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Sense and nonsense about Obama and Osama

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
August 30, 2012 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
The mission that killed Osama bin Laden is the subject of two new books.
The mission that killed Osama bin Laden is the subject of two new books.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two new books are focusing attention on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden
  • Bergen: Book by a member of mission suggests there was no real effort to capture bin Laden
  • He says another book by Richard Miniter claims Obama was indecisive, delayed raid
  • Bergen: The book's publisher is standing by Miniter's book despite evidence

Editor's note: Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst, is a director at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that seeks innovative solutions across the ideological spectrum, and the author of the new book "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- On Wednesday some media outlets, including CNN, obtained copies of the heavily embargoed book "No Easy Day" by Mark Owen, the pseudonym of one of the Navy SEALs who was part of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

The much-anticipated book, which is already No. 1 on Amazon, changes the way that the mission has been reported in one significant way. Owen says that one of his SEAL teammates shot bin Laden as soon as he poked his head out the door of his bedroom, not, as was previously reported, after the SEALs had entered the bedroom. This version of events indicates -- if there was ever any real doubt about this issue -- that there was little real effort made to capture bin Laden.

Owen, who has been identified as former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette, explains that in early 2011 he was summoned to what was described as a training exercise in North Carolina with a group of some of the most experienced operators from SEAL Team Six. Owen thought, "It looked like some kind of dream team they were putting together." He quickly learned that the dream team was assembled for one purpose: a mission to take out "UBL," government shorthand for Usama bin Laden. And the mission, were it to get the green light from Washington, was going to happen in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

After the typical "hurry up and wait" of most military missions, finally the SEAL team and Owen are in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and are loading on to the choppers that will take them on the 90-minute flight east to Abbottabad. And that is where things immediately start going wrong. As the chopper hovers above one of the courtyards of the Abbottabad compound, it starts dropping very quickly. Owen remembers, "When helicopters stop working they fall out of the sky like a rock."

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Owen grabs for something to hang on to inside the chopper as it starts going down and braces for what promises to be a dangerous impact. But the skilled Night Stalker pilot flying the careening chopper brings the bird into a controlled crash, and within seconds, Owen and his teammates roll out of the downed helicopter pretty much unscathed.

The second chopper on the mission abandons the initial plan to hover over the roof of bin Laden's bedroom and drop SEALs there. Instead it lands on some open ground outside the compound walls, not wanting to run the risk of both choppers crashing, which would likely abort the mission. Owen writes that "it was the right call."

Owen and his team quickly move to the a small annex on the compound, where bin Laden's trusted courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, lived with his family. After a brief exchange of gunfire, they shoot the courier dead.

Then they move to the main house, where bin Laden is believed to be living. They blow through a metal door inside the house that prevents access to the second and third floor and quickly encounter Khalid, one of bin Laden's older sons, and shoot him dead. He never gets to use his AK-47.

Fifteen minutes into that operation a SEAL shoots bin Laden when he spots him poking his head out of his third-floor bedroom. Owen and a teammate finish bin Laden off as his body twitches in its death throes.

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Owen and other SEALs take photos and DNA samples from bin Laden's body. "Will," an Arabic-speaking SEAL, interrogates the women and children at the compound, and one of them confirms that the dead man is indeed bin Laden. And on the second floor where bin Laden kept much of his well-organized office, the SEALs find a trove of CDs, DVDs and memory cards that they sweep up for later intelligence exploitation.

Meanwhile, the helicopter crash has made the whole mission run longer than anticipated. The Pakistani military could now show up at any minute, and the working choppers are running low on fuel.

After around 40 minutes on the ground in Abbottabad, the SEALs get into the helicopters for the ride back to Afghanistan.

Owen's eyewitness account of the bin Laden raid fits with much that is already on the public record, including a book that I have written about the hunt for bin Laden since 9/11, while another recently published book that also focuses on the operation does not.

Richard Miniter, the author of a number of books with a conservative slant about U.S. national security, has just released a new one about President Barack Obama whose title, "Leading From Behind: The Reluctant President and the Advisors who Decide for Him," leaves you in little doubt about the overall theme of the book.

"Leading From Behind" examines key moments in Obama's presidency, such as the passage of his health care plan and the budget negotiations with House Republicans as well as the raid that killed bin Laden.

It is Miniter's account of the bin Laden operation that has garnered considerable media attention because of its sensational claims that:

• Top Obama aide Valerie Jarrett has a "Rasputin-like" hold over the president and persuaded him on three occasions in January, February and March 2011 not to launch the raid into Pakistan to take out bin Laden.

• It took the president almost two years of dithering to order the bin Laden operation, which was "reduced in scope, or otherwise delayed, often by the president himself."

• Obama "stunned his staff with a string of dangerous delays and paralyzing indecision that threatened the mission's timing and nearly compromised its success."

• As a result of these delays, Gen. David Petraeus, then-commanding general in Afghanistan, during 2011 "debated acting on his own and ordering an airstrike on the bin Laden stronghold" in Pakistan.

• Obama left "critical decisions" about the bin Laden raid to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fearing "taking responsibility for a risky raid that might go tragically wrong." It was Clinton, in Miniter's account, who pushed Obama into making the decision to authorize the raid.

These charges come at the same time that a group of retired military and intelligence officers have released a 22-minute documentary "Dishonorable Disclosures" asserting that Obama has taken too much credit for the bin Laden operation. That documentary has already been viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube.

In his new book Minter also asserts that:

• A colonel in Pakistan's military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, provided "vital help" in finding bin Laden after he walked into the CIA station in Islamabad in August 2010.

• That, contrary to the assertions of multiple Obama administration officials, there are indications the administration gave Pakistan's top military officer a heads-up in December 2010 about the impending bin Laden raid and sought an approval of the operation from the Pakistanis, gaining "their tacit consent for the mission."

In the course of reporting a book about the hunt for bin Laden, I spoke to scores of White House, Pentagon and intelligence officials familiar with the hunt for al Qaeda's leader, more than a dozen of whom had firsthand knowledge of Obama's decision-making process about the operation to take out the terrorist leader. Many of those officials spoke to me on the record. I also traveled to Pakistan three times after bin Laden was killed to do my own investigation of the hunt for al Qaeda's leader and spoke to a number of Pakistani military and intelligence officials who investigated the bin Laden raid and its aftermath.

Based on that reporting and also what is available on the public record, Miniter's account of the intelligence that led to bin Laden and the decision-making surrounding the operation that killed him is a pile of poppycock served up with heaps of hogwash.

White House denials

Let's start with the fact that Jarrett, along with the vast majority of White House staffers, only found out about the bin Laden raid after it had happened on May 1, 2011, according to an e-mail sent to CNN by Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser. Administration officials say that the only staffers at the White House who knew anything about the raid in advance were those with a "need to know" on the national security staff, of which Jarrett is not a part.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest terms Miniter's claims about the bin Laden operation "an utter fabrication." And in an e-mail to CNN, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor wrote that Miniter's claim that "Secretary Clinton had to talk the President into the raid is completely made up and wrong. The decision to take out Osama bin Laden was made by the President, as many of those involved have said on the record.

"For example, (former Defense) Secretary (Robert) Gates said 'this is one of the most courageous calls -- decisions -- that I think I've ever seen a president make.' (The raid commander) Admiral (William) McRaven said that 'At the end of the day, make no mistake about it, it was the president of the United States that shouldered the burden for this operation, that made the hard decisions, that was instrumental in the planning process, because I pitched every plan to him.' "

Vietor added, "I look forward to when Miniter claims that Bo the dog actually made the decision to kill bin Laden." Bo is the Obama family's dog.

Also Jarrett could not have dissuaded Obama from launching an operation to take out bin Laden in January 2011, as Miniter writes, because the planning and rehearsals for such an operation had not begun then. It wasn't until March 14, 2011, that Obama's war Cabinet met to present him the various military options that ranged from a bombing run to a drone strike to a SEAL raid. And the SEALs only began rehearsing the raid in early April 2011. There was no mission to call off until then.

Obama's orders

Rather than being indecisive about the raid, Obama ordered the operation against the advice of his defense secretary, who had started working for Nixon's National Security Council when Obama was only 13, and against the advice of Vice President Joe Biden, who was elected to the Senate when Obama was 11. Also advocating a course of action other than the raid was Gen. James "Hoss" Cartwright, Obama's then-No. 2 military adviser.

And rather than scaling back the scope of the bin Laden raid, in fact, it was Obama who ordered more choppers to go on the operation, according to Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Staff, who told me, "Obama is the one that put in the Chinook-47s. He is the one that said, 'There is not enough backup.' "

Instead of dithering, Obama was deeply involved in a decision that, after all, had the potential to destroy his presidency if the operation had turned into a fiasco similar to the Iran hostage rescue debacle of 1980. The possibility of a similar debacle was a serious concern of Gates. And Obama was solely responsible for the decision to give the "go" for the operation despite the fact that there was no proof that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, only a circumstantial case that he was.

According to Paula Broadwell's recent, authoritative biography of Petraeus, "All In," Petraeus found out about the Abbottabad raid only three days before it happened and had no role in its planning or execution. The idea that Petraeus considered ordering some kind of unilateral air raid on the bin Laden compound, which sits in the center of a city in the middle of Pakistan, is simply preposterous.

There is no evidence that an ISI colonel visited the CIA station in Islamabad to tip off the CIA about bin Laden. And by all accounts, there was no tacit approval from the Pakistani military brass for the bin Laden raid, nor were they given a heads-up about the operation. An ISI official e-mailed me to say that Miniter's claims "are as absurd as they can get."

In fact, the Pakistanis were completely taken by surprise by the raid and angered that they were not given any notice of the operation whatsoever, according to Cameron Munter, then the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.

Miniter can't even seem to get basic facts right about the bin Laden operation. Obama did not take almost two years of dithering to make the decision to go after bin Laden. The first intelligence that bin Laden might be living in Abbottabad only surfaced in August 2010, around nine months before Obama ordered the SEAL raid that killed him.

Miniter e-mailed CNN to say his account of all these events is accurate, explaining, "I wanted to bring forward details from the military and intelligence communities that have not been part of the official White House narrative. I believe that reporters have relied too much on White House officials and Pakistani government officials and marginalized those who were unavailable for or unwilling to comment in the hours and days after the operation, but who performed vital technical tasks that ensured its success."

Part of a pattern

The apparent falsehoods in Miniter's account of the bin Laden operation are part of a pattern with Miniter, who has written other books that have made other misleading statements about bin Laden. In his 2005 book, "Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror," Miniter writes vividly of his reporting. "Whenever possible, I went to the scene. I retraced bin Laden's last steps from a meeting hall in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and then climbed into the cave complexes, bin Laden's last known bolthole up in the White Mountains near Tora Bora."

Except that Miniter never visited Tora Bora. Miniter explained in an e-mail to CNN, "The trip to Afghanistan, with a senior Afghan intelligence official and network camera crew, was cancelled due to circumstances entirely beyond my control. Thus the chapter that that sentence referred to was not presented for publication. The introduction, from which the sentence you cite was drawn, was submitted to the publisher more than one month earlier on the basis of a scheduled trip with a senior Afghan official. The introduction should have been changed to reflect the cancelled trip and despite my urging, it was not changed. The publisher cited publishing schedules as an overwhelming concern and didn't want incur the costs involved in last-minute edits."

In 2003 Miniter published "Losing Bin Laden: How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror," the central point of which is that when bin Laden was living in Sudan in the mid-1990s the Sudanese offered to hand him over to the Clinton administration. The bipartisan 9/11 Commission found no evidence for this assertion.

Will St. Martin's Press, Miniter's publisher, look into the false claims and mistakes in Miniter's new book? Don't hold your breath because St. Martin's Press is also the publisher of the 2011 book "SEAL Target Geronimo: The Inside Story of the Mission to Kill Osama bin Laden," which is littered with apparent falsehoods and yet continues to be marketed as a work of nonfiction.

The author of "SEAL Target Geronimo," Chuck Pfarrer -- himself a former Navy SEAL who retired more than two decades ago and has since worked as a Hollywood screenwriter -- says he spoke to SEALs who were part of the team that killed bin Laden and that the official version of what happened the night of the raid in Abbottabad is largely wrong.

A book's credibility

In Pfarrer's version of events, the SEAL operation against bin Laden went far more smoothly than what really happened that night in Abbottabad. Pfarrer writes that the SEALs killed bin Laden within a couple of minutes of their arrival at his compound after fast roping on to the roof of his bedroom. By contrast, the version of events I heard from dozens of officials involved in the operation was that one of the stealth Black Hawk helicopters on the raid crashed immediately after it had arrived at bin Laden's compound and al Qaeda's leader was killed some 15 minutes later.

Pfarrer also recites supposedly verbatim conversations about the planning for the bin Laden operation between the overall raid commander, McRaven, and the commanding officer of SEAL Team Six and a CIA officer in a "secure" conference room three stories underground at Joint Special Operations Command headquarters at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

A military source told CNN's Barbara Starr there is no such underground facility. And Special Operations Command, which rarely, if ever, comments about its operations, took the unprecedented step of issuing an on-the-record denial of Pfarrer's account, saying it was "a fabrication" and that Pfarrer never spoke to the SEALs who were on the bin Laden operation.

Pfarrer's credibility is not helped by the fact that he devotes a chapter in "SEAL Team Geronimo" to the notion that weapons of mass destruction, including nerve agents, were found in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and ended up in the hands of ... al Qaeda. Pfarrer also claims that Ayman al-Zawahiri, then the No. 2 in al Qaeda, intentionally set up bin Laden to be killed by the Americans. There is, of course, no evidence for either of these assertions.

Despite this, Pfarrer continues to be booked on channels such as Fox and CNN, where he was asked about the statement that his account is a fabrication, and his book continues to be promoted by his publisher, St. Martin's Press, as a nonfiction account of the bin Laden raid.

Publisher's view

St. Martin's Press has now published two accounts of the bin Laden operation that have resulted in statements that they are "fabrications," in one case from the White House and in the other from Special Operations Command.

Does St. Martin's Press plan to do anything about these books as a result? A St Martin's editor e-mailed CNN that "(b)oth authors stand by their sources and their reporting of the events, and we stand by our authors," and a spokesman for St. Martin's told CNN that the Pfarrer book "continues to sell" and will be reissued in paperback in two weeks at the time of the 9/11 anniversary.

In the newspaper world fabrication gets you fired. Just recall New York Times reporter Jayson Blair who was forced to resign for making up stories and quotes in 2003. And in the TV news business if you get a really big story wrong you are also out of job. Recall the "Tailwind" story on CNN in 1998 that alleged the use of nerve gas by U.S. Special Forces during the Vietnam War, a story that was retracted by CNN and that resulted in some of the network's employees losing their jobs. In 2004, CBS anchor Dan Rather reported on memos critical of President George W. Bush's service in the Texas National Guard. The memos' authenticity was called into question, and CBS retracted the story and fired the story's producer.

Yet no such standard seems to pertain in much of the supposedly serious world of nonfiction publishing. The rare nonfiction writers who fabricate or get a story dramatically wrong often get away with it, and the publishing houses that publish their work continue to profit from their fabrications.

Some nonfiction publishers do take the truth seriously. In July, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said it would pull all the copies of Jonah Lehrer's best-selling "Imagine: How Creativity Works" after the former New Yorker writer admitted that he had made up Bob Dylan quotes in the book.

One possible fix for this problem in the future is that publishers of nonfiction books should specify in their contracts with writers that if they fabricate material or are found to have made significant, large-scale factual errors they would have to return their advances.

As the late Sen. Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts."

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