The Shoulders Of Giants

If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.
— Sir Isaac Newton

In the pursuit and killing of Osama Bin Laden, President Obama showed a bit of presidential mettle. He gave orders — difficult orders — that led to eventually finding his hideout and assaulting it. And the man who was behind the greatest attacks on Americans is now dead.

But those decisions were based on decisions made by others. That intelligence was developed from intelligence developed by others. Obama made the right choices, gave the right orders, because he had the advantage of his predecessor and his administration.

The intelligence that led to Abbottabad (and how fitting is it that arch-Islamist Bin Laden was living in a city named after a Christian religious title?) owes its sources to Al Qaeda leaders captured by the Bush administration and interrogated — in what was most likely “enhanced methods” — in secret CIA detention centers abroad and in Guantanamo Bay. Those leaders — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al Libbi — gave up the nom du guerre of Bin Laden’s most trusted courier in 2007. It took four years of hard work — including electronic surveillance, drones, and agents on the ground throughout the Afghanistan/Pakistan region — to take that and then get his real name, his real identity, find him, and start following him around.

There are problems with following couriers like this. For one, they are highly trained to detect followers. For another, figuring out just where their base is can be tricky — they constantly move, and determining bases from stopover points takes a lot of time and a lot of work.

Eventually, our intelligence agencies discovered the compound where Bin Laden was hiding, and Obama passed on the guaranteed efficiency and safety and sanitary nature of bombs or missiles, and took the riskier — but more potentially rewarding — option of sending in actual live troops to identify and then capture or kill (preferably kill, it’s my understanding) Bin Laden. It was not the easier choice, but it was the right one, and Obama deserves full marks for making it.

But it must be remembered that it was the decisions and actions of the Bush administration that laid the groundwork for Obama’s victory. It was under Bush that so many of the top leaders of Al Qaeda were captured alive. It was at Bush’s order that they were held in places like the CIA detention centers and Guantanamo Bay. It was at Bush’s order that they were treated as illegal combatants, not accused criminals, and denied the rights of the accused — such as the right to remain silent and the right to demand counsel — and interrogated so effectively. It was at Bush’s order that interrogators were free to use whatever techniques they thought most effective, right up to (but not past) the legal definition of “torture” to extract intelligence.

Many of which were techniques and methods and procedures that Candidate Obama, many of his supporters, and many other Democrats decried and vowed to end.

Obama is a lawyer by training (but not so much by trade). In law, the intelligence gathered by these methods under the Bush administration would be called, in court, “the fruit of the poisoned tree” and discarded — if we considered the War on Terror a criminal matter. But in war, the concept is downright laughable. Intelligence is intelligence, and the only time it is discarded is if it is proven incorrect. And even when it’s wrong, it can still be useful.

Here, President Obama did not act like a lawyer, but a Commander In Chief. And he scored a victory in the War That Dare Not Speak Its Name, for which he must be lauded. And if he chooses to not note the key factors that gave him that opportunity for victory — methods and techniques that he repeatedly denounced and vowed to end — then so be it. It’s his prerogative.

But the rest of us need to remember and remind each other that it took the efforts of two presidents to finally bring justice to Osama Bin Laden.  It was a relay race, and while Obama was the one to cross the finish line, he didn’t win the race by himself.

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