote that was quoted in Sully’s post made clear (so Thiessen presumably read it), the point I’m making is not that CIA interrogations didn’t yield information and–just as importantly–unbelievable denials–that ultimately helped lead to OBL. Rather, that either torture didn’t do as promised (that is, ensure we got all the important information that might lead to OBL’s location quickly) or the torturers were unable to understand the intelligence they were getting and so the intelligence was not used for years after we got it. Here’s what Sully quoted from me.

We can conclude that either KSM shielded the courier’s identity entirely until close to 2007, or he told his interrogators that there was a courier who might be protecting bin Laden early in his detention but they were never able to force him to give the courier’s true name or his location, at least not until three or four years after the waterboarding of KSM ended. That’s either a sign of the rank incompetence of KSM’s interrogators (that is, that they missed the significance of a courier protecting OBL), or a sign he was able to withstand whatever treatment they used with him.

And Thiessen’s own argument backs that up! According to his own argument, al-Libi gave us two key pieces of information, lied about another, and … the CIA responded by deprioritizing their hunt.

This, apparently, is Thiessen’s idea of a success!

And so, while those of us who note how torture stalled the hunt for OBL and didn’t deliver as promised note that fact, Thiessen sits at the WaPo proclaiming misunderstood leads and detainee lies a sign of success.

Alas, thwacking Thiessen’s nonsense won’t do a damn bit of good. Like torture, I guess, piñata thwacking never seems to work with dead-enders like Thiessen.

(Piñata image by peasap, used under Creative Commons license)

Condi Claims US Was at War When She Ignored August 6, 2001 PDB

Condi Rice is, of all Bush’s top aides, the best at managing her reputation. Which is why her interview with Fareed Zakaria yesterday is so interesting.

Sure, there are some examples of Condi’s signature lies, such as when she claims the dedicated group to hunt Osama bin Laden–which was shut down between 2005 and 2009, after which Obama reinstituted it–proves the Bush Administration’s focus on capturing OBL.

ZAKARIA: President Obama did say that he felt that the capture or killing of Bin Laden was not a top priority when he took office and he moved it to a top priority. What’s your reaction?

RICE: Oh, it was a top priority. We wanted to get Osama Bin Laden every single day. And there was a unit at the – the agency that worked on nothing else.

More interesting, though, is Condi’s confusion about how many Presidents have hunted OBL. At the beginning of her interview, she suggests that the hunt for OBL has spanned just two presidencies.

ZAKARIA: When you first heard the news about Bin Laden’s assassination, what – what did you think?

RICE: Well, I was incredibly gratified and, frankly, relieved. It been a long hunt for him. I was proud that over two presidencies we were persistent enough and patient enough to put together the picture that ultimately led to him. You don’t just stumble upon Osama Bin Laden. It takes a lot of work to get there.

But then there’s this remarkable exchange.

ZAKARIA: And you’re hearing some Republicans, people like Rush Limbaugh, say Obama really doesn’t deserve much credit for this. You know, the – the operation was a routine operation.

You’ve been in the White House. Do you think that the president at key moments had to make difficult calls whether to use a drone, whether to use a special operations?

RICE: I’ve been in the White House, and I’ve seen a president make difficult decisions. And there were difficult decisions in this. What – what President Obama has done, indeed, it was a – it was a brave decision.

Now, it is absolutely the case that the United States of America has been fighting this war for at least 10 years, and really a bit longer. And so this is a victory across presidencies. It’s a – it’s a victory for having learned more how to fight the counterterrorism fight. [my emphasis]

Now, I presume the reference to a war that pre-dates 9/11 and even May 2011 is Condi’s claim that when she was demoting Richard Clarke in the early days of 2001 and when Bush was saying “I’m tired of swatting at flies … I’m tired of playing defense. I want to play offense. I want to take the fight to the terrorists” in March 2001, that was part of an already-engaged war with al Qaeda. Her reference to the hunt for OBL across two, not three, presidencies would seem to discount Clinton’s efforts to capture or kill him.

But that would presumably also mean Condi and Bush were at war when they dismissed the urgency of the August 6, 2001 PDB, titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in US” and discussing preparations for plane hijackings.

Or maybe the reference to a longer war refers to the efforts Clinton made to neutralize OBL after OBL declared war on the US in 1996. If so, it’d sure be nice if Condi said that explicitly, given how many times the Bush Administration claimed Clinton did nothing to hunt down OBL.

Which raises the next question. I agree we’ve spent much of the last 10 years learning how to fight terrorism. Aside from obvious stupid, easily avoidable mistakes like the Iraq War and torture, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that we had to learn to do this right (though we often ignored the lessons that the UK and Israel, as well as other European countries, learned in their earlier counterterrorist fights).

But is Condi admitting that Obama has learned things that the Bush Administration didn’t know?

Alberto Gonzales Explains Why Torture Didn’t Work Even While Defending It

As I noted in an update to my Mushroom Cloud Brigade post, even Univision joined in the torture apologist fun, inviting Alberto Gonzales on to talk about the killing of Osama bin Laden. And Gonzales did defend torture.

Jorge Ramos: Mr. Gonzales The New York Times reported that the information that led to the capture of Osama Bin Laden was probably obtained through torture, through waterboarding, do you know if that was the case?

Alberto Gonzales: Well, first of all, I wouldn’t describe waterboarding as torture, as you just described it. At least with respect to the application of this technique back during the Bush administration because the Department of Justice issued an opinion, a painstaking analysis of the anti-torture statute and provided guidance to the CIA that if certain precautions, certain safety measures were taken in the application of this technique that it would be lawful under the anti-torture statute and so, that’s the reason why this technique was applied only three times during the Bush administration, because the President understood the need to gather information which we now believe, many are reporting, led to actual intelligence which led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

Yet Gonzales didn’t defend torture very effectively. Even this statement is full of equivocations: the seeming reliance on “certain safety measures” that we know weren’t used, the illogic that because it was legal it was only used three times, and his restatement of “we now believe” to “many are reporting” that torture led to OBL.

But that’s nothing compared to the way Gonzales completely undercuts the logic behind using torture here (in the question that preceded his answer on torture).

JR: Mr. Gonzales how do you explain that President Bush couldn’t get Osama bin Laden for eight years and Barack Obama did it in two years?

AG: Often time these kinds of successes are a function of timing, good luck, getting information from various sources, putting that information together which may then lead to actual intelligence. My understanding is this depended a lot on human intelligence and every intelligence expert I know tells me that it takes a great deal of time to develop human intelligence and so the fact that it took so long, for me I expected it to happen, I was not surprised that it happened, it was just a matter of time and it was as a result of a lot of hard work and dedication and you know the fact that it happened during the Obama administration it’s a credit to the administration, but I know this, working in the White House as the Attorney General of the United States, we did everything we could to try to find him ourselves. [my emphasis]

Implicit in the Techniques memo that authorized the Abu Zubaydah torture (which presumably served as the basis for the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed torture) is a ticking time bomb scenario. It refers to an increased level of chatter, suggesting that that means there must be an imminent attack.

Moreover, your intelligence indicates that there is currently a level of “chatter” equal to that which preceded the September 11 attacks. In light of the information you believe Zubaydah has and the high level of threat you believe now exists, you wish to move the interrogations into what you have described. as an “increased pressure phase.”

And one of Jay Bybee’s defenses of the memos signed by him specifically refers to the ticking time bomb scenario (relying on faulty intelligence about Jose Padilla that was collected using torture).

In other words, the “painstaking analysis” Gonzales claims DOJ did to authorize torture relies on the argument that torture must be used because only torture will reveal information quickly enough. But here we are, nine years after that analysis was done, and the recipient of one of the memos summarizing that analysis now concedes that “every intelligence expert” he knows confirms that “it takes a great deal of time to develop human intelligence.”

The decade long search for Osama bin Laden proves that torture did not deliver on that promise–it did not yield the most crucial intelligence immediately. And Alberto Gonzales, in his effort to defend the use of torture, concedes that it did not do so. Read more

Osama bin Laden Left the Tribal Lands in 2003

All those drones we’ve been dropping on the tribal lands of Pakistan?

Well, they must have come close to hitting OBL once before–because a drone in Waziristan apparently killed one of OBL’s daughters.

Amongst those left behind by the evacuating Navy Seals were Osama’s three wives, two of them highly educated Saudis, his elder son and four children of a daughter who was killed in a drone strike in Waziristan, the officials said.

They also included Osama’s Abbottabad-born five-year-old son and 22-year-old daughter, the officials added.

But according to this story–relying on the account of the youngest of the three wives reported to have been arrested from the compound in Abbottabad, Amal–OBL moved out of the tribal lands some time in 2003.

Amal, according to officials familiar with [Pakistani] investigations, said that before moving to his sprawling compound in Bilal Town, Abbottabad, towards the end of 2005, Osama bin Laden had lived with his family in Chak Shah Mohammad Khan, a village in the nearby district of Haripur, for nearly two and a half years.

Chak Shah Mohammad, situated on the highway to Abbottabad, is two kilometres to the southeast of Haripur town.

In retrospect that meant, one of the officials observed, Osama had left the country’s tribal region sometime in 2003 to live in a settled area.

Granted, given these Reuters pictures, he appears to have lived in a cave-like dwelling.  But he appears to have left the tribal lands back in 2003, around the time Khalid Sheikh Mohammed got captured and Abu Faraj al-Libi moved to Abbottabad for a year.

Grey-Bearded Osama Watching Videos of His Youth

The Pentagon has released video found at Osama bin Laden’s home. It shows a grey bearded OBL watching images of a black-bearded OBL engaging in jihad.

The video has to be less than two years old: note the juxtaposition of images of Obama and Osama at :29.

And if this is more recent–that is, if this is an image of OBL watching videos at his compound in Abbottabad–then it should put the claim that OBL lived in a “mansion” to rest.

Can anyone explain what the repeated image of some kind of signal is (it first shows up at :05)?

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.

Obama Apparently Was Hoping for a Trifecta

Qaddafi last Saturday, Osama bin Laden Sunday, and Anwar al-Awlaki on Thursday.

A U.S. drone strike in Yemen Thursday was aimed at killing Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical cleric who is suspected of orchestrating terrorist attacks on the U.S, but the missile missed its target, according to Yemeni and U.S. officials.


The attempt to kill Mr. Awlaki was the first known U.S. military strike inside Yemen since May 2010, when U.S. missiles mistakenly killed one of Yemen President Abdullah Ali Saleh’s envoys and an unknown number of other people.

Lucky for Obama, batting .333 is still a great average.

Oh–and too bad about all that collateral damage.

Two lessons for Obama: 1) Navy SEALs are far more effective with far fewer mistakes than drones, 2) that adage about celebrities dying in three? It doesn’t actually raise your odds in military strikes.